William Vincent Wallace

Biography

Born: March 11, 1812; Waterford, MI   Died: October 12, 1865; Château de Haget, Vieuzos, Hautes-Pyrénées  
This Irish composer is easily confused with William Wallace, a Scots composer (1860 - 1940). William Vincent Wallace was the son of Sergeant William Wallace of Ballina, County Mayo, the bandmaster of the 20th Worcestershire Regiment of the British Army. He was the first of three children.

The family moved back to Ireland after his father retired from the army in 1825. William had been taught many instruments and after they settled in
Read more Ireland, got work as second violinist in Dublin's Theatre Royal. He continued to study piano and organ and in 1830, he took a job as organist of Thurles Cathedral and sd professor of music at the Ursuline Convent attached to it. He fell in love with Isabella Kelly, one of his pupils, and converted to Catholicism in response to her family's objections to their marriage on the grounds of his Protestantism. At the time he converted, he took the additional name Vincent, and preferred it over William. He married Isabella in 1831. In that same year, he returned to Dublin to his job 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 1824. He, his wife, and his sister-in-law emigrated to Tasmania in 1835, then moved to Sydney, Australia, in January 1836. 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. He, his sister Eliza, and his wife opened an academy of music in Sydney.

In 1838, he left Australia, leaving behind his debts and his wife and son, who are thought to have returned to Ireland. He told stories of adventures in such places as India and New Zealand, but in reality he went to Valparaiso, Chile, where there was an active British population. His presence was, according to Chilean sources, influential in the development of Chilean classical music.

After a while, they started touring and traveled up and down the Americas. In 1841, he reached New Orleans and composed a mass for the cathedral there. He reached New York in 1843 and was enthusiastically received. 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. He used his singular travels around the world and the fanciful tales that resulted as part of his publicity.

In collaboration with librettist Edward Fitzball, he wrote an opera, Maritana, which used music Wallace had written over the years and was a considerable success. The Illustrated London News said that its tunes were to be heard everywhere. The opera was also played with great success in Dublin and Philadelphia. Some critics, however, commented that it lacked a cohesive style. He wrote other operas, but his next one was a failure and the third, Lurline, subsequently could not find a producer. 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.

He revived his career and around 1850, he married Hélène Stoepel, having found a compliant lawyer who was willing to state an opinion that the marriage to Isabella was invalid, as Wallace had been a minor at the time and therefore not mature enough to make the required religious conversion. 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. At that point, he primarily turned to writing operas. In 1864, 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 moved to the High Pyrenees and died there in 1865.

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. 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. Read less

There are 19 William Vincent Wallace recordings available.

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