seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Death of Composer Michael William Balfe

michael-william-balfeMichael William Balfe, Irish composer best remembered for his opera The Bohemian Girl, dies in Dublin on October 20, 1870.

Balfe is born in Dublin on May 15, 1808, where his musical gifts become apparent at an early age. He receives instruction from his father, a dancing master and violinist, and the composer William Rooke. His family moves to Wexford when he is a child.

In 1817, Balfe appears as a violinist in public, and in this year composes a ballad, first called “Young Fanny” and afterwards, when sung in Paul Pry by Lucia Elizabeth Vestris, “The Lovers’ Mistake”. In 1823, upon the death of his father, he moves to London and is engaged as a violinist in the orchestra of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. He eventually becomes the leader of that orchestra. While there, he studies violin with Charles Edward Horn and composition with Charles Frederick Horn.

While still playing the violin, Balfe pursues a career as an opera singer. He debuts unsuccessfully at Norwich in Carl Maria von Weber‘s Der Freischütz. In 1825, Count Mazzara takes him to Rome for vocal and musical studies and introduces him to Luigi Cherubini. In Italy, he also pursues composing, writing his first dramatic work, a ballet, La Perouse. He becomes a protégée of Gioachino Rossini‘s, and at the close of 1827, he appears as Figaro in The Barber of Seville at the Italian opera in Paris.

Balfe soon returns to Italy, where he is based for the next eight years, singing and composing several operas. In 1829 in Bologna, he composes his first cantata for the soprano Giulia Grisi, then 18 years old. He produces his first complete opera, I rivali di se stessi, at Palermo in the carnival season of 1829—1830.

Balfe returned to London in May 1835. His initial success takes place some months later with the premiere of The Siege of Rochelle on October 29, 1835 at Drury Lane. Encouraged by his success, he produces The Maid of Artois in 1836, which is followed by more operas in English. In July 1838, Balfe composes a new opera, Falstaff, for The Italian Opera House, based on The Merry Wives of Windsor, with an Italian libretto by S. Manfredo Maggione.

In 1841, Balfe founds the National Opera at the Lyceum Theatre, but the venture is a failure. The same year, he premieres his opera, Keolanthe. He then moves to Paris, presenting Le Puits d’amour in early 1843, followed by his opera based on Les quatre fils Aymon for the Opéra-Comique and L’étoile de Seville for the Paris Opera. Meanwhile, in 1843, he returns to London where he produces his most successful work, The Bohemian Girl, on November 27, 1843 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. The piece runs for over 100 nights, and productions are soon mounted in New York, Dublin, Philadelphia, Vienna, Sydney, and throughout Europe and elsewhere.

From 1846 to 1852, Balfe is appointed musical director and principal conductor for the Italian Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre. There he first produces several of Giuseppe Verdi‘s operas for London audiences. He conducts for Jenny Lind at her opera debut and on many occasions thereafter.

In 1851, in anticipation of The Great Exhibition in London, Balfe composes an innovative cantata, Inno Delle Nazioni, sung by nine female singers, each representing a country. He continues to compose new operas in English, including The Armourer of Nantes (1863), and writes hundreds of songs. His last opera, nearly completed when he dies, is The Knight of the Leopard and achieves considerable success in Italian as Il Talismano.

Balfe retires in 1864 to Hertfordshire, where he rents a country estate. He dies at his home in Rowney Abbey, Ware, Hertfordshire, on October 20, 1870 and is buried at Kensal Green Cemetery in London, next to fellow Irish composer William Vincent Wallace. In 1882, a medallion portrait of him is unveiled in Westminster Abbey.

In all, Balfe composes at least 29 operas. He also writes several cantatas and a symphony. His only large-scale piece that is still performed regularly today is The Bohemian Girl.

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Birth of Painter James Barry

james-barry-self-portraitJames Barry, Irish painter best remembered for his six-part series of paintings entitled The Progress of Human Culture in the Great Room of the Royal Society of Arts in London, is born in Water Lane (now Seminary Road) on the northside of Cork, County Cork on October 11, 1741.

Barry first studies painting under local artist John Butts. At the schools in Cork to which he is sent he is regarded as a child prodigy. About the age of seventeen he first attempts oil painting, and between that and the age of twenty-two, when he first goes to Dublin, he produces several large paintings.

The painting that first brings him into public notice, and gains him the acquaintance and patronage of Edmund Burke, is founded on an old tradition of the landing of Saint Patrick on the sea-coast of Cashel, although Cashel is an inland town far from the sea, and of the conversion and Baptism of the King of Cashel. It is exhibited in London in 1762 or 1763 and rediscovered in the 1980s in unexhibitable condition.

In late 1765 Barry goes to Paris, then to Rome, where he remains upwards of three years, from Rome to Florence and Bologna, and thence home through Venice. He paints two pictures while abroad, an Adam and Eve and a Philoctetes.

Soon after his return to England in 1771 Barry produces his painting of Venus, which is compared to the Triumph of Galatea of Raphael, the Venus of Urbino of Titian and the Venus de’ Medici. In 1773 he exhibits his Jupiter and Juno on Mount Ida. His Death of General Wolfe, in which the British and French soldiers are represented in very primitive costumes, is considered as a falling-off from his great style of art.

In 1773 Barry publishes An Inquiry into the real and imaginary Obstructions to the Acquisition of the Arts in England, vindicating the capacity of the English for the fine arts and tracing their slow progress to the Reformation, to political and civil dissensions, and lastly to the general direction of the public mind to mechanics, manufactures and commerce.

In 1774 a proposal is made through Valentine Green to several artists to ornament the Great Room of the Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (now the Royal Society of Arts), in London’s Adelphi Theatre, with historical and allegorical paintings. This proposal is rejected at the time. In 1777 Barry makes an offer, which is accepted, to paint the whole on condition that he is allowed the choice of his subjects, and that he is paid by the society the costs of canvas, paints and models. He finishes the series of paintings after seven years to the satisfaction of the members of the society. He regularly returns to the series for more than a decade, making changes and inserting new features. The series of six paintings, The progress of human knowledge and culture, has been described by critic Andrew Graham-Dixon as “Britain’s late, great answer to the Sistine Chapel.”

Soon after his return from the continent Barry is chosen a member of the Royal Academy of Arts. In 1782 he is appointed professor of painting in the room of Edward Penny with a salary of £30 a year. In 1799 he is expelled from the Academy soon after the appearance of his Letter to the Society of Dilettanti, an eccentric publication, full of enthusiasm for his art and at the same time of contempt for the living professors of it. He remains the only academician ever to be expelled by the Academy until Brendan Neiland in July 2004.

After the loss of his salary, a subscription is set on foot by the Earl of Buchan to relieve Barry from his difficulties, and to settle him in a larger house to finish his painting of Pandora. The subscription amounts to £1000, with which an annuity is bought, but on February 6, 1806 he is seized with illness and dies on February 22. His remains are interred in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London on March 4, 1806.

(Pictured: James Barry, Self-portrait, 1803, oil on canvas. National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.)