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Walton, William

| Wall-ton |

From gritty, complex symphonies to hugely popular film scores, the music of Walton is notably tricky to pin down. And that, says Malcolm Hayes, is part of its enduring appeal

Who is William Walton

Who is William Walton?

William Walton is one of England’s most eminent and best composers. When early performances of Walton’s Façade astonished concert-goers in the 1920s, its brilliantly talented young composer was seen in cultural circles as representing the essence of contemporary modishness.

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Four decades later, when Walton conducted the first performance of his Variations on a Theme of Hindemith at the Royal Festival Hall, critical consensus was that music of this later-than-late-Romantic variety was now old hat. Today, a small but choice group of Walton’s works – the three string concertos, the first of his two symphonies and his oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast – keep a firm place in the international repertory. But there is also much more of his music that shows Walton at his rewarding best. Fashion loves to categorise. And the individuality at work in Walton’s music makes it specially resistant to the categorisation process.

When was William Walton born?

He was born in 1902 in the Lancashire town of Oldham – the son of a music teacher who, when young Willie was 10, spotted a newspaper advertisement for probationer choristers at Oxford’s Christ Church Cathedral Choir.

The lad from Oldham turned out to be a musical prodigy: his choral anthem Drop, drop, slow tears, written in its first version in 1916, has been described by his biographer Michael Kennedy as ‘a genuine Walton experience’.

When did William Walton meet the Sitwells?

At 16, Walton entered Christ Church College itself. A fellow-undergraduate was Sacheverell Sitwell, who introduced his gifted writer-siblings, Osbert and Edith, to the remarkable young musician. Failed (non-musical) examinations in 1920 meant that Walton’s scholarship was not renewed, so the Sitwells took him to live in Osbert’s London home in Carlyle Square.

When did Walton compose Façade?

There, Walton and Edith Sitwell together devised the words-and-music ‘entertainment’ that would become Façade. This received its legendary private premiere in the Sitwells’ Carlyle Square drawing-room in 1922, with Edith declaiming her poems with a megaphone through a hole in a drop-curtain, behind which Walton conducted the music; an authentic succès de scandale was duly achieved. But Façade’s fantastical range of moods and colours related to something deeper than a virtuoso gift for parody.

Two years earlier, the Sitwells had for the first time taken Walton on one of their culture-hunting trips to Italy. The experience was life-changing, from the moment the train emerged from the Alps into the sunlight. ‘I’ve never forgotten it,’ he said decades later: ‘a new world’. From then on, his roots in English tradition coexisted with an anti-parochial, cosmopolitan streak awakened by that first encounter with the Mediterranean south.

This unique mix of elements presented both an opportunity and a problem to a young composer trying to make his way in a conservative English musical scene. Façade, Walton sensed, was an unrepeatable idea. Looking for a way forward, he came up with the roistering, rhythmically energised overture Portsmouth Point (1925), which brought him growing visibility, and with it a publisher. When Serge Diaghilev turned down a score which Walton had composed in the hope that the great impresario’s Ballets russes company might take it up, it soon re-emerged as a sinfonia concertante for piano and orchestra. The result was curiously experimental – as if the styles of Rachmaninov and Prokofiev were being filtered through those of Stravinsky and Falla, yet with a surging inventive strength very much Walton’s own.

What piece is Walton particularly famous for?

Early maturity then arrived with the work regarded by many as Walton’s quintessential masterpiece. In the Viola Concerto of 1927, coruscating rhythmic drive, poignant Romanticism and moody jazz-inflected harmony are drawn together into a lyrical statement whose inventiveness and emotional depth Walton never surpassed. Now came the sequence of masterworks on which his reputation today rests. Belshazzar’s Feast, written for the 1931 Leeds Festival, brought off a spectacularly successful fusion of jazz-age rhythmic swagger with the choral and orchestral grandeur of Berlioz.

The First Symphony charted, through four turbulent movements, the course of Walton’s troubled relationship with Baroness Imma von Doernberg and its eventual succession by his more serene love for Alice, Viscountess Wimborne (more than 20 years his senior). In 1934, feeling unable to complete the work, Walton allowed its first three movements to be premiered by themselves. Then Alice’s arrival in his life released the finale’s surge of creative exhilaration, and the completed work was performed in 1935.

Which films did William Walton compose scores for?

Walton had by now found an additional composing skill: the first of his film scores, Escape Me Never, was composed in 1934. During a winter together on the Amalfi coast, Alice persuaded Walton to turn down some lucrative film-score offers, including one from Hollywood, and to concentrate instead on the Violin Concerto requested by Jascha Heifetz. But World War II saw him come into his own as a film composer. A major success was The First of the Few (1942), about designer RJ Mitchell’s battle against terminal illness to create the Spitfire fighter plane; Walton later arranged the stirring title theme and busy aircraft-factory sequence as Spitfire Prelude and Fugue. In 1944 came Laurence Olivier’s film of Henry V, featuring Walton’s finest score for the medium.

By now his world was changing around him more rapidly than he could have realised. In 1945, Britten’s opera Peter Grimes effectively rewrote the rule-book as to where English music was now considered to be at. Then, in 1948, came disaster: Alice died of lung cancer.

Who was William Walton’s second wife, Susana Walton?

Later that year, during a British Council visit to Argentina, Walton met and promptly married the much younger Susana Gil Passo, and together they settled on the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples. Professionally and personally, it was a happy decision. Walton knew he would not enjoy living surrounded by a caucus of Anglo-Saxon opinion constantly telling him what a wonderful composer Britten was, however much he agreed with that assessment. And as Susana put it: ‘No one in England could accept that William had gone and married this Indian from South America.’

When did Walton venture into opera and compose Troilus and Cressida?

While the style of Walton’s music during his Ischia years did not change, the tone did, into something subtler and more finely wrought. The major project immediately after his move to the island was his full-length opera Troilus and Cressida – apart from some music for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, work on this occupied him exclusively for seven years up to the premiere at Covent Garden in 1954. In the mid-1940s, he and Alice had often discussed his wish to compose what he regarded as a true ‘singer’s opera’, at once modern and traditional, rooted in his love of the Italian operatic repertory – an idea in its way as radical as Peter Grimes, and entirely different in approach. But the opera’s growth became mired in intractable problems. It had been Alice’s idea to bring together Walton and his librettist, the poet Christopher Hassall, but despite experience of versifying Ivor Novello’s shows, Hassall turned out to be unable to grasp what was required of an opera libretto, especially in dramatic terms; and the subject, set in the Trojan War and based mainly on Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde, turned out to be difficult to adapt. Walton therefore found himself effectively re-writing Hassall’s constant re-draftings by proxy. It might have been better to have started from scratch, but in Walton’s mind, Troilus and Cressida was his and Alice’s opera, and to abandon it after her death must have been emotionally impossible.

Casting problems and Sir Malcolm Sargent’s apparently indifferent conducting blighted the opening run at Covent Garden, and the opera’s failure to establish itself was the major creative disappointment of Walton’s life. Trying perhaps to over-compensate for the libretto’s shortcomings, he produced a score whose stop-start theatrical pacing and patchy inspiration are major problems in performance. Yet the set-pieces, especially those for Cressida, contain some of the finest music that Walton was ever to create. And the glowing colouration of the orchestral score is a phenomenon in its own right.

What else did Walton compose?

Other works of this period, among them the Cello Concerto, Partita and Hindemith Variations, were more successful. The Second Symphony, whose extreme technical demands contributed to its damp squib of a premiere in 1960, was given a spectacular rebirth by George Szell’s brilliant performances and recording with the Cleveland Orchestra a year later. The Bear showed Walton to be as much at home in the notoriously difficult field of comic opera as he evidently had not been in the tragic genre of Troilus and Cressida. Cancer treatment in 1966 – itself successful, but damaging to the rest of his health – then undermined his productivity and, worse, his creative confidence. Several years of on-off work on a Third Symphony came to nothing.

Yet there are superb, if smaller-scale, late works too: Capriccio burlesco (1968), with its needlepoint virtuosity, scintillating even by Walton standards; the luminous orchestral mastery of Improvisations on an Impromptu of Benjamin Britten (1969), based on the slow-movement theme of Britten’s Piano Concerto; Façade 2 (1977), a flawless re-working of numbers rejected 50 years earlier during Façade’s revision process.

When did William Walton die?

In March 1983, Walton telephoned conductor Owain Arwel Hughes, who had asked for a choral work for the Huddersfield Festival, to say he was planning to compose a Stabat Mater. He died the next day in Ischia, leaving an output whose character – a particular kind of cosmopolitan modern Romanticism, articulated with technical mastery – remains as appealing as ever. And as pleasingly impossible to pigeonhole.  

What was Walton’s composing style and influences?

Jazz

Walton’s rise to prominence coincided with the 1920s jazz age. This influenced his music’s liking for snappy cross-rhythms, as in Belshazzar’s Feast – and also its distinctive harmonic tang, described routinely (and no less accurately for that) as ‘bitter-sweet’.

Italy

Walton’s lifelong love of Italy went much deeper than the standard Anglo-Saxon vogue for contented living in Chianti-shire. The sunlit peninsula’s sounds, colours and moods, from roguish to dreamily lyrical, were central to his music, particularly after his move to the island of Ischia in 1949.

Romanticism

Many of Walton’s works amount to a richly inventive dialogue between two seemingly disparate musical impulses: a forward-looking modernist streak, with complex rhythms and jazz-inflected harmony; and a deep vein of lyrical romanticism, relating to his love of Elgar and Italian opera.

Façade… and façades 

Façade’s title makes the point nicely. From the start, a phenomenal, magpie-like gift for musical parody and mask-wearing was a Waltonian trademark, reaching a pinnacle in his Chekhov-based chamber opera The Bear, premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1967.

Read our reviews of the latest William Walton recordings 

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Top illustration by Matt Herring