1902 Encyclopedia > Michael William Balfe

Michael William Balfe
Irish composer
(1808-70)




MICHAEL WILLIAM BALFE was born, in 1808, at Limerick in Ireland. His musical gifts became apparent at an early age. The only instruction he received was from his father, and a musician of the name of Horn ; and it seems to have been limited to a superficial training of the voice, and to some lessons on the pianoforte. At one time Balfe also practised the violin, and was even bold enough to play in public one of Viotti's concertos, but, seemingly, without much success. He never seems to have studied systematically the fundamental principles of his art, and this want of rudimentary training has left the stamp of imperfection on all his works. Being in pos-session of a small but pleasant barytone voice, he chose the career of an operatic singer, and made his début in Der Freischütz, at Drury Lane, at the early age of six-teen. The following year he was taken to Rome by a wealthy family. In Italy he wrote his first dramatic work, a ballet, Perouse, first performed at the Scala theatre, Milan, in 1826. In the later part of the same year he appeared as Figaro in Rossini's Barbiere, at the Italian Opera in Paris, at that time the scene of the unequalled vocal feats of such singers as Sontag, Malibran, Lablache, and others. Balfe's voice and training were little adapted to compete with such artists ; he soon returned to Italy, where, during the next nine years, he remained singing at various theatres, and composing a number of operas, now utterly and justly forgotten. During this time he married the prima donna, Mdlie. Luisa Roser, a lady of German birth, for whom one of his operas was written. He even made bold to disfigure, by interpolated music of his own, the works of Rossini, Donizetti, and other masters of estab-lished reputation. Fétis says that the public indignation, roused by an attempt at " improving " in this manner the opera LJ Crociato by Meyerbeer compelled Balfe to throw up his engagement at the theatre La Fenice in Venice. He returned to England where, in 1835, his Siege of Rochelle was produced, and rapturously received at Drury Lane. Encouraged by his success, he produced a series of operas which for some time made him the most popular composer of the day. Amongst the works written for London we mention Amelia, or the Love-test (1838) ; Falstaff (with the incomparable Lablache as Sir John) ; Keolanthe; and the Bohemian Girl (1844). The last-mentioned work is generally considered to be his chef d'oeuvre ; it carried its composer's name to Germany, where it was performed with considerable success at various theatres. Balfe in the meantime also wrote several operas for the Opéra Comique and Grand Opéra in Paris, of which we may mention those called Le Puits VAmour, Les quatre Fils Aymon, and L'étoile de Seville. After a short period of success his popularity began to decline, and at the time of his death in 1870, most of his music had become antiquated. A posthumous work of his, The Talisman, the libretto of which is taken from Walter Scott's novel, was performed at the Italian Opera, Drury Lane, in 1874, with, consider able success. The chief charm of his works consists in a certain easy, not to say trivial, melodiousness, such as may be readily accounted for by the composer's Irish nationality without the addition of individual genius of a higher kind. He had also a certain instinct for brilliant orchestration, and for the coarser effects of operatic writing. Musical knowledge of a higher kind he never possessed, nor did he supply this want by the natural impulses of a truly refined nature. " To speak of Balfe as an artist is either to misuse the word or to permit its meaning to depend on temporary success, no matter how acquired." Such is the stern but not unjust verdict of the late Mr H. F. Chorley, whose opinion of the detrimental effect of Balfe's success " on the chances of establishing a real national opera " also appears to be correct. Balfe's claim to particular notice rest indeed, less on the intrinsic merits of his works than on their undoubted success; and, most of ail, on the fact of his being one of the few composers of British birth whose names are known beyond the limits of their own country. (F. H.)








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