About this Recording
8.572776 - WALLACE, W.V.: Chopinesque (Tuck, Bonynge)

William Vincent Wallace (1812–1865)


The Irish composer William Vincent Wallace rose from humble beginnings 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 and took the bold decision to try his luck in Australia. During a 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 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 (Naxos 8.660308–09), 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 (Naxos 8.660293–94) 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 the 12 October 1865.

As well as his six published operas, Wallace wrote a vast number of piano compositions, highly popular in their day. Ranging from stunning virtuoso works to lighter pieces for enjoyment in the home, all display an infectious delight in the sound of the piano. Yet at a time when most aspiring musicians headed for the Paris of Chopin and Liszt, Wallace was finding his inspiration far away in the Americas. On his arrival in New York in 1843, it was reported that the much-travelled Wallace had “literally sown the world with his compositions”. When his original piano music first appeared in that city he soon won the hearts of the public. Waltzes, “written in the tropics and redolent of the rich voluptuousness of the climate” were alive with the ambience of Latin America; nocturnes and romances, memorably melodic and atmospherically rich, were described as “music that intoxicates the soul”. His undeniable gifts were well served by the developing piano, with its growing ability to sustain and control a melody in the manner of bel canto song. But Wallace was no mere melodist: texture, colour and dramatic effect are staples of his work and it is no surprise that the composer of piano music soon achieved fame on the operatic stage.

Soon Wallace was able to make a comfortable living from his music; by 1851 his American publisher was paying him the breathtaking sum of $100 for each piano piece produced. The demand for sheet music then was enormous by today’s standards, driven by the rapidly growing popularity of the domestic piano. Wallace’s music, melodic, often witty, and never dull, appealed to a wide market and provided a much-needed bridge to the music of the great masters, its importance well summed up by the New York Musical Times:

Almost every artist and musician of standing in Europe, as well as America, concedes to him the highest position in this department of musical ability: and the great and universal success of his works with the musical public, proves that his genius is practical, and covers the wants of the masses.

[1] Polonaise De Wilna (1868)

The elegant Polonaise de Wilna in D is preceded by a very “classical” introduction in the minor. The rich orchestral textures of this duet and the absence of pianistic “effect” suggest that this posthumously published piece may come from one of Wallace’s manuscript operas.

[2] Nocturne Mélodique (1847)

The Nocturne Mélodique was written during a turbulent period of Wallace’s life when his marriage had broken down and he was threatened with blindness. The main melody, passionate and full of yearning is presented without introduction. A long and unsettled development section follows, veering between darkness and light before the main melody returns, fortissimo.

[3] La Sympathie – Valse (1844)

Dedicated to “Mlle Rosario Warran de Mexique”, the waltz La Sympathie is distinctly Spanish in character. Wallace captures the sound of the soft guitar in the lively opening. A central section, dreamily romantic and noble by turn, leads a reprise of the first subject and a witty finale.

[4] Le Zéphyr – Nocturne (1848)

Published in London and Vienna in 1848, Le Zéphyr contains a quotation from the poet Lamartine on the title page, which describes the wind brushing a lyre’s strings as gently as the wing of a bird. Wallace skilfully imitates the sound and resonance of the harp in the opening section and the work develops dramatically and delicately, as the wind swirls round.

[5] Souvenir de Cracovie – Mazourka (1864)

Written towards the end of Wallace’s life, Souvenir de Cracovie is the work of a master. The melody slides subtly onto a gentle rocking introduction. A stately middle section effortlessly leads back to the opening theme. Wallace would have certainly come across Chopin’s mazurkas in New Orleans, for there he befriended the Polish exile Emile Johns, who had been a friend of Chopin in Paris and dedicatee of the latter’s Mazurkas, Op 7.

[6] Woodland Murmurs – Nocturne (1844)

Originally published in New York as Op 20, No 2, the shape of the opening melody of Woodland Murmurs strongly resembles that of Pretty Gitana from Act One of Maritana, written the following year and giving credence to the suspicion that much of the music of that opera was put together from material Wallace had written in Latin America. The Spanish voice is evident throughout this work, which opens and closes quite darkly.

[7] Le Chant des Oiseaux – Nocturne pour le piano (1852)

Le Chant des Oiseaux is headed by a quotation from the Persian poet Sadi, who writes of the song of the birds being as harmonious as poetry. Rather than giving an imitation of birdsong, Wallace evokes the mood of the poem in sound. One of his most engaging melodies is developed and ornamented with suggestions of birds in flight, and the music builds to a triumphant tremolo in which all the birds of the air seem to join the song.

[8] Valse Brillante (1848)

The playful and witty Valse Brillante, replete with unexpected notes and occasional discords, has a distinct Latin American flavour.

[9] Au Bord de la Mer – Nocturne (1849)

Headed by a quotation from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, “The Music crept by me upon the waters, allaying both their fury and their passion”, Au Bord de la Mer was written at the time Wallace had met the love of his life, the pianist Helene Stoepel. The barcarolle-like melody, calm and gentle is followed by suggestions of waves. A magical second subject leads to a splendidly virtuosic finale.

[10] Varsovie – Mazourka pour le piano (1852)

One of Wallace’s most popular mazurkas, Varsovie was written in New York and remained in print for many years. Brimful of passion throughout, its success is no surprise.

[11] Three Nocturnes, Op 20, No 1 (1844)

Nocturne Op 20, No 1 is one of a set of three nocturnes published originally in New York. These were dedicated to Sigismund Thalberg, whose own nocturnes were popular in their day. The song-like melody is followed by a brief but passionate development before the song returns with a flowing accompaniment.

[12] Souvenir de Naples – Barcarolle (1854)

Wallace’s Souvenir de Naples was described on publication as “graceful throughout, a new interest attached to the theme on each time of its recurrence, and without one commonplace thought or passage from the first page to the last”.

[13] La Brunette – Valse Brillante de Salon (1853)

A long nocturne-like passage leads to La Brunette, a very bright waltz, the dreamy second section of which builds to an emotional climax before the return of its first subject. It was also published as Lotus Leaf by William Hall in New York during the same year.

[14] Innocence – Romance (1850)

The German edition of Innocence is entitled La Mélancholie. With the agitated accompaniment and the markings con tristessa and dolente in the middle of the work one can understand why. Yet the work begins and ends dolcissimo – sweet innocence prevails.

[15] Victoire – Mazourka (1862)

A masterly composition, Victoire, with its unexpectedly fast middle section complete with drones and an interestingly complex modulation, was dedicated to Lady Crampton, the daughter of another giant of English opera, Michael William Balfe.

[16] La Grace – Nocturne (1850)

With the title “Graziella” in Germany, La Grace, a charming little nocturne, is graceful throughout.

[17] Grande Fantaisie La Cracovienne (1842)

Composed for piano and orchestra in New Orleans in 1842, but only published in a version for solo piano, the Grande Fantaisie La Cracovienne begins with a long and dramatic exposition with original themes into which the melody of the Cracovienne is eventually introduced. After a bold statement of this theme, a set of brilliant variations follows, leading to a grand and exciting coda.

Peter Jaggard

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