William Vincent Wallace, 1812-1865



                        Wallace's Life and Work

Wallace is one of three opera composers who made up the 'Irish Ring', with Balfe and Benedict. He was born in Waterford, Ireland to a bandmaster father, who taught him to play the instruments of his regimental band. When the family moved to Dublin William was in his teens and before long became second violinist in the Theatre Royal pit orchestra, where on occasions he deputized for the leader. He studied the piano with W.S. Conran, and the organ with Haydn Corri that led to an appointment as organist of Thurles R.C. Cathedral and Professor of music at the cathedral convent in 1830. A year later he returned to Dublin, and its Theatre Royal orchestra, where he was impressed by a visit by Paganini.

He made his début as a composer and recitalist at the age of 22, playing his violin concerto at the Dublin Anacreontic Society.  Ever adventurous, he emigrated to Australia in 1835 with his young wife, hoping to finance himself with his entrepreneurial musical talent as a violinist and pianist. The Australian press hailed him, an 'Australian Paganini' and 'Sydney's undisputed musical emperor'. Living in Sydney, Wallace opened an academy of music in Bridge Street, under governor Bourke's patronage. He stayed in Australia three years and wrote many parlour ballads whilst there.

He left to visit the Americas; Chile, Jamaica and Cuba and in Mexico City, conducted the Italian opera season in 1841, and  composed a  mass there  before moving on to New Orleans (1841), Philadelphia (1842) and Boston (1843). Wallace's target was New York where his fame had preceded him as 'the first violinist and pianist in this country'. He left New York to tour Germany and the Netherlands before arriving in London for a concert at the Hanover Square Rooms in May 1845. In the programme he played the famous Wallace piano piece, Cracovienne. During the period of travel, Wallace had soaked up a number of musical styles and felt he was ready to write an opera. With a book by Edward Fitzball, the composer set to work on Maritana, which was first performed at Drury Lane's Theatre Royal on November 15, 1845. Both public and press were enthusiastic and soon its music was published and heard everywhere. The opera, with dialogue, toured widely and became as strong a hit as Balfe's Bohemian Girl.

Following Maritana, Wallace set to work on more ambitious operas, the first of which was Matilda of Hungary (1847), which failed to achieve the success of Maritana.  He then began writing Lurline again  to a text by Edward Fitzball.  It was intended for production by Alfred Bunn but this time at Covent Garden.  However, Bunn gave up theatre management before it could be performed and Wallace's absence, first with eye problems and then on a prolonged visit to South America hardly helped his cause. Eventually, it was February 23, 1860 when Lurline was premiered by the Pyne-Harrison company at Covent Garden  with tremendous success. Unusually for English opera of the time, it was through-composed. Lurline toured firstly with the Pyne-Harrison, and later with Carl Rosa and Moody Manners opera companies.


Wallace followed it up a year later with The Amber Witch using a text by Henry Chorley, critic of the Athenæum magazine. However, he altered some of Chorley's words and introduced a cheery Rondo at the end to replace the plaintive solo Chorley had provided. The premiere, conducted by Charles Hallé, was well received, but the vagaries of the theatre world cut the run short and it never had the exposure it should. The work went touring however and was last picked up by the Moody Manners company.

Love's Triumph (1862) with libretto by Planché, and The Desert Flower (1863) with book by Harris & Williams were his last works to get to the London stage, but both were not widely reported and never became part of any repertoire. Wallace retained his interest in opera writing, and was working on an opera Estrella in 1864 when he became seriously ill (with heart attacks). He retired to Passy, in Paris and ended his days at the Château de Haget. His body was returned to London and he was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery on October 23, 1865 where a new headstone was erected in September 2007.


Commemoration of the new Wallace headstone, September 2007,  with Richard Bonynge and representatives of Waterford's 'Friends of Wallace' group.


 (photograph courtesy of Andrew  Lamb)


Recordings of Wallace's Works

Commercial Opera Recordings


The Victorian Opera Orchestra and chorus conducted by Richard Bonynge on Naxos 8.660293-94.  The Naxos CD booklet contains essays on the background history of Lurline, Wallace the composer and singers' biographies and a libretto of the opera is available for download. See here for more details of the recording and how to obtain it.



This benchmark recording of Maritana was recorded at the O'Reilly Hall, University College, Dublin on 19-20 September, 1995, following three public concert performances round Ireland.  It was the first opera written by the composer (1845) and set a foundation for five other operas to follow. The libretto was by Edward Fitzball & Alfred Bunn.  It has now been released on Naxos 8.660308-09. See here for more details of the recording.


Private Opera Recordings

A festival of exhibitions, talks, and recitals on this composer's bi-centenary culminated in a Gala Concert held on 22 September, 2012 in the city of Ballina where William Vincent Wallace (1812-1865) spent his childhood years. The programme contained some rarities of songs, choral and ensemble pieces, a highlight of which was the inclusion of a charming vocal number from the forgotten opera, Matilda of Hungary.

The DVD is well defined and has good sound. Its running time is 128 mins and the cost (including p&p) is 11.35 euros (Ireland), 12 euros  (UK/USA). For more details or to purchase, please contact Terry Reilly, terryreilly@eircom.net or Pat Diamond, pat.diamond1@gmail.com or write to Pat Diamond, Rathkip, Ballina, Co Mayo, Ireland.


Maritana, Beaufort Opera, Joseph Vandernoot, Rare Recorded Editions 148/149. 


Ballads, opera excerpts and other works

Excerpts from an historic recording (1931) of Maritana featuring Heddle Nash, Denis Noble, Miriam Licette and Clara Serena available on Cavalcade of English Singers, Volume 2, Dutton CDBP 9802.

Excerpts from Wallace's Maritana, Balfe's The Bohemian Girl, and Benedict's The Lily of Killarney, Orchestra conducted by Havelock Ellis reissued on  EMI 3359482, 2005.

A selection of arias from Wallace operas (as well as from Balfe, Faraday and Sullivan) sung by Deborah Riedel with Richard Bonynge conducting on The Power of Love, (Melba  MR301107 , previously 301082), 2000.

Joan Sutherland sings "Scenes that are brightest" from Maritana  on Decca 425 048-2.  

Rosemary Tuck plays some of his piano works on Cala Records CACD88042, Cala Records CACD88044, Naxos 8.572774 and Naxos 8.572775 

A few excerpts from Maritana are also available on http://www.youtube.com/ - search on Maritana or William Vincent Wallace.


Books on Wallace

To mark the bi-centenary of the Irish composer William Vincent Wallace a new biography has been published by Dr Andrew Lamb entitled William Vincent Wallace (Fullers Wood Press, 2012).

The biography reveals fascinating facts about this colourful composer that have been overlooked or distorted by earlier biographers. A much clearer picture is presented of the genesis of  Wallace's operas and why one was deliberately shelved for production a decade later.

It is available from Dr. A. Lamb, 1 Squirrel Wood, West Byfleet, KT14 6PE, UK. Please contact him for more information:-   Tel. (+44) (0)1932 342566    e-mail: andrewmlamb@gmail.com.
ISBN 978 0 9524149 7 1,    237pp + 30 illustrations.

Older accounts include a short memoir by W.H. Gratton Flood written in 1912, recently reprinted, and a short book, William Vincent Wallace: A vagabond composer by Robert Phelan, Waterford: Celtic Publications, 1994.  Both are available from Cheshire Opera Enterprises.

The Journal of the British Music Society, Volume 25, 2003 includes an article by David Grant "A Reappraisal of W. Vincent Wallace with new documentary information on his death".  For details of where to get the article see http://www.britishmusicsociety.com/pages/publications.html.

There are few books on Wallace or even on this era of English opera.    The Romantic Age 1800-1914, edited by Nicholas Temperley, London: Athlone Press, 1981, issued more recently as The Blackwell History of Music in Britain, Vol. 5, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988 includes a chapter by Michael Hurd on "Opera: 1830-1865". Other books include George Biddlecombe's English opera from 1834 to 1864 with particular reference to the works of Michael Balfe, New York: Garland Publishing, 1994, which includes a chapter on Wallace.

© Victorian Opera Northwest, 2005 - 2012.