Viola Concerto

William Walton

Viola Concerto

About this work

In 1928, the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham suggested to Walton that he write a concerto for the eminent violist Lionel Tertis. The composer agreed and started work on it almost immediately; on completion he sent it to Tertis who, much to Walton's disappointment, rejected it. In his biography, My Viola and I (Elek, 1974) Tertis relented: "I had not learnt to appreciate Walton's style. The innovations in his musical language which now seem so logical and so truly in the mainstream of music then struck me as far-fetched." The composer and violist Paul Hindemith gave the first performance in London in October 1929, when the Sunday Times critic Ernest Newman wrote, somewhat unenthusiastically, "The composer has a grasp of musical logic, a sense of fitness and a command of craftsmanship that is very unusual in a young man." In 1960, and again in 1961, Walton -- ever the perfectionist -- extensively revised the work, but it has never been among his most-admired compositions.

Tertis' original reservations may well have had something to do with the fact that the concerto is not, in any obvious sense, a showpiece for the viola. It certainly makes virtuosic demands on the soloist, but its strengths lie in the intimate dialogues between viola and orchestra and the intricate, almost casual, way in which the themes are crafted.

In the first movement, Andante commodo, the music, though lyrical, is haunted by feelings of restlessness, with frequent time changes and shifts of harmony. There is even a trace of impatience in the way, rising to its highest register, the viola delivers its own version of the second subject.

The second movement, Vivo con molto preciso, has three main thematic ideas. It opens with fast, rhythmic figures tossed between orchestra and soloist, abruptly cut short by quiet chords in the brass and followed by lively explorations by the soloist. The movement closes with a more contemplative version of the opening theme, and ends quietly.

The final movement, Allegro moderato, the longest of the three, starts with a rather unpromising melody for bassoon, soon to be expanded, enriched, and brought to a climax by the viola before being passed to the orchestra. The poetic sincerity with which Walton returns to earlier themes as the movement draws to a close is among the concerto's finest moments.