Sir William Walton (March 29, 1902 – March 8, 1983)

William Walton's birthday (1902-83) was March 29 (Photo: Tully Potter CollectionWilliam Walton's birthday (1902-83) was March 29 (Photo: Tully Potter Collection)

William Walton was born on March 29, 1902. We mark the anniversary by re-visting the article that Edward Greenfield wrote in May 1983, a survey that looked back over the career of a composer whose unique voice is recognisable within a few bars. And to preface the piece we suggest a dozen unmissable Walton works in recommended recordings...

Violin Concerto James Ehnes (vn) Vancouver SO / Bramwell Tovey (Onyx) Buy from Amazon

Viola Concerto Lawrence Power (va) BBC Scottish SO / Ilan Volkov (Hyperion) Buy from Amazon

Cello Concerto Tim Hugh (vc) English Northern Sinfonia / Paul Daniel (Naxos) Buy from Amazon

Symphony No 1 LSO / André Previn (RCA) Buy from Amazon

Symphony No 2 Cleveland Orchestra / George Szell (Sony Classical) Buy from Amazon

Coronation Marches CBSO / Louis Frémaux (EMI) Buy from Amazon

Hindemith Variations Cleveland Orchestra / George Szell (Sony Classical) Buy from Amazon

Piano Quartet Peter Donohoe (pf) Maggini Qt (Naxos) Buy from Amazon

Coronation Te Deum St John's College Choir, Cambridge / Christopher Robinson (Naxos) Buy from Amazon

Façade Edith Sitwell (narr) Peter Pears (narr) English Opera Group Ensemble / Anthony Collins (Decca) Buy from Amazon

Belshazzar's Feast Gwynne Howell (bar) Bach Choir; Philharmonia / Sir David Willcocks (Chandos) Buy from Amazon

Troilus and Cressida Soloists; Chorus of Opera North; English Northern Sinfonia / Richard Hickox (Chandos) Buy from Amazon

From his earliest twenties an enfant terrible, for the last 30 and more years of his life an elder statesman, Sir William Walton enjoyed an extraordinary career. That transition from precocious iconoclast, as composer of the Façade ‘Entertainment’ the darling of trendy literary society in the 1920s, to major figurehead came with amazing speed, as it seemed inevitably. In the 1930s he represented a fresh new generation of English composers in a way that no rival quite matched, at once abrasive in a recognizably modern way, often witty and sharp, but unmistakably warm and communicative too. For many at that time and in the decades following Walton represented a bridge to new experience in 20th-century music. His 80th birthday celebrations last year triumphantly demonstrated that here was a living composer who inspired in the British public not just admiration or affection but real love.

That warm and natural acceptance was brought about in good measure by gramophone records, not just his own. Even in the days of 78rpm discs, when relatively little modern music was being put on record, Walton was well treated. In Gramophone (March 1982, page 1239) I outlined that early recording career from the time in 1929 when for the small new Decca company he conducted a chamber ensemble to accompany Edith Sitwell and Constant Lambert in 11 selected movements from Façade. Even before the Second World War he also had two of his major works on disc, both on Decca, the First Symphony recorded by Sir Hamilton Harty and the LSO and the Viola Concerto with Frederick Riddle as soloist, in which Walton conducted that same orchestra.

For the rival HMV label Walton with the LPO recorded on 78rpm the orchestral suites from Façade as well as Siesta, and from then on for many years it was with EMI that Walton made recordings of his own music. You might even say that the acceptance of Walton within the British Establishment came with his writing of the march Crown Imperial for the coronation of George VI in 1937 and his emergence on the HMV label, then very much an accolade when EMI was so dominant in the record world. In that he seemed to be following the path of Elgar, and though for many years it may have seemed a strange parallel to draw, we can now see even more clearly how in so many ways Walton follows from Elgar, not just a brilliant composer of ceremonial music (Walton in film music doing very much what Elgar did in his patriotic occasional pieces) but a composer at his finest in major symphonic works, not least concertos, and above all sharing with Elgar the enormous asset of having a style instantaneously identifiable in almost every bar.

Walton died at his home on the island of Ischia on March 8, a few weeks short of his 81st birthday. His latter-day status as grand old man of English music, a national institution, much decorated with honours including the Order of Merit, may have concealed the fact that the composer of Façade still lay there in his character. But where in his teens and early twenties when writing Façade the young Walton was always described as being quiet and painfully shy (no wonder in the company of the brilliant Sitwells, Constant Lambert and the like), his later status gave him the confidence to be a mischievous commentator in words. Tony Palmer's searching ITV film on Walton, At the haunted end of the day, was the more moving when one was given such a human portrait, not just of the public figure but of the wry commentator on himself and others. It was there that he revealed how he started writing music. As a boy chorister at Christ Church, Oxford, determined not to be sent back to Oldham with the threat of a career as a cotton clerk, he asked himself ‘What can I do to make myself interesting?’ Indifferent as an executant on whatever instrument, the boy came up with the answer: to compose. Was there ever an odder call from the Muse?

Yet even in that self-revelation I begin to suspect a hint of tongue-in-cheek. In his later years Walton's wry comments may well have had their truth spiced with a wit that spoke to the call of the moment. Many will remember his appearance on the BBC TV programme Face the music, for which his ‘Popular song’ from Façade provided the signature tune. Joseph Cooper as host asked Sir William deferentially what he thought of Façade nowadays, and after a pause and a twinkle of the eye there came back the answer: 'Well, it keeps me!' There speaks the canny Lancastrian, which for all his reluctance ever to live in that county or even visit it, he still remained to the end.

For many years he was very secretive over the details of his early life, not just the years in Oldham as the son of a music-teacher father and a singer mother, but his years as a budding composer, when before the Performing Rights Society came to his aid, he had to rely on help from others even to live. He had a series of helpers of angelic generosity over those years, but for a long time he felt understandably shy of admitting to what he himself – in Tony Palmer's film – described as spongeing. Later he felt free to be more explicit. One of my most treasured possessions is a copy of the 50th-anniversary edition of the Façade ‘Entertainment’ published by Oxford University Press. I presented it to Sir William for an inscription, having just published a long article about his early life in The Guardian. ‘To dear Ted’ he wrote, ‘who started the rot.’ The 'rot' later went much further, and one now eagerly awaits the authorized biography that Gillian Widdicombe has been writing for some years.

Whatever his early reputation for being silent and withdrawn, Walton developed into a great character in the world of music. One of my own favourite memories of him was a dry remark he made, when one day I met him over tea. He had just had a phone call from Sir Michael Tippett. ‘He tells me he's writing a new opera for Covent Garden,’ reported Walton. Then with a wicked grin he added, ‘I said to him, “Keep it simple, old man. Keep it simple!”’

Not that Walton, any more than Tippett, ever kept his music simple in the way that marked so many of the finest inspirations of Benjamin Britten, their most obvious rival. Walton, like Elgar, though from a musical background, was self-taught as a composer. Like Elgar he prided himself on becoming a supreme professional not just in the art of composition but more specifically in the use of instruments and an orchestra. If Britten's originality lies above all in the use of simple ingredients in new and often unexpected ways, and Tippett's in the wildness to which his inspiration leads him with energy undiminished even in his seventies, Walton's genius came to lie in the search for perfection. In the 1920s and 1930s he achieved his unique status – at a time when Britten and Tippett had hardly been heard of – by producing a series of major works, all of which combined high-voltage electricity with superb craftsmanship at every level. Though, for example, the first movement of the Violin Concerto, written for Jascha Heifetz n 1939, is profoundly emotional with yearningly beautiful melodic ideas, its structure is as formally perfect – to quote the image which Frank Howes used in his detailed study The music of William Walton (OUP: rev. 1973) – as an Italian garden. Bar-lengths for each section are precisely balanced with the soloist's cadenza exactly in the middle.

That is typical. The Walton masterpieces of the pre-war period, the Viola Concerto, Belshazzar 's Feast, the First Symphony and tie Violin Concerto, were – so he said himself – linked with love affairs, and for all their use of grinding dissonance and jagged cross-rhythms, including jazzy syncopations, they were fundamentally Romantic. During the Second World War he produced no major work. The overture Scapino was written for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1940 and recorded by that orchestra under Frederick Stock, but otherwise Walton concentrated on what he described as his war work, writing music for films, not just the first of the Olivier Shakespeare series, Henry V, but such war-based films as The First of the Few (with Spitfire Prelude and Fugue as spin-off for concert use) and Went the day well. For Olivier after the war he wrote comparably memorable music for Hamlet and Richard III, and more recently wrote a score for the film The Battle of Britain, only a fragment of which was actually used when Walton refused to expand his 25 minutes of music to a full LP length. It is good news that that score has now been released from the film company's copyright and is being recorded afresh for EMI, along with other Walton film music.

In 1948, on a trip to Buenos Aires, Walton, a bachelor still in his mid-forties, met Susana Gil, half his age, fell in love and married her immediately. It was a marriage which – as the Palmer film witnessed graphically – was blissfully happy. In music the direct result was the last of the great love-affair Walton works, the opera Troilus and Cressida. It is on records rather than in the opera house that that richly traditional opera has been most effectively celebrated, not just in the complete recording made live during the Covent Garden staging with Janet Baker is Cressida, but perhaps more strikingly still in the excerpts recorded by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Walton's baton with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as the heroine, using the original version. Sadly Schwarzkopf never played the role on stage.

Later for Aldeburgh Walton wrote the delightful one-act comic opera based on Chekhov, The Bear, full of charming reference and parodies. That was just one of the steady stream of fine, superbly crafted works – the Cello Concerto, the Second Symphony, the Hindemith Variations and much else – which Walton composed in the happy seclusion of his lovely home in Ischia. If he wrote at lower voltage than before the war and remained content to use his ever-recognizable style, he – always a slow, painstaking composer –  came to produce a corpus of works far more extensive than earlier seemed likely. A composer's final reputation over the centuries depends as a rule on a handful of masterpieces. It would be surprising if Walton's mighty handful failed to qualify him for immortality.

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