Balfe, Michael William (1808–70), composer and musician, was born 15 May 1808, at 10 Pitt Street, Dublin (renamed Balfe Street in 1917 by the Dublin Corporation, later demolished), and baptised in the parish church of St Ann, Dawson Street, Dublin. He was the third child and only son of William Balfe (c.1783–1823), violinist and dancing master, and Kate Ryan, a relative of Leonard MacNally (qv). Balfe spent part of his early childhood in Wexford, and received his first musical tuition in violin and piano from his father. Three other teachers are ascribed to this period: Joseph Halliday, bandmaster of the Cavan militia, T. P. Meadows, and from 1817 the noted violinist and composer William Rooke (qv). Balfe's prodigious musical ability was soon apparent, though the legend that in 1815 Meadows conducted a performance of a polonaise composed by the young boy is probably apocryphal. His first confirmed composition was the ballad ‘The lover's mistake’, published on 24 December 1822 by Isaac Willis of Westmoreland Street, Dublin. His first public performance that can be verified by historical record was on 30 May 1817 at a benefit concert for Rooke held at the Rotunda, Dublin. Following Rooke's departure for London around 1820, Balfe studied with James Barton and Alexander Lee.
Balfe's career as a violinist had barely begun when, on 6 January 1823, his father died. Anxious to improve his prospects and relieve the burden on his mother, he approached the English singer Charles Edward Horn, who was then performing in Dublin, with a request to become his student, to which Horn agreed. In London he also studied composition and harmony with Charles's father, Carl Friedrich Horn, and secured a position as a violinist in the Drury Lane orchestra, then under the direction of fellow Irishman Thomas Cooke (qv). He simultaneously pursued a singing career, appearing at the oratorio concerts on 19 March 1823 and in the part of Caspar in a version of Weber's ‘Der Freischütz’ at Norwich. A decisive moment in his personal and professional life occurred in 1825 when he gained the patronage of Count Mazzara, an Italian nobleman who was impressed by Balfe's uncanny resemblance to his recently deceased son as well as his musical talent. Balfe accompanied Mazzara to the Continent, where he remained for the next decade, focused on improving his singing voice and advancing his musical career.
After meeting and favourably impressing the Italian composer Luigi Cherubini in Paris, Balfe travelled to Rome where he studied composition with Ferdinando Paer. In 1826 Mazzara returned to England while Balfe moved to Milan for vocal training with Fillipo Galli and lessons in counterpoint with Vincenzo Federici. Later that year his first theatrical composition, a ballet entitled ‘Il naufragio di La Pérouse’, was successfully staged at the Teatro della Cannobiana, Milan. Despite this success, he was unable to secure reliable employment in Milan and returned to Paris, where he was introduced by Cherubini to Gioachino Rossini, who took a friendly interest in the young musician. Rossini promised to recommend him to the Théâtre des Italiens, on the condition that he first study for a year with Giulio Bordogni. Balfe fulfilled this condition and in due course made a successful debut as Figaro in ‘The barber of Seville’ at the Théâtre des Italiens in 1827. He remained at the Théâtre des Italiens for two years before travelling to Italy in 1829, where he performed singing engagements at Palermo, Piacenza, and Bergamo. It was in this period that he began to compose operas: in 1830, a dispute between management and chorus at Palermo gave him the opportunity to write – supposedly in just twenty days – what became his first staged opera, ‘I rivali di se stessi’. In spring 1831, Balfe wrote his second opera, ‘Un avertimento ai gelosi’, commissioned by the Teatro Fraschini in Pavia. He then returned to Milan where his third opera, ‘Enrico Quarto al passo della Marna’, was staged on 19 February 1833 at the Teatro Carcano, with himself and the Hungarian soprano Lina Roser in leading roles. This was a vital period for Balfe personally as well as professionally; in this period he formed important friendships with the celebrated singers Maria Malibran and Guilia Grisi, and in 1831 he married Lina Roser (d. 1888).
Balfe returned to London in 1835, where he embarked upon an intense period of creativity. His opera ‘The siege of Rochelle’ opened at Drury Lane on 29 October 1835 and was an immediate success, performed 73 times in its first season. A rapid succession of subsequent productions at Drury Lane consolidated his reputation as the foremost British operatic composer of his generation: ‘The maid of Artois’ (written for Malibran, who performed in its premiere on 27 May 1836), ‘Catherine Grey’ (1837), ‘Joan of Arc’ (1837), and Diadeste (1838). He also enjoyed acclaim in his singing career, playing Papageno in the first English production of ‘The magic flute’ at Drury Lane on 10 March 1838. Later that year he received the unusual distinction of a commission for the Italian Opera at Her Majesty's Theatre, a mark of his pre-eminence among contemporaries. He took particular care in the composition of the resulting opera, ‘Falstaff’, which opened with a star cast on 19 July 1838 and was popularly and critically well-received.
Towards the end of 1838 Balfe accepted a singing engagement at the Theatre Royal, Dublin. He relished being back in Ireland, as he informed an audience of 100 leading businessmen and politicians at a celebratory dinner held in his honour at Morrison's Hotel on 28 December. While in Dublin he became a founder member of the Royal Irish Academy for Music. After fulfilling his engagement at the Theatre Royal, he toured Ireland and the west of England mounting successful productions of his operas. He returned to London in 1841 and established his own opera company, which opened at the Lyceum with his latest work ‘Keolanthe’ on 9 March, Lina performing the leading role. Though the opera was successful, the project soon foundered into bankruptcy, and a disheartened Balfe travelled to Paris. His next completed opera, however, was hugely popular: ‘Les puits d’amour’ was staged at the Opéra-Comique to huge acclaim. He returned to London to stage an English version, ‘Geraldine, or, The lover's well’ at the Princess's Theatre in August 1843. Later the same year, he produced at Drury Lane on 27 November his most popular work, ‘The Bohemian girl’, which ran for over one hundred nights in its first season. Translated into Italian, German, and French, ‘The Bohemian girl’ was performed throughout Europe and America and is the only nineteenth-century British opera to enjoy a genuinely international reputation. It reflects his high musical skill and debt to Rossini, not least in its wonderful facility and geniality of tone.
His prolific output continued, producing four operas (two in Paris, two in London) in the next two years: ‘Les quatre fils d’Aymon’, ‘L’étoile de Séville’, ‘The daughter of St Mark’, and ‘The enchantress’. In 1846, he was appointed music director at Her Majesty's Theatre in London, a position he held for six years. Considered to be an exceptional conductor, he directed the operatic debut in London of Jenny Lind, the celebrated ‘Swedish nightingale’, as well as the local premiere of several Verdi operas. He maintained close links with Ireland, and in 1847 organised special benefit concerts in London to raise money for famine relief. In 1851 he published Indispensable studies for a bass voice and Indispensable studies for a soprano voice. During the 1850s he toured extensively, visiting Berlin, Vienna, St Petersburg, and Trieste, before returning to London in 1857. In that year he published another volume on vocal training, A new universal method of singing. The establishment of the Pyne-Harrison Opera Company at Covent Garden stimulated a final period of remarkable productivity. Balfe composed six operas (1857–63) that were the company's main support: ‘The rose of Castile’ (1857), ‘Satanella’ (1858), ‘Bianca’ (1860), ‘The puritan's daughter’ (1861), ‘Blanche de Nevers’, and ‘The armourer of Nantes’ (1863). An operetta, ‘The sleeping queen’, and the cantata ‘Mazeppa’ (1862) were the last works to be produced in his lifetime.
In 1864 Balfe bought and moved to Rowney Abbey, a small estate in Hertfordshire. Lina succeeded in running the farm profitably while Balfe, though increasingly troubled by chronic asthma, composed chamber music and worked on his final opera, ‘The knight of the leopard’, based on Sir Walter Scott's novel The talisman. He travelled briefly to Paris in 1869 for a celebrated production of ‘The Bohemian girl’, and was made a chevalier of the Legion of Honour on 22 March 1870, before returning to Rowney Abbey in the spring. His health continued to deteriorate, however, and he died 20 October 1870 at Rowney Abbey. He was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery, London. The English composer Sir Michael Costa completed ‘The knight of the leopard’, which was produced as ‘Il talismano’ at Drury Lane in 1874. Various memorials were erected after his death: a statue in the vestibule of Drury Lane theatre (24 September 1874), a window in St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin (14 April 1879), and a tablet in Westminster Abbey, London (20 October 1882). Balfe and Lina had two daughters and two sons, of whom three survived into adulthood: Louise (1832–69), Victoire (1837–71), who became a successful singer, and Michael (1836–1915).
Balfe's operatic style was heavily influenced by Rossini and Auber in its emphasis on melody and invention, although he also acknowledged a significant debt to Beethoven (Harrison, i, 108). ‘The Bohemian girl’ continued to be revived well into the twentieth century, and was recorded in 2002 by the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir and the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland. His remarkable facility for melody was perhaps most apparent in the prolific number of songs and ballads produced throughout his career, notably ‘Seven poems by Longfellow’ (c. 1855), ‘The sands of Dee’ (1859), and ‘Killarney’ (1864). He was remembered as a charming and charismatic individual, ‘possessing a great geniality of manner, and a knowledge of the world and all phases of society’ (Harrison, i, 107).
The original scores of many of his operas were donated by his widow to the British Library, London, which also holds a collection of his correspondence and papers. There are many likenesses of Balfe, of which the most notable are a drawing by Daniel Maclise (qv), 1843, a marble bust by Thomas Farrell (qv), 1878, (both in the NGI), and an oil painting by R. Rothwell (RIAM, Dublin).