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William Vincent Wallace (1812–1865)

by Catherine Mackerras

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William Vincent Wallace (1812-1865), musician, was born in Waterford, Ireland, the eldest son of the Irish band-sergeant of the 29th Regiment. At 8 he composed marches for his father's band; at 16 he was first violin in the Theatre Royal orchestra, Dublin; at 18 he was organist of the Thurles Roman Catholic Cathedral and taught piano at the Ursuline Convent. He fell in love with a pupil, Isabella Kelly, whose father consented to their marriage in 1831 on condition that Wallace became a Roman Catholic and took the name of Vincent. He returned to Dublin as sub-leader of the Theatre Royal orchestra; after hearing Paganini he practised night and day till he became a virtuoso.

In November 1835 he emigrated to Hobart Town with his wife and infant son, his sister Elisabeth, a soprano, and his brother Wellington, a flautist. After one concert the family went to Sydney in January 1836 and in Bridge Street opened the first Australian music school. Vincent also imported pianos for his musical repository in Hunter Street, and during 1837 he gave recitals in Sydney, Parramatta and Windsor, and was known as 'the Australian Paganini'. Governor (Sir) Richard Bourke was Wallace's constant patron, but the story that Bourke gave him 100 sheep as a fee for his first concert is apocryphal. Wallace was never a farmer; he has almost certainly been confused with William Wallace of Nithsdale.

In January 1838 at St Mary's Cathedral he organized the first music festival in Australia; in February he sailed secretly for Valparaiso, leaving debts of £2000. From 1838 to 1843 he allegedly had wild adventures in three continents although he certainly made a successful tour of the United States and helped to found the New York Philharmonic Society. In 1844 he was in Germany and Holland; in 1845 he gave piano recitals in London and his opera Maritana was triumphantly produced at Drury Lane, and later at Vienna and Covent Garden. Maritana reached Australia in 1849; there is no real evidence for the tradition that Wallace composed it either in Sydney or Tasmania. His Lurline (1860) earned £50,000 for the management of Covent Garden but nothing for Wallace; other operas were Matilda of Hungary, The Amber Witch and The Desert Flower, and the British Museum catalogue of smaller works fills a hundred pages.

Wallace had separated from his wife in Sydney; in 1850 he became an American citizen and went through a form of marriage in New York with Helen Stoepel (d.1887), a pianist, by whom he had two sons, both of whom committed suicide. He died in 1865 at Château de Bagen, Sauveterre de Comminges, Haute Garonne, but was buried in Kensal Green, London. His widow, Isabella, survived till 1900; his son William Vincent died a poor brother of the Charterhouse in 1909.

Wallace's sister, Elisabeth (b. Waterford 1814, d. Sydney 1878) settled in Sydney and married a singer, John Bushelle; she witnessed the Viennese première of Maritana in 1847 and appeared at Covent Garden in the title role in 1848.

A pen-and-ink sketch of Wallace, aged 42, was reproduced in the Illustrated London News, November 1845, and a water-colour portrait by Henshaw, 1853, is in the National Gallery, Dublin.

Wallace was a brilliant musician, but even his famous Maritana is now performed only by amateurs. As a man he was charming but unprincipled, and his habitual untruthfulness makes it hard to determine the real facts about him.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Berlioz, A Treatise Upon Modern Instrumentation and Orchestration, translated by M. Cowden Clarke (Lond, 1856)
  • A Pougin, William Vincent Wallace. Etude Biographique et Critique (Paris, 1866)
  • W. Spark, Musical Memories (Lond, 1888)
  • F. J. Sawyer, English Music 1604-1904 (Lond, 1906)
  • W. H. Grattan Flood, Wallace. A Memoir (Waterford, 1912)
  • R. Northcott, Opera Chatter (Lond, 1921)
  • W. Arundel Orchard, Music in Australia (Melb, 1952)
  • ‘Anecdotes of Vincent Wallace’, Theatre, vol 4, 1884, pp 316-18
  • W. H. Grattan Flood ‘William Vincent Wallace: A Centenary Notice’, Musical Times and Singing-Class Circular, July 1912, pp 448-49
  • S. Cole and W. H. Grattan Flood ‘William Vincent Wallace’, Musical Times and Singing-Class Circular, Sept 1912, pp 595-96
  • Hobart Town Courier, 6, 13 Nov, 4 Dec 1835, 8 Jan 1836.

Citation details

Catherine Mackerras, 'Wallace, William Vincent (1812–1865)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 17 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Waterford, Ireland


1865 (aged ~ 53)
Sauveterre de Comminges, France

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