About this Recording
8.572774 - WALLACE, W.V.: Opera Fantasies and Paraphrases (Tuck, Bonynge)

William Vincent Wallace (1812–1865)
Opera Fantasies and Paraphrases


William Vincent Wallace exemplified the spirit of Victorian enterprise. Blessed with extraordinary talent, tenacity and self-confidence, he rose from humble beginnings in provincial Ireland, to become one of the most famous musicians of his day. In 1831, whilst only a teenager, he heard the great violinist Paganini and determined to become a virtuoso himself, on the piano as well as the violin. By 1835 he felt ready to take the stage but realising that there would be too much competing talent in Europe, took the bold decision to try his luck in Australia. It proved a journey worth making. During his two-year stay, he gained a lasting reputation as the first musician of quality to visit the colony, giving over twenty concerts and establishing not only Australia’s first musical academy but also its first music festival. Eventually financial problems forced him to move on. Sailing from Sydney, Wallace crossed the Pacific to Valparaiso, travelling for the next two years through Chile, Peru, Jamaica, Cuba and Mexico, surviving earthquakes, pitched battles and revolution on the way. In May 1842 he arrived in New Orleans and created such a sensation at his first concert that the musical city took him to its heart. The following year he found even greater success in New York, both as a performer and composer.

Wallace made his début as a pianist/composer in London in May 1845 and was soon after commissioned to write an opera for Drury Lane theatre. The result was Maritana, an immediate and popular success that made his reputation overnight. A second opera, Matilda, followed in 1847, but the vogue for English opera was now on the wane and with no prospect of further operatic success in London, he returned to New York, where he was able to make a good living from his popular piano and vocal compositions. In 1857 the formation of a permanent English Opera company in London prompted Wallace to move back to Britain and in March 1860 his third opera Lurline was produced at Covent Garden. An immediate hit, Lurline ran for many nights over two seasons, but soon, once again, the taste for English opera declined. Wallace’s last three operas, The Amber Witch (1861), Love’s Triumph (1862), and The Desert Flower (1863), though more musically ambitious, were financially unsuccessful. The composer moved on to Paris, where he made a last vain attempt to stage his operas in the French capital. By now Wallace’s health had broken down and he died, aged only 53, on 12 October 1865.

The majority of the works on this recording were composed in the United States between 1850 and 1857. The piano was now becoming an increasingly popular instrument in the American home and the standard of domestic performance was often very high. Wallace, now famous as a composer and renowned pianist, was in a prime position to supply the growing demand for quality music, both for the home and the concert hall. As well as his own original compositions, Wallace produced many arrangements and transcriptions of popular works. Even before writing Maritana, he was no stranger to opera. As a young theatre violinist in Dublin, he had taken part in many performances of Italian and German opera and in 1840 conducted a season of Italian Opera in Mexico City. Throughout his life, Wallace had paid close attention to the development of opera, his knowledge of the varied repertoire shown in the scope of his operatic arrangements, ranging from Mozart to Wagner. Always interested in the orchestral capabilities of the piano, his works for that instrument are rich in texture and colour, though always allowing the melody its voice. In the works on this recording, Wallace combines intimate knowledge of the genre with the consummate flair of a master pianist to bring alive the passion and vitality of the Romantic stage.

The Fantaisie brillante on themes from La traviata was published soon after that opera’s New York première in 1856. This ambitious and intensely dramatic work incorporates six numbers from the opera, including the drinking song from act one and Violetta’s “Teneste la promessa” from act three.

The fantasies on La sonnambula and Lucia di Lammermoor were part of a series, Souvenirs de l’Opéra, comprising selections from twelve popular operas and published between 1852 and 1854. The Sonnambula fantasy opens quietly with the sleepwalking scene, followed by an aria replete with bel canto ornamentation. After a dancing allegro, the work concludes with a skilful arrangement of Bellini’s sublime finale to the first act. The fantasy on Lucia opens with a darkly dramatic introduction and then we are away with the hunt. An aria from the famous Mad Scene leads on to a rousing march.

Va pensiero, from Verdi’s Nabucco (1842), remains one of the most popular choruses ever written. The song of the exiled Hebrew slaves may well have struck a chord with the Irish wanderer, who had been away from home for many years.

The variations from Donizetti’s popular comic opera L’elisir d’amore are a real delight; sparkling, inventive, and fun. Wallace makes use of the Barcarole, the famous aria, Una furtiva lagrima, and a rollicking finale. Written for two performers at one piano*, it must have proved a treat for the talented pupils of Mrs Mears’ School in New York, to whom Wallace dedicated the work in 1857.

Following the 1855 New York première of Verdi’s Rigoletto, Wallace produced piano transcriptions of two numbers from the opera, including the quartet from act three. Often regarded as one of the finest pieces of ensemble writing in opera, Wallace brilliantly captures its spirited essence.

The Night Winds, published in 1851, is a curiosity. The title and music are the same as the soprano aria in the first act of Wallace’s own opera Lurline, which was first heard in 1860. Wallace had, in fact, written the first two acts in the late 1840s and taken the manuscript with him to America. Too good a melody to remain unheard, the composer arranged it as a nocturne for piano, the rapid chromatic writing evoking a stormy night at sea.

The fantasy on Donizetti’s Don Pasquale dates from 1852. Wallace uses the well-known cavatina Quel guardo, il cavaliere as the basis for this work, which ends with a lively movement in waltz time.

When Maritana was produced in Vienna in 1848, the publisher Diabelli issued a sumptuous score of the German version of the opera (for which the composer had written a completely new scene in the final act) together with several of Wallace’s piano works, including the grand fantasy on themes from Maritana. This is a virtuoso work on a Lisztian scale, probably written to display Wallace’s own skill as a pianist. He introduces several numbers from the opera, including the love duet from act three, the Spanish waltz from act two, and making extensive use of the massively popular aria, Scenes that are brightest.

Beginning life as a virtuoso work for solo piano and orchestra, the Grand Duo on a theme from Halévy’s L’éclair was first heard in New Orleans in 1842, shortly after the composer had arrived there from Mexico. It is likely that the piece was written during Wallace’s travels through South America, the finale being originally described as ‘a la Peruviana’. Built around the aria Quand de la nuit, Halévy’s simple melody is used mainly as a springboard for Wallace’s own fertile musical invention. The short allegro introduction leads to a dreamy Andante before Halévy’s theme is heard in full. Two variations on this theme are followed by an exquisite adagio movement, built upon Wallace’s own melodic material and the work concludes with an Allegro con spirito finale. The composer rearranged the piece for two pianos in 1846 and it was in this form that he often performed the work with his second wife, the pianist Hélène Stoepel. She herself arranged the publication of the work in 1868, three years after her husband’s death.

Peter Jaggard

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