Walton's Symphony No. 1
In the 1930s Walton was often called the 'white hope' of English music, was this justified?
Yes, because he was undoubtedly the most talented of his generation (which included Constant Lambert, for example). He was fortunate in his patrons, who included the Sitwells, and his name became known as a result of all the publicity surrounding the first performances of Façade in which Edith Sitwell recited her poems with Walton’s music as a commentary. He followed this with a string quartet played at Salzburg, the witty overture Portsmouth Point, the Viola Concerto and in 1931 the dramatic Leeds Festival oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast. Inevitably, a symphony was expected of him and he completed one in 1935, although it was performed without the finale in 1934.
Did he have many contemporary rivals in this field in the 1930s?
Although he did not live to complete it, Elgar was working on his Third Symphony in 1933. Bax already had five symphonies to his credit. E J Moeran was at work on his first and in 1935 Vaughan Williams’s Fourth caused a sensation. And there were others.
Walton said his First Symphony 'promises to be better than any work I have written hitherto'. Where do you rate it in his output?
Pretty high. It is melodically inventive, rhythmically exciting and dramatic and it is scored with immense virtuosity. One is conscious that it is a very personal utterance – we know that two women inspired it. The slow movement is especially beautiful.
How does this 1975 performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Adrian Boult compare with others?
The symphony has been very fortunate in the recording studio. The first recording was made by Sir Hamilton Harty shortly after the first performance and is therefore a historic document since he worked closely with Walton during composition. The recorded sound is of its time, but is still impressive. Walton himself recorded it in 1951 and we may take this as definitive in relation to tempi. He especially admired Andre Prévin’s recording and there are others by Malcolm Sargent and Bernard Haitink. Sir Adrian Boult recorded it in 1956 for Nixa with the Philharmonic Promenade Orchestra. When he was preparing for a Festival Hall performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in December 1975 (broadcast by the BBC and now featured as BBC Music Magazine’s Cover CD this month), he questioned Walton about certain points. The composer replied: 'I’ve been thro' the work with your Nixa record and tho' the record "qua record" (sound quality) is abysmal, you’ve got it all right.'
What do you think of Boult’s interpretation?
To be honest, I had forgotten how good it is. It is very strong structurally, the first movement is excitingly built up, the slow movement warmly lyrical and the finale majestic. Most surprisingly, the Presto, con malizia is bitingly savage and vicious. I say surprisingly because Boult was asked to repeat the symphony at the Proms in 1976 but refused (to Walton’s annoyance) because, as he told a friend, 'somehow I couldn’t face all that malice a second time and said so'.
Do you have any personal reminiscences of Walton?
Many. I knew him quite well and found him witty and entertaining. He was reticent about his own music but was outspoken and downright slanderous about some other composers’. But there was always a naughty twinkle in his eye.
Interview by Alice Pearson
Audio clip: Walton: Symphony No. 1 – Presto, con malizia
Walton: Symphony No. 1