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Sheet Music of the Week: Winter Polka Edition

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"Winter Polka" by Wm. Vincent Wallace. new York: WIlliam Hall and Son, 1983.
“Winter Polka” by Wm. Vincent Wallace. New York: William Hall and Son, 1853.

The following is a guest post from retired cataloger Sharon McKinley.

I am such a sucker for a beautiful sheet music cover. I’ve been attracted by pretty women, handsome men, cute kittens, and gorgeous landscapes. So this decorative cover certainly caught my eye while I was perusing some winter tunes.

Winter Polka, or, Recollections of a Merry Sleigh Ride,” is a, shall we say, somewhat frenetic piano piece written by Wm. Vincent Wallace (1812-1865) and published by Wm. Hall in New York, 1853. It’s dedicated to Maurice Strakosch (1825-1887), a Czech-born pianist, singer, and impresario.

It’s a busy cover, with bucolic sleighing scenes tucked up at the top of the page, and what appears to be a race (or maybe just a traffic jam) in front of large but boring public buildings. Is that a Conestoga wagon there in the melee?

But what really got my attention was the first page of music, with its huge runs of 32nd and 64th notes. And to make it even more difficult, they’re in chords! This is NOT something I would want to try at home.

I’m sure some of you are sitting there thinking, “Lemme at it!”, but I’m betting that not every amateur would really want to tackle this piece. True, the tempo marking in the introduction is A Piacere, which means you may play it as fast or slowly as you like. But later on, Velocissimo can only mean “really, really fast!” So it looks like Mr. Wallace was trying to create a bravura piece for an advanced performer.

The dedicatee, Mr. Strakosch, fills the bill nicely. He toured Europe as a pianist in his younger days. Wallace was a successful opera composer, and also wrote and performed virtuoso piano music. What a full (if short) life he had! Irish by birth, he married twice (apparently without having divorced his first wife), and lived in places as varied as Australia and New York City. He was well-known at the time this work appeared, and it is not a stretch to imagine Strakosch playing his compositions. Such virtuosic playing was very popular in the 19th century (think Liszt, whose dates of 1811-1886 match up nicely). There was obviously a market of eager performers out there for such over-the-top pieces as this, and Wallace was happy to create music for them. Is it good music? Not necessarily, but it sure filled a niche, and it fits my winter theme beautifully. So enjoy playing it, or just marveling at it.

Bonus: His piano music may have been forgotten (I actually couldn’t find this piece in any works list), but his operas were still being performed in the early 1900s. Here’s a recording from 1910 or 1911 of selections from Maritana (1845).

Sources consulted:

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