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His Life and his Operas by William Tyldsley

Ashgate: ISBN 0-7546-0558-2 £52.50


A new biography of composer Balfe has been long and eagerly awaited. Three 19th century biographies were compiled, but these were written more as an interesting narrative rather than documents with a high density of facts. The results do not disappoint. Ashgate are to be applauded for having included this title in their music series alongside Music in 19th Century Britain and Light Music in Britain since 1870. Renewed interest in Balfe is timely as we near the Balfe bi-centenary in 2008 when hopefully full-scale operas will be revived for the BBC Proms and elsewhere. Currently, there are only two professional sources of Balfe's music on CD: Bonynge's The Bohemian Girl (Argo, 1993; now re-released on Decca, 2003), and Bonynge's delightful The Power of Love (on Melba 301082, 1999) which carries nine ‘lost’ Balfe arias.

Michael Balfe was an important British musician of his age. He was trained in the writing of opera in Italy, was very much admired by Rossini, and was sought by Berlioz to conduct one of his opera performances. Being a good baritone himself, who sang opera both in Italy and France, he was so admired by the singer, Malibran that even she wanted a part in of one of his early operas. He wrote The Maid of Artois (1836) as a vehicle for her. Operas of his were performed on the Continent with vocal score translations printed in France, Germany and Italy. He was supported by Bunn, Manager of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and was commissioned by the Harrison-Pyne and Carl Rosa Opera companies. For a short time Balfe also became a theatre manager to promote an English Opera movement. When short of money his wife Lina, a good soprano, would take leading roles alongside himself in their productions.

William Tyldsley's elegantly written biography covers all facets of Balfe, the composer: his travels and life; his work as a singer and his associates; the state of the theatre scene in the mid 19th Century; background to his librettists; constructional detail of the operas, their plot, characteristics and key structures; as well as the probable reasons for their various successes or failures. This book is obviously the result of much painstaking research into private collections and scrutiny of the autograph scores both here and on the continent. Tyldsley has checked the facts promoted by the previous biographers St Ledger (1870), Kenny (1875) and Barrett (1882) and now provides fresh answers. His research has been aided by the existence of a near-complete set of autograph scores and letters, passed by Balfe's widow, Lina, to the British Museum. These were unavailable to the previous biographers and so Tyldesley's information turns out to be both interesting and revealing. We find that even a facsimile list of operas made in Balfe's own hand (facsimiled in Kenny) is inaccurate.

The author is a first rate musician who is able to put Balfe's compositions into perspective with other composers and say why certain arias/ballads appeal. And Tyldsley knows his opera and cross-references musical passages with those of other composers to reveal similarities or differences. Being able to make parallels with works of the Italian and French schools or G&S is useful as it allows the reader to get a better feel for the music they have never heard. Evidence shows that Balfe was a fast worker, using shorthand cuts, and often acted hurriedly to finish a score. Surprisingly, he would add/subtract numbers or provide different keys to suit an artiste's wishes. An unorthodox presentation of some of the autograph scores used the common 12 stave manuscript paper available at the time, necessitating woodwind lines to be bound in at the back, thus making it impossible to use the master score by a conductor. The overtures tend not to be bound with the full score. But why? Balfe, though short of money, would not always bother to write out a score fully, but would leave repeat signs and empty bars for a copyist who would be expected to add bits of missing orchestration. Why pay for this when he was often short of money?

An academic approach is taken to the analysis of the important operas: this is highlighted by an in-depth examination of Balfe's key structures within key operas: The Siege of Rochelle, The Bohemian Girl, Rose of Castille and Satanella. Discussed is Balfe's apparent inability to engage good librettists and quite rightly the author criticises the short-comings of the librettists, Fitzball and Bunn in providing unrealistic plots. Yet Balfe seemed to be blind to their faults and continued to work with them. Some of their gloomy and serious historical plots for his early works were not properly worked out. Yet Balfe does not help his librettists by suppressing realism through the addition of happy endings whether it be for a character dying in the desert (Maid of Artois) or burning at the stake (Joan of Arc). A standard ending with Rondo and chorus does not aid the story line.

The book is generous in its supply of musical examples, yet lacks good photographic material. The covers of quadrilles, lancers and arias taken from the operas often carry illustrations of stage settings that would have amplified plot descriptions and could have visually lifted the book. A few pages of plates do occupy the centre pages as in the old style of presentation (where gloss art paper is used to carry high definition pictures). Here, medium definition printing is disappointingly provided on the same paper as the rest of the book and so one wonders why the centre spread of plates was used after all. A reader who has the Bonynge CD (mentioned above) with its abundance of interesting visual Balfian material will appreciate the lost opportunity here.

I particularly like the fact that Tyldsley gives his opinions and shares his thoughts with the reader allowing one to join him in puzzling things out. His clear and detailed descriptions of the appearance of the material he has been working from makes it unnecessary for anyone to consider a need to look at the sources further. He tells us where the band parts can be found, thus helping any group interested in performing the operas. This biography replaces the previous ones. The reader feels he is present during searches and William Tyldsley's lively descriptions make the reading of his intriguing biography a joy.

Raymond Walker



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