By Gary Barton
Whenever I hear William Walton's name, the first work that comes to mind is Coronation March "Crown Imperial," a stirring piece commissioned by the British Broadcasting Corporation for the investiture of George VI that had its premiere May 9, 1937. It seems to somehow embody the glory of empire and pomp that once was Great Britain.
Walton was born just after the turn of the century on March 29, 1902, to a musical family. An early important force in his life was Dr. Thomas Strong, Dean of Christ Church Cathedral and later Bishop of Oxford, who was somewhat liberal and could be seen at concerts of contemporary music. Dr. Strong was therefore greatly interested when his organist drew his attention to the musical precocity of one of his choirboys, who spent much of his spare time composing music. The Dean was sufficiently impressed by these untutored efforts to engage the interest of Dr. H. P. Allen, then a professor of music at Oxford and always a willing helper of deserving youth. From him, Walton received his only professional training.
Dr. Strong further befriended the boy by securing his entry into Oxford University as an undergraduate at a young age when his voice broke and he had to leave the choir. This was toward the end of World War I, when the comparative emptiness of the colleges made such a relaxation of the rules easier. It was at Oxford that Walton met Sacheverall Sitwell. He became very close to him and his siblings, Osbert (the elder brother) and Edith. Walton would later fashion some of her poems into a performance piece entitled Façade.
As to the physical strength of Walton's deceptively delicate frame, Sir Osbert records that somehow Walton managed, unaided and without any special tackle, to conjure a large grand piano up a narrow staircase to his room at college after the movers had abandoned it on the floor below. All he would vouchsafe in explanation of this feat was, "I did it with a bit of string."
There were eighteen poems in the original Façade and it was indeed a highly original and accomplished composition for a young man of 20 to produce. Five years later, Walton arranged several sections of the work - Polka, Valse, Swiss Yodeling Song, Tango-Passodoble and Tarantella Sevilliana - for a larger orchestra. The suite gained a wide popularity and it was actually made into a ballet in Germany two years before Frederick Ashton's production of 1931.
Façade and Portsmouth Point, a concert overture based upon a drawing by Thomas Rowlandson of the British navel arsenal opposite the Isle of Wight, are not fully representative of their composer as we now know him. They were products of the effect upon him of the "post-armistice period" in England, when the relaxation of strain produced a reaction against serious mindedness.
Walton's Sinfonia Concertante for piano and orchestra premiered in 1926 with Ernst Ansermet conducting. In 1929, at a "Proms" concert, another work was produced which marked its composer's arrival at mature mastery. No one could say that the Viola Concerto, which remains Walton's most beautiful poetic utterance, was either frivolous or trivial. The soloist at the first performance was Paul Hindemith, then distinguished as much for his viola playing as his compositions. Later, as recognition of Hindemith's compositional skills, Walton wrote his Variations on a Theme by Hindemith, which drew thematic material from Hindemith's Cello Concerto No. 2. Walton later realized that the "naggingly familiar" theme reminded him of one from Hindemith's Symphony "Mathis der Maler," on which Walton almost entirely based the seventh variation. It was perhaps the Viola Concerto that encouraged the Leeds Festival Committee to commission Walton to write an oratorio for its 1931 season. The committee can hardly have reckoned that they would receive a work so powerfully dramatic and original as Belshazzar's Feast. Osbert Sitwell collaborated on this work, which is based on the Book of Daniel and the Psalms and put Walton squarely in the front of his generation in the musical world.
A symphony was produced, not without difficulty, during the years 1932-35. It was given its first performance in December 1934 - without the Finale. As a London Times critic remarked, "His problem has been, and is: Whither does all this lead and what sort of a movement can bring the solution of the many issues raised in the first three?" The work was completed in August of 1935 and was greeted with warm enthusiasm. Walton wrote, "In some ways I think the last movement to be the best of the lot." He called the whole symphony "the climax of my youth."
As mentioned before, Coronation March "Crown Imperial" was composed in 1937. The next year, Jascha Heifetz commissioned a violin concerto. Walton traveled to the United States to confer with the violinist and the score was completed in June of 1939. The outbreak of another war prevented Walton from attending the premiere. The piece was first heard in England two years later.
During World War II, Walton primarily composed film music. He had already in 1935 written music for the production of Escape Me Never. The wartime movies, The First of the Few, Next of Kin, and Lawrence Olivier's production of Henry V, include some excellent incidental music, much of which has been preserved beyond the ephemeral life of the films themselves in concert suites.
In 1940, Walton orchestrated music by J.S. Bach for Ashton's The Wise Virgins. This year also produced Scapino, a comedy overture for orchestra inspired by two etchings by Callot that the composer pasted into his manuscript score. Works composed between 1947 and 1949 include two chamber pieces: the String Quartet in a minor and the Sonata for Violin and Piano. In 1954, the opera Troilus and Cressida, which is based on a poem by Chaucer, was completed. No opera had aroused in London such advanced interest and publicity since Britten's Peter Grimes almost twenty years earlier.
Walton continued to compose until the end of his life. In his later years, he lived on the island of Ischia, near Naples. He died there in 1983.
It is regrettable that neither Jonathon D. Kramer in his Listen to the Music nor Harold C. Schonberg's The Lives of the Great Composers choose to even mention Walton's important contributions to 20th century music. However, Howard Hartog, in his widely used European Music in the Twentieth Century (Praeger Paperbacks), sums up Walton quite accurately when he writes, "He continues the Elgarian tradition by his orchestral brilliance and a flair for occasional music of a ceremonial nature. Although in his youth he was classed as a revolutionary, today many regard him as the musical embodiment of the national genius for compromise. He (was) truly neither rebel nor conservative but an example of that type of artist whose position is the most difficult of all to estimate: a man of original mind, sensitive not only to his native traditions but also to contemporary trends, who in assimilating both pursues a strictly personal path in which innovation is incidental rather than fundamental."
The Essential Walton
Some recording recommendations of Walton's works include Façade I and II (Arabesque Z6699) with Lynn Redgrave doing the recitation and Joseph Silverstein conducting the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Belshazzer's Feast and Symphony No. 1 are on BBC Legends 4097.
If you are an admirer of Walton's film music, there are several recordings to add to your collection: "Walton Film Music Vol. 4" (Chandos 8841) with Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and speaker John Gielgud includes music from Richard III, Macbeth and "A Shavian Sequence," which is drawn from the film, Major Barbara." "Walton Film Music Vol. 2" (Chandos 8870) carries the Prelude and Fugue "Spitfire," A Wartime Sketchbook (arranged from various scores), Escape Me Never, Three Sisters and The Battle of Britain. On a disc titled simply "Walton Film Music," Carl Davis conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra in performances of Henry V Choral Suite, The Battle of Britain and an interlude from Troilus and Cressida along with music from As You Like It. (EMI special import 65585).
The Eastman Wind Ensemble, Frederic Fennell conducting does a stirring reading of Coronation March "Crown Imperial" on Mercury 432009.
For the budget-minded there is a two-CD set on EMI 73371, which is a Walton bonanza. It includes the Concerto for Cello, Scapino: A Comedy Overture, the Violin Concerto, and Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2.
Walton's Concerto for Cello and Edward Elgar's Concerto for Cello in e minor are available on Sony 39541 with Yo-Yo Ma as soloist and the London Symphony Orchestra, André Previn conducting.
For the shortened version of Façade, try Sony 62400. Vera Zorina is an unforgettable declaimer and as a bonus you get Holst's The Planets. Leonard Bernstein conducts the New York Philharmonic in the Holst; Eugene Ormandy conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra in the Walton.
Variations on a Theme by Hindemith is available with George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra on a CD that includes as well Hindemith's Symphony "Mathis der Maler" (which contains the theme that inspired the variations) and Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber. The "Mathis" is an old favorite performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy conducting (Sony 53258).
There is actually quite a bit of Walton available on CD today. I urge you to use my suggestions as points of departure, and explore his music on your own.