Michael William Balfe: His Life and His English Operas. By William Tyldesley. (Music in Nineteenth-Century Britain.) Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2003. [xix, 243 p. ISBN 0-7546-0558-2. $84.95.] Music examples, bibliography, index.
Michael William Balfe (1808-1870), a popular and influential British composer, helped lay the foundation for British opera of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Active during a period when ballad operas and foreign works dominated the stage in Britain, Balfe composed operas in English for British audiences. Few scholarly publications on Balfe or his work exist. TyIdesley's book, part of Ashgate's Music in Nineteenth-Century Britain series, addresses a large and much neglected lacuna in music scholarship and is the first recent book devoted entirely to Balfe and his music. (George Biddlecome's English Opera from 1834 to 1864 with Particular Reference to the Works of Michael Balfe [New York: Routledge, 1994] also discusses Balfe and other composers of his time.)
With this work, Tyldesley has attempted to create a resource that records "the details of the major works of Michael William Balfe (his English operas)," (p. xx), serves as an initial reference source on Balfe and his music, updates Balfe scholarship, and conveys a general sense of opera in London during the nineteenth century. The author notes that he does not try to trace the influence of Balfe on his contemporaries or later opera composers (pp. 238, 242) but focuses solely on Balfe's operas that use English-language librettos and spoken dialogue rather than recitative (p. xiii). Only a few primary biographical sources exist for Balfe, mainly three near contemporary biographies by some of his close friends, all of which contain unsupported claims and suspect information-Heyward John St Leger's Reminiscences of Balfe (n.p.: Nimmo, 1870), Charles Lamb Kenney's A Memoir of Michael William Balfe (London: Tinsley Brothers, 1875; reprint New York: Da Capo, 1978), and William Alexander Barren's Balfe: His Life and Work (London: Remington, 1882).
The book follows Balfe's life in chronological order. The first and last chapters focus on his life and his place within the larger musical world; the others deal with the composer's English operas. Chapter 2 establishes the background for Balfe's career in London and provides an overview of the basic parts, forms, key structures, orchestration, libretti, and stage directions found in the operas. Two of Balfe's most important works, The Siege of Rochelle and The Bohemian Girl, have their own chapters, while others are grouped together chronologically with chapters covering periods of one to ten years. Tyldesley does not explain the logic behind the chapter divisions, and each discussion of an opera follows the same outline: background; sources, manuscripts, and publications; performances; and reception. The consistent use of the same format grows repetitive, obscures details that fall outside of this outline, and tends to make the operas themselves seem formulaic. The final chapter constitutes the most engaging part of the book. While the author intended his work to be descriptive rather than analytical (p. 36), the thoughtful consideration and application of the critical views found in his conclusion would have served the rest of the book well without detracting from the descriptive aims of the study. The author includes ten plates of nicely reproduced photos, manuscripts, playbills, programs, and early editions. Music examples, figures, and diagrams compliment the text.
While the book contains a plethora of useful and previously unpublished information, it also suffers from a number of problems. The organization is logical and well executed, but the shift from descriptive operatic catalog to biographical information can be jarring. The consistent use of passive voice minimizes the engaging nature of the subject. The author attempts to equate monetary values from Balfe's time to more current times using the conversion factor from a 1973 history text (Brian Murphy, A History of the British Economy, 1086-1970 [Harlow: Longman, 1973]) rather than equating them with modern monetary values. He also makes ambiguous statements, such as "the tessitura is high, on the whole, quite high (but not very high)" (p. 77), or makes specific statements without explanation. In discussing the introduction to Balfe's Këolanthe, Tyldesley states "the introduction has a 'mystery' effect which is quite evident-the orchestration can be easily imagined" (p. 84). A music example is included and referred to, but the so-called mystery effect is left for the reader to identify. (Other music examples receive similar treatment.) Given that many of Balfe's scores are not readily available, the examples are helpful; but the reason that some are included is not always clear-they are simply mentioned in passing rather than discussed. Several examples from published scores contain pen or pencil marks and smudges (pp. 69, 110) or notes from adjacent musical lines (pp. 182, 215), and have notes or text cut off. These problems could have been addressed with proper scanning and editing of the examples. A block quote using a font completely different from the rest of the text further points to the book's lack of polish (p. 186). These errors, though limited, detract from the quality and intent of the work.
Tyldesley uses diagrams to illustrate the main tonalities of specific operas. Although he explains the use and form of the diagrams in chapter 2, they tend to be more cumbersome than informative. He even states that "the careful analysis of operas in terms of their keys, and the implied significance thereof, would be totally inapplicable to Balfe-it really seems that he was not worried about this aspect of his work" (p. 35). The author goes on to explain, "for the purpose of the present study . . . key structures of Balfe's works are presented in a simple (some might say simplistic) graphic manner in which the major and relative minor keys are grouped together" (p. 36). If key analyses serve no purpose, it seems unnecessary to include such cumbersome diagrams that add little or no value to the study. The book also includes diagrams showing the number of singers for each opera. Despite the inclusion of these aids, a comprehensive list of them is not provided.
The most detrimental aspect of the book lies in its citations and source information. The author says that most sources:
are defined in the appropriate place giving sufficient information (it is hoped) for most readers. References in the notes to each chapter are either to original sources or to the bibliographic list. A number of documents are previously unpublished and are in the author's own collection; significant unpublished material is fully quoted, (p. xvii)
Given the author's hope that this work will serve as an "initial source of reference" (p. xiii) for Balfe and his works, it is disappointing that he does not include a list of primary sources, nor are they included in the bibliography. The unpublished resources from the author's own private collection are not defined or described other than in a quick glossing over the general contents of his collection:
The previously unpublished material in the author's collection, including a number of letters by Balfe, together with other autograph material of interest, including letters by Scribe, Siinms Reeves, Gardoni and others and a working sketch for a duet in The Rose ofCastille. (p. 250)
Those interested in identifying primary sources in this work must consult some rather vague footnotes. Footnote three of chapter 1 (p. 9), for example, cites "Documents in the Genealogical Office, Dublin" with no additional information on the office or the documents consulted. Indeed, most footnotes contain abbreviated citations that require readers to locate titles and other pertinent information from the bibliography, which largely consists of secondary sources that are widely available. A few quotations are given no citation at all (see p. 84). The lack of specific information on the primary sources, the occasional lack of proper citation, and the inadequate bibliographic information undermines Tyldesley's authority and makes the book a cumbersome resource at best.
As a whole, the book functions as a descriptive catalog of Balfe's English operas with some biographical information. Tyldesley presents a wealth of information about Balfe's English operas, their performances, and information on the sources. Readers will also get a glimpse of operatic life in London during Balfe's time. In spite of its flaws, Tyldesley's book tackles the important task of beginning to redress the incorrect myths and legends generated from contemporary and late nineteenth-century works on Balfe and the lack of modern scholarship on an important figure in British music and opera.