William Walton

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William Walton
Sir William Walton on the set of one of his operas
Born March 29, 1902
Oldham, Lancashire, England, UK
Died March 8, 1983
Ischia, Italy

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

His style was influenced by the works of Stravinsky, Sibelius and jazz, 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.


[edit] Biography

[edit] Early Life and Rise to Fame

Walton was born in Oldham, Lancashire, to a musical family. At the age of ten, Walton was accepted as a chorister at Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, and he subsequently entered Christ Church, Oxford as an undergraduate at the unusually early age of sixteen. 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. At Oxford Walton befriended two poets — Sacheverell Sitwell and Siegfried Sassoon — who would prove influential in publicizing his music. 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, to lodge in London with the literary Sitwell siblings — Sacheverell, Osbert and Edith — as an 'adopted, or elected, brother'. 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 little 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 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, but 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.

[edit] 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). 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.

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 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 1968. 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).

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 where 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 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.

[edit] Works

[edit] Opera

[edit] Ballet

[edit] Orchestral Works

  • 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)

[edit] Concertante Works

[edit] Choral Music

[edit] Chamber Music

[edit] Solo Vocal Music

[edit] Film Scores

[edit] Incidental Music

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

[edit] Further reading

  • Howes, Frank (1965). The Music of William Walton. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-315412-9. 
  • Walton, Susana (1988). William Walton: Behind the Façade. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-315156-1. 
  • Kennedy, Michael (1989). Portrait of Walton. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-816705-9. 
  • Craggs, Stewart R. (1990). William Walton: A Catalogue. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-315474-9. 
  • Burton, Humphrey, and Maureen Murray (2002). William Walton: The Romantic Loner. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-816235-9. 
  • Hayes, Malcolm, ed. (2002). The Selected Letters of William Walton. Faber and Faber (London). ISBN 0-571-20105-9. 
  • Lloyd, Stephen (2002). William Walton: Muse of Fire. Boydell (London). ISBN 0-85115-803-X. 

[edit] External links