An Irishwoman's Diary


JAMES JOYCE was well aware of the now largely forgotten Irish composer William Vincent Wallace. He was born in 1812, sharing a bicentenary with Charles Dickens. Wallace and Dickens had a great deal in common: besides genius, they were lively individuals.

Both lived hard, worked like demons, shared a cavalier attitude to marriage when confronted with the urges of new romance, and died relatively young. Dickens suffered a fatal heart attack at 58; Wallace expired five years earlier than the English literary giant, at an exhausted 53 – dying in a French chateau owned by his sister-in-law’s husband.

Yet within the span of his birth in Colbeck Street Waterford and a childhood spent mainly in Ballina, Co Mayo and his early death, Wallace travelled the Americas and beyond, enjoying huge success. The first of his six operas Maritana, based on the contemporaneous play, Don Cesar de Bazan, by Aldophe d’Ennery and Philippe François Pinel Dumanoir, opened at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane on November 15th, 1845. Joyce mentions Maritana in the story A Mother from Dubliners, while one of Wallace’s songs is referenced in Joyce’s sublime masterpiece, The Dead, when Mr Browne laments the lack of good singing performances in Dublin. “He told too of how the top gallery of the old Royal used to be packed night after night, of how one night an Italian tenor had sung five encores of Let Me Like a Soldier Fall introducing a high C every time.”

Wallace’s father, Spencer, born in 1789, became the bandmaster of the North Mayo Militia which had been formed in 1793. Some sources claim that Spencer was a Scot; recent research maintains that he was Irish and that the family go back several generations in Ballina. Either way Spencer passed down a love of music to his son and taught him to play a range of instruments.

By the time the family moved to Dublin, young Wallace was sufficiently proficient to play in an orchestra accompanying the Italian virtuoso Paganini during a Dublin concert. Wallace was so impressed that he learned the Italian’s concert programme pieces and was soon making his living as a violinist.

In 1835 Wallace married Isabella Kelly from Blackrock, whose family home, Frascati House, would years later feature at the centre of a heated dispute between heritage and development interests. He and his wife, in the company of Wallace’s sister, Eliza, sailed to Tasmania before moving on to Sydney where he established a music academy.

Researching Wallace is fun, if confusing, because many of the yarns surrounding him amount to a mixed bag of fact and fancy. So discovered pianist and early Irish music historian Una Hunt who has also revived the reputation of George Alexander Osborne (1806-1893). Wallace was good-looking and a dangerous charmer. This may have inspired the story about the then governor of New South Wales, Limerick man Richard Bourke, presenting him with 100 sheep in the hope that Wallace would leave town without undermining too many marriages.

The composer certainly took business risks and accumulated debts, as is suggested by a report which appeared in the Sydney Gazette: “Mr Wallace, the Australian Paganini, left the colony in a clandestine manner, sailing for Valparaiso”. This may have been connected with his piano-importing venture.

Ironically, Wallace, whose contribution to the development of music in Australia is irrefutable, had initially enjoyed Bourke’s support. Trouble just seemed to attach itself to the gifted William Vincent Wallace – as did fame, at least in his lifetime.

Wallace’s travels include accounts of whaling expeditions in New Zealand waters and tussles with tigers in India. Perhaps the daughter of an angry Maori chieftain did fall in love with Wallace, preventing the composer’s abrupt demise? Who knows? He is known to have conducted a season of Italian opera in 1841 in Mexico City after perhaps having explored Nepal and Kashmir, (unlikely given the time constraints, but with Wallace, anything seems possible). Playing both piano and violin to virtuoso level greatly increased his prospects for engagements.

Then he hit the United States, arriving in New Orleans before making his way to New York where he performed with the then newly-formed New York Philharmonic orchestra. London soon beckoned and Wallace was to triumph with Maritana in 1845. The opera was later staged in Vienna. However the death of the Austrian librettist, Alfred Julius Becher, executed by firing squad for his political views, also killed off any hopes for further Wallace productions there. This would prove crucial. Wallace dominated the New World music scene yet it is obvious that for him, as for any 19th-century opera composer, Europe was the prize. He did perform in Germany. Then he composed Lurline which was staged to great acclaim at Covent Garden in 1860, surpassing even Maritana. There were further operas, including The Amber Witch, an ambitious work and dangerously costly to produce, as well as songs and piano music.

Wallace’s story is quite similar to that of his near contemporary Michael William Balfe (1808-1870) composer and singer who, as Wallace did, mastered the violin and wrote operas including Falstaff (1838) and The Bohemian Girl (1843). Balfe found an Italian patron and was also helped by Rossini.

A progressive eye disease and the emergence of printed music brought the admittedly more frenetic Wallace back to New York. With his new partner, a German pianist Hélène Stoepel, Wallace performed all over the US. Far more important for him though was the demand for his salon music, which was sought by the growing numbers of domestic piano players. Still he wanted his operas performed in Europe and this ambition decided him on moving to France, initially near Paris, before illness bought him to the château where he would die.

A copy of Wallace’s beautifully illustrated music album from 1854, launched in New York by his American publisher for the Christmas market of the previous year, is in the music collection of the National Library of Ireland.

Una Hunt’s Heritage Music Productions and RTÉ Lyric FM have co-published a facsimile edition of the album with a CD of Wallace’s piano music and songs. A Bicentenary Festival Day takes place at the National Concert Hall in Dublin on Monday, October 15th.

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