Michael William Balfe: His Life and His English Operas

By Oates, Jennifer | Notes, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Michael William Balfe: His Life and His English Operas


Oates, Jennifer, Notes


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. …

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