William Walton

1902 1983

William Walton

Composer • Conductor


Sir William Walton was a 20th century English composer most celebrated for his orchestral music. He was well-regarded in all genres from solo and chamber music to orchestral and film music. Walton’s works fall somewhere between those of Vaughan Williams and Britten, though are sometimes rather experimental.

Walton was born into a musical family in Oldham in 1902. His father worked both as a baritone and a choir master while his mother worked as a contralto. As a boy, Walton sang in his father’s church choir, where he was punished for every musical mistake he made. The raps he received on his knuckles from his father probably influenced his need for musical perfection. At home he heard many Anglican anthems and secular vocal music, both of which greatly determined the basis of his style.

At the age of 10, Walton won a scholarship to be a member of the choir at the Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, where he stayed for six years. He was supported by the dean of the church, Thomas Strong, and trained under the organist, Hugh Allen. While there, he studied singing, piano, and violin. He also began composing, however the majority of his early works are merely the “efforts of a choirboy with a good ear.” His most important work from his youth, A Litany (1916) for unaccompanied chorus, foreshadows his later more mature style. The part writing in this work is very elegant, with an emphasis on practical experience in place of strict textbook rules. Triads and seventh chords, resolved through unusual cadential formulas establish his harmonic vocabulary. The composition also features beautifully arched melodic lines and a dash of irony.

In 1918, at the age of 16, Walton began his studies at the Oxford University where he studied the scores of Debussy, Ravel, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky, all of which influenced his orchestration style. While at Oxford he became acquainted with the Sitwell family: Scheverell, Osbert, and Edith Sitwell. Walton lived with them for a time and received much support. While there, he was able to compose and experience a cultural way of living. During this time he saw Russian ballet, heard jazz at the Savoy hotel, and met both Stravinsky and Gershwin. After failing an obligatory BA exam three times, Walton left Christ Church in 1920 without his degree. Works from this period includeThe Winds(1918), Tritons (1920), the Piano Quartet (1918-21), and the String Quartet (1919-22). Walton’s compositional style at this time varied greatly. His Piano Quartet is in a very English style, reminiscent of Vaughan Williams, Elgar, and Delius, and is based on a work by Herbert Howells while his String Quartet is very experimental. Walter described the String Quartet as being “full of undigested Bartók and Schoenberg.” Walter later withdrew this work from his collection, though it was praised by Berg after its premiere in 1923 at the ISCM Festival.

Walton’s style changed yet again after an inspiring trip to Italy with the Sitwells in 1920. His successful scoreFaçade (1922–9) best demonstrates the beginnings of his Italian influence. Later scores which added to his successful reputation arePortsmouth Point (1924-5) and the Sinfonia concertante (1926-7). A later setting of Edith Sitwell’s poetry combines many different styles, such as the tango, fox-trot, Charleston, jazz, with both Schoenberg and Stravinsky-like influences.

Walton’s Viola Concerto (1928-9) is perhaps one of his most widely performed works, and in this work he was able not only to expand his expressiveness but also develop his contrapuntal technique. Though this work was highly influenced by Stravinsky, the integration of the techniques was inspired by Hindemith, Prokofiev, Ravel, and Gershwin. Hindemith also performed the premiere of the concerto in 1929.

In the early 1930s, Walton distanced himself from the Sitwells and was able to attract new patrons such as Siegfried Sassoon, Mrs. Samuel Courtauld, and also the Viscountess Wimborne, with whom he had a relationship. After the Viola Concerto, his next work,Belshazzar’s Feast (1930-1), was commissioned by the BBC and features, yet again, a very strong Italian influence. This animated and dramatic cantata was positively received and affirmed Walton as a prominent British composer. His fame extended beyond Great Britain with his stormy First Symphony (1931-5), which was inspired by his affair with Baroness Imma Doernberg. It features influences from both Sibelius and Beethoven.

In 1934, Walton wrote his first film score, Escape Me Never (1934), which helped him gain financial security. Jascha Heifetz commissioned the Violin Concerto (1936-9) from Walton, which is very virtuosic and Romantic in style.

During World War II Walton began composing patriotic music for films such as Christopher Columbus(1942) and Shakespeare’s Henry V (1943-4), Hamlet (1947), andRichard III (1955). He also composed two ballets in this time, The Wise Virgins(1940) and The Quest (1943), which can be described, respectively, as an orchestration of Bach music and a propaganda ballet in the style of Vaughan Williams.

After the war, Walton focused on the composition of chamber works such as the Quartet in A Minor (1945-6) and the Sonata for Violin and Piano (1947-9).

After the death of his patron and lover, Viscountess Wimborne in 1948, Walton met Susan Gil Passo and they married and settled in Ischia, Italy.

Between 1947 and 1954, Walton struggled greatly with his grand opera, Troilus and Cressida(1947-54). He strived for perfection that he couldn’t find and was unhappy with the work of his librettist, Christopher Hassell. The opera experienced success initially at Covent Garden and in New York and San Francisco, but failed miserably at its premiere at La Scala. The failure deeply affected Walton, whose confidence was shattered, leading him to constantly revise the work for many years. The failure, in combination with his old age, slowed his future compositions. He was able to compose the Second Symphony (1957-60), which was also badly received. Later works also include a second opera, more chamber works, and his popularJohannesburg Festival Overture (1956).

Walton died in Ischia in 1983. Throughout his life he earned many awards, including seven honorary doctorates, a knighthood, and the Ivor Novello Award. Though he had a strong reputation in the pre-war years, it fell greatly for a time after the war, as the taste in music rapidly changed. By the end of the 20 th century, Walton’s music was again appreciated and performed regularly.