Brought to you by

The life of 19th-century musician Michael William Balfe

Composer Michael Balfe. Photo: wiki commons
Composer Michael Balfe. Photo: wiki commons

Meet the greatest Herts-based composer you’ve never heard of! The 19th-century musician Michael William Balfe began life as a child prodigy, enjoyed an illustrious career, but then faded from public consciousness.

Classical music giants ‘Rossini’ and ‘Verdi’ may be household names today but you’ve most likely never heard of ‘Balfe’- and that’s lamentable! He was a prolific Irish musician of the nineteenth- century who penned 29 operas and spent the last six years of his life in Hertfordshire. Despite being a notable success of his time, however, he has all but faded from mainstream music history…

When Michael William Balfe was born in Dublin on May 15, 1808, the classical music genre was on the cusp of what would become known as ‘the romantic era’.

Musical titans like Beethoven and Shubert were busy composing classical blockbusters of the period and their works would help to inspire and enchant a young Balfe who began writing his own music before he was even 10.

Mozart was famously a child prodigy and, although perhaps not quite in the young Wolfgang’s league, Balfe was something of a young music genius himself. His father was a dancing maser and violinist who taught his son how to play the violin from a young age.

Great British Life: Michael made his name first as a violinist then as an opera singer. Photo: GettyMichael made his name first as a violinist then as an opera singer. Photo: Getty

Balfe gave his first public performance as a violinist at the Rotunda concert rooms in Dublin in May 1817 when he was only nine. According to newspaper reports he astounded the audience with his precise execution and musical skills.

The warm reception bolstered his confidence and when he was nine years’ old Balfe is said to have written a ballad entitled ‘Lover’s Mistake’.

In 1823, upon the death of his father, the teenage Balfe moved to London and was swiftly engaged as a violinist in the orchestra of the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. He eventually became the leader of that orchestra. While there, Balfe studied violin with such contemporary greats as Charles Edward Horn and Charles Frederick Horn.

After a short career as a violinist, Balfe pursued a career as an opera singer. His debut in Norwich in Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz, was not particularly impressive however. His voice needed refining and in 1825, Balfe’s wealthy patron Count Mazzara took him to Rome for vocal and musical studies.

After two years in Italy an ever-restless Balfe- then just 19- set off for Paris, which was then the music capital of Europe. Here he was introduced to the renowned composer Gioacchino Rossini.

It is said that Rossini- composer of celebrated works including The Barber of Seville and William Tell - was intrigued by the young Irishman’s talents especially after hearing him perform Figaro’s famous aria from The Barber of Seville with a fluency that astounded the maestro.

Rossini took Balfe under his wing and helped him to secure work in Paris. Balfe subsequently made his debut as first baritone in The Barber of Seville during the 1827–8 season, singing opposite some of the most famous vocalists in Europe.

Balfe returned to Italy at the end of 1828 and would spend the next six years writing, composing, and performing. During these years Balfe learned to speak and write Italian fluently. He composed a series of operas for Palermo, Pavia and Milan. Unfortunately, the scores for his early Italian works are said to be lost today.

Balfe’s musical talents and attractive personality enabled him cultivate relationships wherever he went. While in Italy he met his future wife, Lina Roser, a talented Hungarian-born soprano, while she was singing at the Teatro Carcano in Milan. They married in 1831 and they would go onto have two sons and two daughters together.

Balfe returned to Dublin in November 1838 for the first time in 15 years. He stayed at the fashionable Morrison’s Hotel where guests had included such musical greats as violinist Paganini, pianist Franz Liszt and soprano Giulia Grisi.

Great British Life: Balfe was a well-liked man about town, found at gala dinners, first nights and royal events. Photo: wiki commonsBalfe was a well-liked man about town, found at gala dinners, first nights and royal events. Photo: wiki commons

By this time Balfe was renowned across the globe for his works. He returned to London and in 1846 he became music director at Her Majesty’s Theatre, London, a position he held for several years. During this time, he directed the local première of several of Verdi’s operas. He also worked and became friends with the Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind. Lind is one of the characters featured in The Greatest Showman – the biopic of P.T Barnum starring Hugh Jackman. She is portrayed by actress Rebecca Ferguson in the film and sings the ballad ‘Never Enough’.

In the years that followed Balfe travelled the world extensively- including to Paris, Berlin, Vienna and St Petersburg- conducting orchestras, directing operas and giving concerts.

Throughout his career Balfe penned at least 29 operas and 250 songs. His first English opera, The Siege of Rochelle became a success in 1835 but his most famous work was undoubtedly The Bohemian Girl which he wrote in 1843. It premiered at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane where it ran for more than 100 nights before being performed all over the world.

Balfe liked to work hard but he was well-liked amongst his contemporaries for his boundless energy and active social life. His name was always to be found on invitations for gala dinners, first night openings and royal events. It was said his quick wit and fluency in languages were charming to everyone.

In 1864, aged 56, and with somewhat failing health, Balfe decided to leave London and bought a plush property in rural Hertfordshire where he spent his remaining days. The home was Rowney Priory in Ware which had begun life as an abbey for Benedictine nuns in the 12th century.

Balfe was by all accounts content and happy during the six years he spent in Hertfordshire. He died in October 1870 at the age of 62. His wife and son-in-law were by his side. He had been taken ill with bronchitis 10 days earlier and deteriorated despite treatment. Dr Evans from Hertford was among the physicians brought in to tend to him in his final hours.

Balfe was laid to rest in Kensal Green Cemetery in London and a host of famous musicians, composers and theatre performers attended the funeral. His obituary in the Daily Telegraph described him as “the most charming and most popular of English composers”.

Despite the success and plaudits of his musical career Balfe was not massively rich. He left under £6,000 in his will. Everything was left to his beloved wife Lina.

In 1874 a large statue of Balfe carved out of Carrara marble was erected on a pedestal in the entrance foyer to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London- the venue where he achieved much of his success. Two years later in 1876 a Balfe Memorial Festival was held at Alexnadra Palace in London and saw more than 1,000 people attending. The profits of the event went to establishing a scholarship in Balfe’s memory at the Royal Academy of Music.

The accolades kept coming. In October 1882 a marble tablet for Balfe was erected in Westminster Abbey and in Dublin a bust of Balfe was placed in the National Gallery in July 1878.

Balfe’s two remaining children went onto have very different lives. His son Michael started out as an officer in the army but he fell on hard times and ended up working as a gas fitter in Notting Hill. At one point he was found starving and living in a refuge. In 1893 Michael brought a libel action against a newspaper called ‘Society’ after it ran an article claiming Michael Balfe snr had been an unfaithful husband to Lina and that Michael Jr was illegitimate. He won the suit and the publication had to pay him £200 in damages.

Balfe’s daughter Victoria went on to become something of a successful singer, but interest in her private life eclipsed anything her musical talents could achieve. Her first marriage to Sir John Fiennes Twisleton Crampton, 2nd Baronet, was annulled on the grounds of impotence but she went on to marry a very wealthy Spanish duke.

As for Rowney Priory, it went became the home of many other interesting characters. One of them was Count Gerald De La Pasture, a wealthy coffee farmer, then in the 1930s it was owned by David Bevan and Dame Maud Bevan, daughter of the first Viscount Hampden.

In the 1950’s Edward Barford owned the priory. In 1952 his daughter Virgina Estcort was given a lavish 18th birthday gala which saw the grounds and the house itself swarming with young debutantes and members of the aristocracy.


Hertfordshire Life Read more

Latest articles

More from Hertfordshire Life


Hertfordshire Life Read more