The Leisurely Englishman - William Walton

Ahead of APO's performance of William Walton's First Symphony, APO's Robin Lane takes a look at the varied and slow paced career of this often overlooked English composer.

Façade – An Entertainment

William Walton hailed from the industrial town of Oldham, Lancashire where he was born into a musical household. His father and mother were both singers and encouraged Walton's talents from an early age. At the age of 10 he was accepted as a chorister at Christ Church Cathedral School in Oxford. At 16 he became an undergraduate after the Dean noticed his musical potential. During his time at Oxford he befriended several poets including Roy Campbell, Siegfried Sassoon and, crucially for his immediate future, Sacheverell Sitwell.

Walton left Oxford in 1920 with no degree or any plans for his future, but was offered lodgings in London by his dear friend Sitwell and siblings Osbert and Edith Sitwell. Walton later recalled, "I went for a few weeks and stayed about 15 years". It was during this time that the Sitwells gave Walton his cultural education in the heart of 1920s London, including introductions to both Stravinsky and Gershwin.

In 1923 Walton collaborated with Edith Sitwell for his first notable success, Façade – An Entertainment. The work incorporates the poetry of Edith Sitwell with musical accompaniment composed by Walton. When performed live, a screen was placed at the front of the stage with all performers placed behind it. Edith would then recite the poetry through a megaphone protruding through said screen. If you are thinking this sounds rather bizarre, you would have found many contemporaries at the time who agreed with you. One headline read "Drivel That They Paid to Hear" and writer Noël Coward marched out of the venue mid-performance. Even the musicians had few kind words to say – the clarinettist asked the composer, "Mr Walton, has a clarinet player ever done you an injury?"

Walton would go on to rework the music into suites for orchestra without Edith's poetry:

Or for the brave of heart, you can enjoy the original version with Edith's poetry:

Symphony No.1

By the 1930s Walton's relationship with the Sitwells became distant, coinciding with his first serious love affair, with the young German widow Imma von Doernberg. In late 1931 Walton began work on his First Symphony and he slowly and steadily made progress. By early 1933 he had completed the first two movements, and by the middle of the year he had completed the third. Then progress came to a crashing halt. The common assumption is that his sudden writer's block was likely linked to his break up with von Doernberg.

Although the symphony hadn't been commissioned, Walton had promised the work to composer Sir Hamilton Harty and the London Symphony Orchestra, who went on to perform the incomplete work in 1934. The full symphony was finally finished in 1935, and the reception to this first performance was a world apart from the reaction to Façade; "the applause at the close was overwhelming, and when Mr Walton, a slim, shy, young man, came on to the platform he was cheered continuously for five minutes."

Crown Imperial

Nothing quite demonstrates Walton's transition from the avant-garde to the mainstream more than his coronation march for King George VI. Elgar had died in 1934 and Ralph Vaughan Williams was not deemed suitable, so the BBC turned to Walton. The commission was originally intended for King Edward VIII but Edward had abdicated by the time it was formally completed, so it was used to celebrate the coronation of King George VI. The piece was seen as Walton departing his modernist roots and disparaging comparisons were made to Elgar, with some critics nicknaming it "Pomp and Circumstance March No.6".

Henry V & Hamlet

Walton was exempted from military service during WWII on the understanding that he would compose music for wartime propaganda films. This led to success as a film composer, most notably for scores to Laurence Olivier's screen adaptations of Shakespeare's Henry V and Hamlet. Walton's film career wasn't always smooth sailing, particularly with his score for the 1969 film Battle of Britain. The film company rejected his score and replaced it with music by Ron Goodwin, and it wasn't until after Walton's death that his score was reworked into a concert suite.

Troilus and Cressida

In 1947, work began on the opera Troilus and Cressida. Walton's adaptation of Chaucer's work was interrupted by personal tragedy (the death of his partner Alice Wimborne) and other projects. The original production was also riddled with difficulties; Laurence Olivier backed out as the Director, the soprano playing Cressida refused to perform it and her replacement had difficulty with the English libretto, and the conductor "did not seem well acquainted with the score". While the premiere at Covent Garden in 1954 received a moderately warm reception, the opera was not a huge hit with audiences.

Following this, in 1956, Walton took up full-time residence on the Italian island of Ischia where he remained until his death in 1983 at the age of 80. His ashes were buried on the island, and a commemorative stone was placed in Westminster Abbey amongst Walton's contemporaries and peers; Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Britten.

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