William Vincent Wallace (March 11, 1812 –October 12, 1865) was an Irish composer and musician, who in his day, he was famous on three continents as a double virtuoso on violin and piano, but nowadays is mainly remembered as an opera composer of note, with key works such as Maritana (1845) and Lurline (1847/60). Not to be confused with William Wallace, a Scots composer (1860 – 1940), Wallace was born on March 11, 1812, at Colbeck Street, Waterford, Ireland, the first of three children. Both of his parents were Irish; his father, Sergeant Spencer Wallace of Ballina, County Mayo, one of four children, who was born in Killala, County Mayo in 1789, became a regimental bandmaster with the North Mayo Militia of the 20th Worcestershire Regiment of the British Army based in Ballina. William was born while the regiment was stationed for one year in Waterford, one of several successive postings in Ireland and the U.K. The family returned to Ballina some four years later, in 1816, and William spent his formative years there, taking an active part in his father’s band and already composing pieces by the age of nine for the band recitals.
The band, having a reputation for high standards, apart from regimental duties would have featured at social events in big houses in the area. Under the tuition of his father and uncle, Wallace wrote pieces for the bands and orchestras of his native area. He became accomplished in playing various band instruments before the family left the Army in 1826 (their regiment then being the 29th Foot), moving from Waterford to Dublin, and becoming active in music in the capital. Wallace learned to play several instruments as a boy, including the violin, clarinet, organ, and piano, and after they settled in Ireland, got work as second violinist in Dublin’s Theatre Royal. In 1830, at the age of 18, he became organist of the Roman Catholic Cathedral at Thurles, County Tipperary, and taught music at the Ursuline Convent attached to it there. He fell in love with one of his pupils, Isabella Kelly, whose father consented to their marriage in 1832 on condition that Wallace become a Roman Catholic. At the time he converted, he took the additional name Vincent, and preferred it over William. The couple soon moved to Dublin, where Wallace was employed as a violinist at the Theatre Royal, where he heard Paganini play and was stimulated to write his own violin concerto, which he premiered with the Dublin Anacreontic Society in 1834.
Economic conditions in Dublin having deteriorated after the Act of Union of 1800, the whole Wallace family decided to emigrate to Australia in 1835. Wallace, together with his wife Isabella and young son, Willy, travelled as free emigrants from Liverpool in July. His father, with his second wife Matilda and one child, travelled with the rest of the family, Elizabeth, a soprano, and Wellington, a flautist, as bounty emigrants from Cork that autumn. The composer’s party first landed at Hobart, Tasmania, in late October, where they stayed several months, and then moved on to Sydney in January 1836, where he took an active part in the city’s musical life. At his debut in February, he played both a violin concerto and a piano concerto. Australians consider him their nation’s first significant instrumentalist. Following the arrival of the rest of the family in February, the Wallaces opened the first Australian music academy in April. Wallace had already given many celebrity concerts in Sydney, and, being the first virtuoso to visit the Colony, became known as the “Australian Paganini.” His sister Elizabeth, at age 19, in 1839 married an Australian singer and ex-convict, John Bushelle, with whom she gave many recitals before his early death in 1843 on a tour of van Diemen’s Land. Wallace was also active in the business of importing pianos from London, but his main activity involved many recitals in and around Sydney under the patronage of the Governor, General Sir Richard Bourke. The most significant musical events of this period were two large oratorio concerts at St. Mary’s (Roman Catholic) Cathedral in Sydney in 1836 and 1838, on behalf of the organ fund, which were directed by Wallace, and which utilized all the available musical talent of the Colony, including the recently formed Philharmonic [Choral] Society.
In 1838, leaving his wife and his son in Sydney with relatives, Wallace began a roving career that took him around the globe. Wallace claimed that from Australia he went to New Zealand on a whaling-voyage in the South seas and while there encountered the Maori tribe Te Aupouri, and having crossed the Pacific, he visited Chile, Argentina, Peru, Jamaica, and Cuba, giving concerts in the large cities of those countries. He started touring and traveled up and down the Americas. In Valparaiso, Chile, where there was an active British population, his presence was, according to Chilean sources, influential in the development of Chilean classical music. In 1841, he conducted a season of Italian opera in Mexico City. Moving on to the United States, he stayed at New Orleans for some years, where he was feted as a virtuoso on violin and piano and composed a mass for the cathedral there, before reaching New York, where he was enthusiastically received, was equally celebrated, and published his first compositions (1843-44).
From there, he went back to Europe, appearing in Germany and Holland, and finally made a debut in the land of his birth in Hanover Square, London, May 8, 1845, and made various appearances as a pianist. He used his singular travels around the world and the fanciful tales that resulted as part of his publicity. At that point, he primarily turned to writing operas. In collaboration with librettist Edward Fitzball, he wrote an opera, Maritana, which used music Wallace had written over the years. In November of that year, it was performed at Drury Lane with great success, and was later presented internationally, including Dublin (1846), Vienna, Austria (1848), Philadelphia, and Australia. Wallace’s sister, Elisabeth, appeared at Covent Garden in the title role in 1848.The Illustrated London News said that its tunes were to be heard everywhere. Some critics, however, commented that it lacked a cohesive style. Maritana was followed by Matilda of Hungary (1847) which was a failure, Lurline (1847/60) which could not find a producer, The Amber Witch (1861), Love’s Triumph (1862) and The Desert Flower (1863) based on the libretto of Halévy’s Jaguarita l’Indienne. He also published numerous compositions for the piano.
Wallace continued to be gripped by wanderlust. He developed a serious eye condition and decided that a trip to Brazil would cure it. Oddly, it did. While there, he invested his money into a piano company and when that went broke, he returned to New York. On the way there, his steamship’s boiler exploded, but he survived. In 1854, Wallace became an American citizen. In New York, in 1843–44, he had been associated with the early concert seasons of the New York Philharmonic Society, and in 1853 was elected an Honorary (Life) Member of the Society. By 1858, he was appearing in Germany. In 1859, he raised some needed cash by selling the rights to his unproduced opera Lurline to Pyne and Harrison, no doubt regretting the decision when it became a considerable hit at Covent Garden in 1860. In later years, having returned to Europe for the premieres of his later operas, he developed a heart condition. In 1864, the heart pains he had been suffering turned worse and, typically, he decided a change of scene was required. He retired to Passy, France, where he was warmly received by other musical celebrities. He received treatment in Paris in 1864 but moved to the High Pyrenees where he died in poor circumstances at the Château de Bagen, Sauveterre de Comminges, in the Haute Garonne on October 12, 1865, and was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery, London; the epitaph on his recently-refurbished headstone now reads “Music is an art that knows no locality but heaven – Wm. V. Wallace.”
Vincent Wallace was a cultivated man and an accomplished musician, whose work as an operatic composer, at a period by no means encouraging to music in England, has a distinct historical value. Like Michael William Balfe, he was born an Irishman, and his reputation as one of the few composers known beyond the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland at that time is naturally coupled with Balfe’s. The operas Marita and Lurline show a considerable ability in creating a sustained dramatic line, but like all his operas, they are weakened by the uneasy combinations of styles within them. On the other hand, he was very original in his use of national musical elements: He may have been the first composer of note, for instance, to use the flattened second degree of the scale, a frequent feature of native Spanish music, to evoke that country in his music. It is striking how aspects of his Marita (with a Spanish setting), anticipate Bizet’s Carmen. Since Marita was played all through Europe, the similarities between the two operas’ gypsy fortune-telling scenes is unlikely to be mere coincidence. The two successful operas held the stage through the nineteenth century and a little beyond, but are practically unknown today, though commentators close to our time have noted that some scenes have an almost Verdian power. In addition to his operas, he also wrote a large amount of piano music (including some virtuoso pieces) that was much in vogue in the 19th century. Wallace’s piano music ranges from pieces calculated to be of practical use for home music-making to highly difficult virtuoso display pieces. They remain of some interest today, but his violin music is less substantial. His more modest output of songs and ballads, equally wide-ranging in style and difficulty, was also popular in his day, some numbers being associated with famous singers of the time.
The following work by Vincent Wallace is contained in my collection: