Balfe, Michael William

1808-1870

Irish dramatic composer, barytone singer and violinist. He was born at Dublin. Showed great talent for music at a very early age, beginning to take lessons on the violin before he was three. At the age of seven he was able to score a polka composed by himself for a band. At the age of nine he composed a ballad, Young Fanny, which is even now remarkable for its melody. It was afterwards sung in the comedy, Paul Pry. After the death of his father, in 1832, he went to London, where he became a pupil of C. E. Horn and played in the orchestra of Drury Lane Theatre. He also appeared on the stage in a version of Der Freischütz, but was unsuccessful. At the age of seventeen, Balfe went with a wealthy patron to Italy, where he studied composition at Rome with Paer and later on singing in Milan under Galli and Federici. At this time he did his first work as a dramatic composer, producing a ballet called La Perouse, which was very favorably received. In 1821, after he had studied for a time with Bordogni, he sang under Rossini, as first barytone, at the Italian Opera, Paris, where he made a successful debut as Figaro in the Barber of Seville. Returning to Italy in 1829 he produced his first opera, I Rivali di se stessi. This is said to have been written in twenty days, and was quickly followed by two other Italian operas. He married Lina Rosen, the Hungarian vocalist, and sang in Italy and Paris until 1835, when he went to London and produced the Siege of Rochelle. This opera was a great success, running continuously for three months. Following this came The Maid of Artois, with its beautiful and popular song, The Light of Other Days. Between 1837 and 1841 he produced his Joan of Arc; Catherine Grey; Falstaff; and Diadeste; also singing in opera at Drury Lane and in Ireland. About 1840, Balfe became manager of the Lyceum Theatre, producing his Keolanthe as the opening piece. This venture proving unsuccessful, Balfe visited Paris, where he was most favorably received and where he produced in French the operas known in English as Geraldine, and The Castle of Aymon. Returning to England, he brought out, in 1843, The Bohemian Girl, the most successful of all his operas. This opera was translated into Italian, French and German. From 1845 to 1852 he was conductor of Her Majesty's Theatre. During this time he made visits to Vienna, Berlin, Trieste and St. Petersburg, bringing out operas and making large amounts of money. From 1852 until his death he was occupied with composition. Balfe was a most prolific composer, producing over thirty operas beside cantatas, glees, ballads and part-songs. Among his best known operas are The Siege of Rochelle; Maid of Artois; Satanella; Bianca; The Puritan's Daughter; Sicilian Bride; Rose of Castile; and the most popular of all, The Bohemian Girl, which has been sung all over the world. Balfe was made Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by the French Emperor and Commander of the Order of Carlos Third by the Regent of Spain and was offered the decoration of the Prussian Eagle, by the King of Prussia, but being a British subject was not able to accept it. After his death, a tablet with his portrait in medallion, was unveiled in Westminster Abbey and in 1874 a statue to his memory was placed in the vestibule of Drury Lane Theatre.