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Balfe, Michael Williamlocked

  • Clive Brown

Michael William Balfe (1808–1870)

by Herbert Watkins, late 1850s

Balfe, Michael William (1808–1870), composer, the third child of William Balfe and his wife, Kate, née Ryan, was born at 10 Pitt Street, Dublin, on 15 May 1808. The family moved to Wexford when he was two years old. Balfe received his first musical instruction from his father, a competent violinist and dancing-master, and continued to study violin with Joseph Halliday, the bandmaster of the Cavan militia. In 1814 his teachers included a bandmaster named Meadows, who apparently directed a performance of a polacca by Balfe before the boy was seven years old. He continued his studies in Dublin under William O'Rourke (Rooke), demonstrating his precocity by his first public performance as a violinist on 20 June 1817 and by the composition in the same year of the ballad 'Young Fanny', sung under the title 'The Lover's Mistake' by Madame Vestris. After O'Rourke went to London about 1820, Balfe studied with James Barton and Alexander Lee, and was just beginning his professional career as a violinist when, on 6 January 1823, his father died. Having refused an offer of adoption from a rich relative of his mother's, who wished him to join him in the West Indies, Balfe approached Charles Edward Horn, then on a concert tour to Ireland with the request that he become his articled pupil. Impressed by Balfe's talent, Horn agreed. In London, Balfe also studied composition with Horn's father, Carl Friedrich Horn, an enthusiast for J. S. Bach and an accomplished musician. At the same time he tried his luck as a singer: he appeared without success at the oratorio concerts on 19 March 1823, and then made an equally unsuccessful stage début in Norwich as Caspar in a version of Weber's Der Freischütz.

In 1825 Balfe attracted the attention of Count Mazzara, who invited him to accompany him to Italy. On the journey through Paris he met Cherubini, on whom he made a very favourable impression. In Rome, maintained at the count's expense, he took lessons in composition with Ferdinando Paer, and when Mazzara returned to England in 1826 he sent Balfe to Milan to study singing with Fillipo Galli and counterpoint with Vincenzo Federici. In the autumn of 1826 Balfe's first theatrical composition, a ballo pantomimo serio entitled Il naufragio di La Pérouse was staged in Milan at the Teatro alla Cannobiana. Unable to obtain an engagement in Milan as a singer, however, he returned to Paris. There Cherubini introduced him to Rossini, who, impressed by his singing, undertook to recommend him to the Théâtre des Italiens if he would study with Bordogni for a year. Supported in his studies by Cherubini, he made excellent progress and duly appeared in 1827 as Figaro in Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia with notable success. A three-year engagement on advantageous terms followed, but after only two seasons Balfe returned to Italy, apparently because of ill health. He soon obtained an engagement at the Teatro Carolino in Palermo, where, on 1 January 1830, he appeared as Valdeburgo in Bellini's La straniera.

During his time in Paris, Balfe had composed insertions for a revival of Zingarelli's Romeo e Giulietta and had begun an opera on Chateaubriand's Atala, and in Italy he continued to compose. A dispute between manager and chorus at Palermo during the carnival of 1829–30 led to a commission to write a short opera without chorus, I rivali di se stessi, which, composed in some twenty days, became his first staged opera. After completing his engagement at Palermo, Balfe appeared at Piacenza and at Bergamo, where he met and shortly afterwards married the Hungarian singer Lina Roser (d. 1888), with whom he had two daughters—one of whom predeceased him, while the other, Victoire Balfe, began a successful singing career in 1857 and was married successively to Sir John Crampton and the duke of Frías. At Pavia in 1831 Balfe wrote Un avvertimento ai gelosi, a farsa giocosa, for the Teatro Fraschini. The next two years were spent in Milan, where his third opera, Enrico Quatro al passo del Marno, was produced at the Teatro Carcano on 19 February 1833, with himself and his wife singing principal parts. Through Maria Malibran's influence he was engaged to sing at La Scala, but at her suggestion returned to England in 1834.

In London, Balfe decisively established himself as a composer with the success of The Siege of Rochelle, the first of a number of works to librettos by the highly experienced purveyor of English opera Edward Fitzball. After opening at Drury Lane on 29 October 1835, it achieved seventy-three performances in its first season. For Malibran, Balfe then wrote The Maid of Artois, given its première at Drury Lane on 27 May 1836, which set the seal on his success; his librettist this time was the manager of the theatre, Alfred Bunn, who was to provide Balfe with several more librettos. Three further operas (Catherine Grey, Joan of Arc, and Diadeste), and incidental music to Planché's Caractacus, followed at Drury Lane during the next two seasons. Diadeste received particular acclaim and later that year, on 19 July 1838, Balfe enjoyed the honour, unique among his generation of English composers, of having an opera, Falstaff, commissioned for the Italian Opera and performed with a distinguished cast at Her Majesty's Theatre. Balfe took more than usual care over this work, which contains some of his most finished music.

At the same time Balfe continued his singing career, his roles including Papageno in the first English production of The Magic Flute at Drury Lane on 10 March 1838. For the next two seasons he composed little, but toured in Ireland and England, producing several of his operas with success. He then determined to form his own English opera company and opened a season at the Lyceum with his latest work, Keolanthe, on 9 March 1841, in which his wife made her London début. But the venture collapsed in little more than two months, and Balfe decided to pursue his career in Paris. His nearly completed opera Elfrida, designed for the Théâtre des Italiens, had to be abandoned because of the pregnancy of its intended leading lady, Giulia Grisi, but he was soon offered a libretto by Scribe. The resulting opera, Les puits d'amour, created a sensation at its première at the Opéra-Comique on 20 April 1843, and Balfe was offered alluring inducements to retain him in Paris; however, he returned to London to mount the opera in an English version, as Geraldine, or, The Lovers' Well at the Princess's Theatre in August 1843. Then, at Drury Lane on 27 November 1843, he presented The Bohemian Girl, on which he and Bunn had been working for some time. This was to be Balfe's greatest success. Despite some harsh reviews, it ran for more than a hundred nights and soon became the only nineteenth-century English opera to enjoy a genuinely international reputation; it was translated into Italian, French, and German, and was performed throughout Europe and America.

During the next two years Balfe produced four more operas, two for Paris (Les quatre fils fils Aymon and L'étoile de Séville) and two for London (The Daughter of St Mark and The Enchantress). Of these Les quatre fils d'Aymon, produced at the Opéra-Comique on 15 July 1844, was especially successful; as The Castle of Aymon it was given in London the same year, and, as Die vier Haimonskinder, was directed by Balfe at Vienna in 1846, along with The Bohemian Girl (Die Zigeunerin). In the same year Balfe accepted the direction of the Italian Opera at Her Majesty's Theatre in succession to Michael Costa. Two more operas, The Bondman and The Maid of Honour, followed at Drury Lane in 1846 and 1847, and Balfe also directed a season of opera at the Theatre Royal in Manchester in 1848–9. For the 1849–50 season he was in Berlin, where, among other works, he produced The Bondman as Der Mulatte. Back in London he took over the direction of the Grand National Concerts, and in 1851 provided Italian recitatives for Beethoven's Fidelio, for its performance at the Royal Italian Opera; at the same time he published Indispensable Studies for a Bass Voice and Indispensable Studies for a Soprano Voice. The following year he launched his two newest operas, The Sicilian Bride at Drury Lane and The Devil's in it at the Surrey. After the closure of Her Majesty's Theatre he began a series of travels that took him to St Petersburg, Vienna, and Italy. In Italy he wrote the opera Pittore e duca, performed at Trieste in 1854, and began, but did not complete, another (Lo scudiero). He returned to England in 1857, and in that year published A New Universal Method of Singing. Stimulated by the establishment of the Pyne–Harrison Opera Company he wrote six more operas between 1857 and 1863 (The Rose of Castille, Satanella, Bianca, The Puritan's Daughter, Blanche de Nevers, and The Armourer of Nantes) and an operetta, The Sleeping Queen, which, together with the cantata Mazeppa (1862), brought his active career in London music to a close.

In 1864 Balfe purchased a small estate, Rowney Abbey, in Hertfordshire and relinquished the house in Seymour Street where he had lived for several years. Leading the life of a gentleman farmer, he worked slowly and painstakingly on his last opera, The Knight of the Leopard, based on Sir Walter Scott's The Talisman, which remained incomplete at his death. (Balfe declined an invitation to produce the opera in Paris, and, completed by Costa, it was given its première in London in 1874.) It was probably also during these last years that Balfe wrote his two tuneful but superficial chamber works, the A major piano trio and the A♭ major cello sonata, published after his death. In 1869 he supervised an acclaimed French five-act version of The Bohemian Girl (La bohémienne) in Paris. He returned to Rowney in the spring of 1870, where his long-standing bronchial condition worsened, leading to his death on 20 October 1870. He was buried in London at Kensal Green cemetery, and in 1878 a memorial tablet was erected in Westminster Abbey.

Although Balfe admitted to William Harrison (the first Thaddeus in The Bohemian Girl) that he specially admired and even borrowed from Beethoven, his music owed little to nineteenth-century German models. His aim was generally to give the public precisely what it wanted with as little useless expenditure of time as possible. G. B. Shaw shrewdly observed: 'Balfe, whose ballads are better than Tchaikowsky's, never, as far as I know, wrote a whole scene well' (G. B. Shaw, Music in London, 1932). This ignores the fact that Balfe's ephemeral Catherine Grey (1837) was one of the first English Romantic operas with continuous music rather than spoken dialogue, though it rightly identifies the ballads as the key to Balfe's success. It was these ballads, raised by their inspired tunefulness to the level of genuine art, which Balfe made the centrepiece of his operas, introducing the melodies at various points in the work so that they made their fullest impact, ensuring the success of the opera and the subsequent sales of the favourite number. The most famous of many was 'I dreamt that I dwelt in marble halls', from The Bohemian Girl. For French and Italian stages he modified his approach somewhat, following more closely the examples of Auber and Rossini, and occasionally imitating the sensationalism of Meyerbeer, though the role of the ballad remained central. The Knight of the Leopard suggests his familiarity with Verdi. In addition to his operas, Balfe wrote about thirty-five songs, among the most well known being 'By Killarney's Lakes', 'Come into the garden, Maud', and 'Excelsior'. His Seven Poems by Longfellow (c.1855) contain some of the best English art songs of the period. Although Balfe was criticized by contemporary English adherents of German music trained at the Royal Academy for not being like Spohr, Weber, and Mendelssohn, and in the late nineteenth century for his failure to anticipate Wagner, his most popular work, The Bohemian Girl, nevertheless remained a repertory piece until the 1930s, and was revived, in a bowdlerized version, by Sir Thomas Beecham as late as 1951; it lasted even longer in Irish theatres.


  • C. L. Kenney, A memoir of Michael William Balfe (1875)
  • W. A. Barrett, Balfe: his life and work (1882)
  • A. Bunn, The stage: both before and behind the curtain, 3 vols. (1840)
  • M. Maretzek, Sharps and flats (1870), 71ff.
  • C. Harrison, Stray records (1892), 1.95ff.
  • Neue Berliner Musikzeitung, 4 (1850), 35–6
  • The Harmonicon, 1 (1823), 59
  • N. Temperley, ‘The English Romantic opera’, Victorian Studies, 9 (1965–6), 293–302
  • B. Carr, ‘The first all-sung English 19th-century opera’, MT, 115 (1974), 125–6
  • E. F. Rimbault, ‘Balfe, Michael William’, Grove, Dict. mus. (1927)
  • N. Temperley, ‘Balfe, Michael William’, New Grove
  • N. Burton, ‘Balfe’, The new Grove dictionary of opera, ed. S. Sadie, 1 (1992)
  • N. Burton, ‘Siege of Rochelle’, The new Grove dictionary of opera, ed. S. Sadie, 4 (1992)
  • N. Burton, ‘Bohemian Girl’, The new Grove dictionary of opera, ed. S. Sadie, 1 (1992)


  • BL, music collections, corresp., compositions, and musical papers, Add. MSS 29325–29364, 32669–32672, 33535–33536
  • BL, music collections, musical MSS, Egerton MSS 2736, 2740–2741


  • attrib. R. Rothwell, oils, 1840, NPG
  • D. Maclise, pencil and wash drawing, 1843, NG Ire.
  • C. Grey, etching, pubd 1851, NG Ire.
  • H. Watkins, albumen print photograph, 1856–9, NPG [see illus.]
  • H. Watkins, carte-de-visite, 1860–69, NPG
  • Mayer, carte-de-visite, 1861, NPG
  • L. A. Malempré, marble statue, exh. RA 1874, Drury Lane Theatre, London
  • T. Farrell, marble bust, 1878, NG Ire.
  • Russell & Sons, cabinet photograph, 1882 (after photograph, 1840–49), NPG
  • Ballantine, memorial window, St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin
  • L. A. Malempré, marble medallion, Irish Academy of Music, Dublin
  • R. Rothwell, oils, Irish Academy of Music, Dublin
  • J. Wood, red chalk and charcoal drawing, NG Ire.
  • engraving, repro. in Kenney, Memoir of Michael Balfe, frontispiece
  • lithographs and woodcuts, BM, NPG, Harvard TC
  • medallion, Westminster Abbey, London

Wealth at Death

under £6000: probate, 5 Nov 1870, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Musical Times
G. Grove, ed., , 5 vols. (1878–90); 2nd edn, ed. J. A. Fuller Maitland (1904–10); 3rd edn, ed. H. C. Colles (1927); 4th edn. with suppl. (1940); 5th edn., ed. E. Blom, 9 vols. (1954), suppl. (1961)
S. Sadie, ed., , 20 vols. (1980); 2nd edn., 29 vols. (2001)
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)