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 Soprano Catherine Hayes

Catherine Hayes, world-famous Irish soprano of the Victorian era, is born in Limerick, County Limerick, on October 25, 1818. According to London‘s Daily Express, “Hayes was the ‘Madonna‘ of her day; she was the 19th-century operatic equivalent of the world’s most famous pop star.”

Hayes is born into abject poverty. After five years of vocal study in Paris and Milan she makes her debut at the Italian Opera in Marseilles, in Vincenzo Bellini‘s I Puritani in May 1845, followed by performances of Gaetano Donizetti‘s Lucia di Lammermoor and Gioachino Rossini‘s Mosé in Egitto.

Her debut at La Scala in Milan quickly followed in 1845 with phenomenal success. Shortly thereafter the young Giuseppe Verdi becomes interested in her for one of his new operas. Her great success continues in Vienna, as well as in Venice, Florence, Genoa, Rome and other cities in Italy, where she becomes the most sought after Lucia di Lammermoor.

Early in 1849, Hayes accepts a contract to sing at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London where she makes her debut in Linda di Chamounix in April. In June 1849, she receives an invitation to sing at Buckingham Palace for Queen Victoria and 500 guests. After an evening of Italian music, when the Queen requests an encore, Hayes with a smile sings the beautiful Irish rebel songKathleen Mavourneen.”

During Ireland’s Great Famine in November 1849, her emotional return to her native country results in rave notices for her performance in Lucia di Lammermoor and other operas and concerts in Dublin, Limerick and Cork. Her success is now almost complete.

In 1851 Hayes goes to the United States, where Jenny Lind is creating such a wave of success. Hayes gives concerts in New York City, Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans and forty-five other places including the river towns along the Mississippi River, with equal success. She meets presidents, statesmen and business leaders along the way. She is also destined to meet her future lover and husband in America, Jenny Lind’s former manager. Her travels take her to the “gold rush” in the San Francisco area in the 1850s, where her presence creates a furor, singing for the miners and the elite of San Francisco. The great showman P.T. Barnum sponsors her tour.

She sings in opera and concerts in Peru and Chile, then travels to Hawaii where she gives a concert before continuing on to Australia. Hayes is the first great European opera star to visit Australia. She is mentioned in most Australian history books about early culture in the young colony.  She also travels to Calcutta, India where she performs for the British Military and then on to Singapore and Batavia (Java) before returning to Australia for more opera and concerts.

Hayes returns to England in August 1856, after an absence of five years.  On October 8, 1857, at St. George’s, Hanover Square, she marries William Avery Bushnell. He soon falls into ill-health and dies at Biarritz, France, on July 2, 1858. After her husband’s death she takes part in concerts in London and the country towns.

Catherine Hayes dies in the house of a friend, Henry Lee, at Roccles, Upper Sydenham, Kent, on August 11, 1861, and is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery.