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Michael William BALFE A Unique Victorian Composer
Basil Walsh

Publ. Irish Allied Press
ISBN 978 0 7165 2947 7

Experience Classicsonline


When I picked up this book I felt that I probably already knew a lot about this fascinating composer; all courtesy of a previous biography by William Tyldesley which came out in 2003. How wrong I was.

Whereas Tyldesley had more of a focus on the music, here Mr Walsh has slanted his biography to the life and his interaction with the musical milieu in which Balfe (1808-1870) moved. Three earlier biographies written in the 19th Century have much of their content derived from hearsay and personal anecdotes passed around. Rather than take their information as a starting point, not only has the writer started his research from first principles, but in some areas has proved their timing of events and those met during a specific period completely wrong.

What forcefully comes across is that in Balfe we have an Irishman of high intellect, likeable manner, considerable drive and erudite enthusiasm for composing both opera and song. He was an industrious individual who took advantage of every opportunity that came his way: he could smooth over fickle theatrical temperament and win friends in obscure places. He travelled Europe extensively, married a singer from Germany (in Italy) and knew the managers of the important London, Italian and Parisian theatres well: some of these managers became close friends. He could also count as personal friends the great divas of the day – Malibran, Grisi, Lind, Pasta - and would help the theatre managers engage them. His legacy included 28 operas, some of which, like The Bohemian Girl were translated into four languages. They played at the principal European opera houses, and in some cases had longer runs on the Continent than was the case in London. It seems strange that Balfe, who was awarded the French Légion d’Honneur and given a Spanish decoration by King Carlos III, was deliberately overlooked. The British establishment denied him any award of honour for his massive input to the development of British culture. This is odd, especially since Queen Victoria would attend and meet Balfe at some of his operatic premières. I was hoping that Walsh’s exacting research might have found evidence to support this snub and he does provide some interesting and valuable clues that involve a Whitehall statesman and the Roman Catholic Church. From these the reader can draw his own conclusions.

Balfe died in 1870 and the Carl Rosa Opera Company was not formed until 1873, so I can understand why the company’s link with the Balfe operas was not highlighted in the book. However their touring of such works as Siege of Rochelle, Maid of Artois, The Bohemian Girl, Rose of Castille, Satanella, The Puritan’s Daughter, and Il Talismano did much to keep the Balfean tradition alive for a number of decades after the composer’s death. It crossed my mind that although Balfe appeared at the Exeter Hall and Alexandra Palace he had no association with George Grove and Crystal Palace where new composers were often feted.

I notice that an extraordinary amount of trouble has been taken trailing Balfe’s continental destinations and introducing much new evidence from letters and other memorabilia collected over recent decades by the author. The chapters of information on Balfe’s early days in Italy are very informative. I like Mr Walsh’s style of writing where he lets the reader know in advance that a situation will lead to unforetold consequences. It is understandable that the writer be allowed a few American colloquialisms - having lived in the States for a number of decades - but rushed editorial proofing seems to have missed a number of typographical errors. A merit of the book is the selection of detailed appendices, which not only catalogue all songs and operas, their premieres, principal singers and publishers, but also the whereabouts and shelf mark of the autographs to assist future research. Short paragraphs give background to the principal people he met. Other appendices include a discography (as at 2008), useful background on Balfe’s key associates, a family tree and a timeframe of those composers living during the period.

2008 is the bi-centenary of the composer’s birth. It has already been marked by at least one production of The Bohemian Girl. It is hoped that the BBC will recognise the contribution to the Arts that Balfe made via the Theatre Royal, Her Majesty’s Theatre and Covent Garden as either Composer of the Week or at the Albert Hall Proms.

Raymond J Walker

Pic: Michael William Balfe
(Courtesy of the Bonynge collection)




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