William Walton

William Walton

Sir William Turner Walton, OM (March 29, 1902–March 8, 1983) was a British composer and conductor.

His style was influenced by the works of Stravinsky and Prokofiev as well as jazz music, and is characterized by rhythmic vitality, bittersweet harmony, sweeping Romantic melody and brilliant orchestration. His output includes orchestral and choral works, chamber music and ceremonial music, as well as notable film scores. His earliest works, especially Edith Sitwell's "Façade" brought him notoriety as a modernist, but it was with orchestral symphonic works and the oratorio "Belshazzar's Feast" that he gained international recognition.

He was knighted in 1951, and was admitted to the Order of Merit in 1967. He died in Ischia, Italy, where he had settled in 1949.


Early life and rise to fame

Walton was born into a musical family, [Kennedy, Michael "Portrait of Walton" Oxford University Press, 1989 ISBN 0-19-816705-9 p5] in Oldham, Lancashire, England. [cite web|url=http://www.oup.co.uk/music/repprom/walton/|title=Walton|publisher=oup.co.uk|date=2007|accessdate=2007-09-13] At the age of ten, Walton was accepted as a chorister at Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, and he subsequently entered Christ Church of the University of Oxford as an undergraduate at the unusually early age of sixteen [Kennedy, p.6/7] . He was largely self-taught as a composer (poring over new scores in the Ellis Library, notably those by Stravinsky, Debussy, Sibelius and Roussel), but received some tutelage from Hugh Allen, the cathedral organist. [Kennedy, p.9/10] At Oxford Walton befriended two poets — Sacheverell Sitwell and Siegfried Sassoon — who would prove influential in publicizing his music. [Kennedy, p.14] Little of Walton's juvenilia survives, but the choral anthem "A Litany", written when he was just fifteen, exhibits striking harmonies and voice-leading which was more advanced than that of many older contemporary composers in Britain. Perhaps the most daring harmonic features of the work are the pungent augmented-chord inflections, notably in the striking final cadence.

Walton left Oxford without a degree in 1920 for failing Responsions [Kennedy, p.11] , to lodge in London with the literary Sitwell siblings — Sacheverell, Osbert and Edith — as an 'adopted, or elected, brother' [Kennedy, p.16] . Through the Sitwells, Walton became familiar with many of the most important figures in British music between the World Wars, particularly his fellow composer, Constant Lambert, and also in the arts, notably Noel Coward, Lytton Strachey, Rex Whistler, Peter Quennell, Cecil Beaton and others. Walton's first reputation was one of notoriety, built on his ground-breaking musical adaptation of Edith Sitwell's "Façade" poems. The 1923 first public performance of the jazz-influenced "Façade" resulted in Walton being branded an avant-garde modernist (the critic Ernest Newman described him thus: 'as a musical joker he is a jewel of the first water'), though the first performances stimulated a considerable amount of controversy. An early string quartet gained only slight international recognition, including a performance at the 1923 festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music in Salzburg, with a much appreciative Alban Berg in attendance.

During the 1920s, Walton made a modest income playing piano at jazz clubs, but spent most of his time composing in the Sitwells' attic. The orchestral overture "Portsmouth Point" (which he dedicated to Sassoon) was the first work to point toward his eventual accomplishments, including a strong rhythmic drive, extensive syncopation and a dissonant but predominantly tonal harmonic language. It was the Viola Concerto of 1929, however, which catapulted him to the forefront of British classical music, its bittersweet melancholy proving quite popular; it remains a cornerstone of the solo viola repertoire. This success was followed by equally acclaimed works: the massive choral cantata "Belshazzar's Feast" (1931), the Symphony No. 1 (1935), the coronation march "Crown Imperial" (1937), and the Violin Concerto (1939). Each of these works remains firmly entrenched in the repertoire today. Though "Belshazzar's Feast" is a cornerstone of the repertoire of any up-and-coming choral society, the First Symphony remains a challenge even to professional orchestras without generous rehearsal time to devote to it.

The Symphony No. 1 (written 1931-35) had an unusual genesis: Walton was experiencing a tempestuous relationship with Imma von Doernberg, who finally left him for the Hungarian doctor Tibor Csato. The turbulent emotions and high-voltage energy of the Symphony were the fruit of the events surrounding its conception, with an eloquent, dramatic first movement, a stinging, malicious Scherzo and a thoroughly melancholic slow movement. But the finale is totally different in outlook, being almost Elgarian in its ceremonial jubilation (although the two fugal sections clearly nod towards Paul Hindemith). It is evident to the listener that a cloud has lifted, and this is explained by the fact that Walton became stuck after the slow movement. His new relationship with Alice Wimborne provided the musical impetus and inspiration for the last movement — although he still dedicated the Symphony as a whole to Imma von Doernberg. In musical terms, the work is a landmark of English composition and represents the peak of Walton's symphonic thinking. The two composers in favour in 1930s England were Beethoven and Sibelius, advocated by Constant Lambert in his book "Music Ho!". Walton cleverly draws on both sources: the first movement is written in Beethovenian sonata form, and the developmental procedures clearly derive from Beethoven (almost 'beating the themes to death'). But around this skeletal frame, the movement is shot through with smaller Sibelius-like motifs (such as the opening horn call) which run throughout the movement and bind it together. The thematic rigour and shattering emotional power of the movement — and the Symphony as a whole — may be attributed to this unique method of musical construction. [ Benjamin Chewter, undergraduate dissertation, University of Cambridge 2006 ]

After World War II

During World War II, Walton was granted leave from military service in order to compose music for propagandistic films, such as "The First of the Few" (1942), and Laurence Olivier's adaptation of Shakespeare's "Henry V" (1944), which Winston Churchill encouraged Olivier to adapt as if it were a piece of morale-boosting propaganda. By the mid-1940s, the rise to fame of younger composers such as Benjamin Britten substantially curtailed Walton's reception among music critics, though the public always received his music enthusiastically. After composing a second string quartet (1946), his strongest achievement in the world of chamber music, Walton dedicated the considerable period of seven years to his three-act tragic opera, "Troilus and Cressida" (1947-1954). The opera was not widely acclaimed, and it was from this point that Walton's reputation as an old-fashioned composer became confirmed.

Walton also composed the music for two more Shakespeare-Olivier films - the Academy Award-winning "Hamlet", and "Richard III". Walton, however, did not win Oscars for any of his Shakespeare-based scores.

After "Troilus and Cressida", Walton returned to orchestral music, composing in rapid succession the Cello Concerto (1956), the Symphony No. 2 (1960), and his masterpiece of the post-war period, the Variations on a Theme by Hindemith (1963). His music from the 1960s shows a great reluctance to accept the post-war avant-garde trends espoused by Pierre Boulez and others, as Walton preferred to compose in the post-Romantic style which he had found most rewarding. Indeed, he was far from forgotten, having been knighted in 1951 and received the Order of Merit in 1967. His one-act comic opera, "The Bear", was well received at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1967, and commissions came from as far afield as the New York Philharmonic ("Capriccio burlesco", 1968), and the San Francisco Symphony ("Improvisations on an Impromptu of Benjamin Britten", 1969). His song-cycles from this period were premiered by artists as illustrious as Peter Pears ("Anon. in love", 1960) and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf ("A Song for the Lord Mayor's Table", 1962).

Walton was commissioned to write the score for the 1969 film Battle of Britain. The music was conducted by Malcolm Arnold. However, the music department at United Artists objected that the score was too short. As a result, a further score was commissioned from Ron Goodwin. Producer S. Benjamin Fisz and actor Sir Laurence Olivier protested this decision, and Olivier threatened to take his name from the credits. In the end, one segment of the Walton score, titled "The Battle in the Air", which framed the climactic air battles of 15 September 1940, was retained in the final cut. The Walton score was played with no sound effects of aircraft motors or gunfire, giving this sequence a transcendent, lyrical quality. Tapes of the Walton score were believed lost forever until being rediscovered in 1990. Since then the score has been restored and released on compact disc.

In his final decade, Walton found composition increasingly difficult. He repeatedly tried to compose a third symphony for André Previn, but later abandoned the work. His final works are mostly re-orchestrations or revisions of earlier music, and liturgical choral music. He had settled on the island of Ischia in Italy in 1949 with his Argentinian wife Susana Gil, and it was at his home there that he died in 1983. Since his death, Walton's music has gained a resurgence of attention, both in live performance and recordings. Indeed, as the history of post-war classical music continues to be re-evaluated, Walton is seen less as an old-fashioned representative of a lost era, and more as a strong individualist who wrote in an attractive, personal idiom.

Walton was knighted in 1951 and appointed to the Order of Merit in 1967.



*"Troilus and Cressida" (1954, to a libretto by Christopher Hassall )
*"The Bear", one-act opera (1967, based on the play translated as "The Bear" or "The Boor" by Anton Chekhov)


*"The Wise Virgins" (1940, based on music by J. S. Bach)
*"The Quest" (1943, written for Frederick Ashton)

Orchestral works

*Symphony No. 1 (1935, written for Hamilton Harty)
*Symphony No. 2 "Liverpool" (1960, commissioned by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Society)
*"Portsmouth Point", concert overture (1925)
*"Façade" Suites for Orchestra (1926 and 1938, arranged from "Façade")
*"Crown Imperial", ceremonial march (1937, written for the coronation of George VI)
*"Scapino" Overture (1940)
*"Music for Children" (1941, orchestrated from "Duets for Children")
*"Spitfire Prelude and Fugue" (1942, from the film "The First of the Few")
*"Orb and Sceptre", ceremonial march (1953, written for the coronation of Elizabeth II)
*"Johannesburg Festival Overture" (1956)
*Partita for Orchestra (1957)
*Variations on a Theme by Hindemith (1963)
*"Capriccio burlesco" (1968)
*Improvisations on an Impromptu by Benjamin Britten (1969)
*Sonata for String Orchestra (1971, orchestrated from String Quartet No. 2)

Concertante works

*Sinfonia Concertante, for piano and orchestra (1927)
*Viola Concerto (1929, written for Lionel Tertis but premiered by Paul Hindemith)
*Violin Concerto (1939, written for Jascha Heifetz)
*Cello Concerto (1956, written for Gregor Piatigorsky)

Choral music

*Works for Chorus and Orchestra
**"Belshazzar's Feast" (1931)
**"In Honour of the City of London" (1937)
**"Coronation Te Deum" (1952, written for the coronation of Elizabeth II)
**"Gloria" (1961)
*Works for Chorus and Organ
**"The Twelve", to a text by W. H. Auden (1965)
**Anglican service music, including "Missa Brevis" (1966) and "Jubilate Deo" (1972)
*Works for Unaccompanied Chorus
**"A Litany" (1916)
**"Set me as a seal upon thine heart" (1938)
**"Where does the uttered Music go?" (1946, written for a memorial service for Henry Wood)
**"Cantico del sole" (1974)
**four carols, including "What cheer?" (1961)

Chamber music

*Piano Quartet (1921)
*String Quartet (occasionally called "No. 1") (1922)
*Duets for Children, for piano duet (1940)
*String Quartet in A minor (occasionally called "No. 2") (1946)
*Violin Sonata, 1947–9. Revised considerably after the premiere, 1949–50, written for Yehudi Menuhin and Louis Kentner
*Five Bagatelles, for solo guitar (1971, written for Julian Bream and dedicated to his close friend Malcolm Arnold)
*Passacaglia, for solo cello (1980, written for Mstislav Rostropovich)

olo vocal music

*"Façade", for reciter and chamber ensemble (1922, subsequently revised, based on poems by Edith Sitwell)
*Three Songs, for voice and piano (1932, arranged from "Façade")
*"Anon. in love", song-cycle for tenor and guitar (1960, written for Peter Pears and Julian Bream)
*"A Song for the Lord Mayor's Table", song-cycle for soprano and piano (1962, premiered by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Gerald Moore)
*six songs for voice and piano

Film scores

Note: Dates listed are of musical composition, not film release.
*"Escape Me Never", directed by Paul Czinner (1934)
*"As You Like It", directed by Paul Czinner (1936)
*"Dreaming Lips", directed by Paul Czinner (1937)
*"A Stolen Life", directed by Paul Czinner (1938)
*"Major Barbara", directed by Gabriel Pascal (1941)
*"The Next of Kin", directed by Thorold Dickinson (1941)
*"The Foreman Went to France", directed by Charles Frend (1942)
*"The First of the Few", directed by and starring Leslie Howard (1942)
*"Went the Day Well?", directed by Alberto Cavalcanti (1942)
*"Henry V", directed by and starring Laurence Olivier (1944)
*"Hamlet", directed by and starring Laurence Olivier (1947)
*"Richard III", directed by and starring Laurence Olivier (1955)
*"Battle of Britain", directed by Guy Hamilton (1969; apart from the "Battle in the Air" sequence, the score was dropped before the film was released, and replaced with one by Ron Goodwin)
*"Three Sisters", directed by Laurence Olivier (1969)

Incidental music

*"Christopher Columbus", music for the radio play by Louis MacNeice (1942)
*various music for theater and television



External links

* [http://www.williamwalton.net/ William Walton.net] - including programme notes, articles, discography, and complete works list
* [http://www.waltontrust.org.uk/ William Walton Trust]
* Walton pages at [http://www.oup.co.uk/music/repprom/walton/ Oxford University Press]
* [http://www.npg.org.uk/live/search/person.asp?LinkID=mp04688 Sir William Turner Walton (1902-1983), Composer, Sitter in 22 portraits] (National Portrait Gallery collection)
* [http://www.gresham.ac.uk/event.asp?PageId=45&EventId=698 'The Jazz Age'] , lecture and concert by Chamber Domaine given on the 6th of November 2007 at Gresham College, including Walton's Façade (available for audio and video download).
* [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0obY178z9kM] Performance of Walton's Cello Concerto by Julian Lloyd Webber and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields conducted by Sir Neville Marriner

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