William Wallace, namesake of the Scottish freedom fighter and patriot, was born in Greenock in the 3rd July 1860. As a composer, he went on to write a symphonic poem about his more famous compatriot.
(There is also a American – Canadian composer, born 1933, of the same name. Confusingly there was also a William Vincent Wallace, an Irish composer, but he died 5 years after the Greenock Wallace was born. Quirkily, there is another Scottish composer named after another national hero : Robert Bruce!)
This Greenock William Wallace was a remarkable man. He was a doctor and eye surgeon, a classical scholar, a painter, a poet and dramatist and of course a composer.
After studying ophthalmology at Glasgow University, he then decided on music and went to London to study at the Royal Academy of Music at the age of 29. He lasted 2 terms there, but taught himself afterwards.
He was regarded as a rebel of his day, constantly challenging the staid nature of the music schools, calling on them to give ‘a chance to even the most bizarre and so-called eccentric compositions that are sent in’. To this end he also challenged the classical model and its composers: “If Haydn and Mozart were capable of profound expression in their work they certainly gave scanty indication of it.” he said in his 1908 book The Threshold of Music.
He was a pioneer of the Symphonic poem. In 1905, on the 600th anniversary of the national hero’s death, Wallace composed Sir William Wallace, based on the tune of Scots Wha Hae.
Along with other Scottish themes, Wallace also used works of many European poets. He was also to use numerology as a basis to his Creation Symphony.
In the First World War, he returned to his medical profession temporarily as as an Inspector of ophthalmic units in Eastern Command, tending to the injured and dying at the Front. He was then in his fifties but treated around 19 000 cases and had only 3 weeks leave in the whole war!! Truly an exceptional man.
He died on the 16th December 1940.