Outside of Austria and Germany, the historic centers of Western classical music, most countries have a particular composer whose work is generally thought to be especially representative of what used to be called their “national character.” In Italy, it is Verdi; in Russia, Tchaikovsky; in Finland, Sibelius; and in the U.S., Aaron Copland. But for 250 years, England was different. After the death in 1695 of Henry Purcell, no classical composer of major stature emerged until 1899, when Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations were premiered and entered the standard orchestral repertoire. Before then, England had been known to German-speaking musicians as das Land ohne Musik—the land without music—and Elgar’s other works, though greatly admired, never established themselves as popular favorites in Europe or the States. And while Ralph Vaughan Williams, who was born in 1872, 15 years after Elgar, attained comparable renown for his Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1910), his determination to integrate English folk song into his compositional style caused his music to be viewed elsewhere as provincial.
What England lacked was a composer whose music was both distinctively English and of incontestably international stature, and it got one when Peter Grimes, the first opera of Benjamin Britten (1913–1976), premiered in 1945 and was universally acclaimed as a masterpiece. But in between Vaughan Williams and Britten, William Walton (1902–1983) appeared to many Britons to be the figure for whom they had been hoping. Starting in 1929, Walton composed four works—the Viola Concerto, Belshazzar’s Feast, the First Symphony (1935), and the Violin Concerto (1939)—that were met with like acclaim. Then, with the coming of World War II, he turned his energies to scoring propaganda films (as well as Laurence Olivier’s 1944 version of Henry V, which was also intended to boost morale on the home front). Though Walton put aside his “war work” in 1947 and produced several pieces of substance between then and his death, few of his later efforts were felt to be on a par with his great prewar works, while Britten’s post-Grimes output established him as England’s foremost composer.
Was Walton simply outclassed by Britten? Was he, as Walton himself once seemed to have thought possible, somehow hindered by his unapologetic heterosexuality, which stood in contrast to the homosexuality of several of his noted contemporaries, Britten above all? Since his death, two biographies, Michael Kennedy’s Portrait of Walton (1989) and Stephen Lloyd’s William Walton: Muse of Fire (2001), have given us a clear picture of the man and his life, but English critics pay even less attention to his work today than they did in the second half of the 20th century, and with the exception of Belshazzar’s Feast (1931), it is no longer performed in the United States. What, then, happened to Walton? Where is the missing piece of the puzzle?
LIKE ELGAR, whose father was a piano tuner, Walton was not an “English gentleman” and was uncomfortably aware of the fact. Born in Lancashire, a part of northern England with a strong “Lankysheer” regional accent, he was the son of a pair of lower-middle-class professional choristers, and his own talent led to his admission to Oxford’s Christ Church Cathedral School at the age of 10, followed by his enrolling as a Christ Church undergraduate six years later. But he was not a prodigy, never learned to play an instrument well (though he became a competent conductor of his own music), and was almost entirely self-taught as a composer.
It was the patronage of Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell Sitwell, a trio of poet-siblings who took Walton into their London home in 1920, that gave him the time and support he needed to develop as a composer. And it was his association with Edith, the best-known member of the family, that made him famous. Façade, Walton’s first composition of note, was a suite of musical settings of her abstract, near-nonsense verses that made use of a speaker (who was initially positioned offstage and needed a megaphone to be heard) and a jazz-flavored chamber ensemble. Though Façade, whose musical wit retains its considerable charm, no longer sounds revolutionary, its 1923 premiere triggered a minor scandal in the popular press and catapulted Walton into a celebrity extending far beyond the insular world of British classical music.
But Walton, though he liked early jazz and, later, big-band swing, soon moved away from its narrow ambit. He turned himself instead into one of the first neoromantic contemporary composers, writing in a style that fused Elgar’s turn-of-the-century romanticism with the modern sounds of Prokofiev, Sibelius, and Stravinsky. His Viola Concerto, for example, is self-evidently patterned after Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto of 1923. A brooding, dark-hued work of quiet but intense melancholy, it was taken up by violists everywhere, with Donald Tovey, the great British musicologist and commentator, declaring it to be “one of the most important modern concertos for any instrument.”
What came next, however, startled everyone: Walton, who as a chorister had acquired a profound understanding of the English Protestant oratorio tradition, then wrote Belshazzar’s Feast, a half-hour cantata for baritone, chorus, orchestra, and two additional brass bands, which seemed at first hearing to stand that tradition on its head. Premiered in 1931, it is a concise setting of the story of the freeing of the enslaved Jews of Babylon (the biblical text was assembled by Osbert Sitwell, Edith’s brother). Despite its brevity—most oratorios run for between two and three hours—Belshazzar’s Feast unfolds on the grandest possible musical scale, with each “scene” painted in spectacular, near-cinematic colors.
While most early critics echoed Neville Cardus, who described it as “a clear case of red-hot conception instinctively finding the right and equally red-hot means of expression,” the unnamed reviewer of the London Times, speaking for the then-ultraconservative British musical establishment, wrote about Belshazzar’s Feast with sniffish horror and a touch of anti-Semitism, describing it as “stark Judaism from first to last. It culminates in ecstatic gloating over the fallen enemy, the utter negation of Christianity.” Accordingly, many clerics promptly banned its performance in cathedrals, and though Belshazzar’s Feast was taken up by choruses and orchestras throughout England, it was not recorded until 1943.
Unlike the Times, Walton’s ecclesiastical enemies had a point, for Belshazzar’s Feast is devoid of spirituality. It is nothing more—or less—than a piece of secular musical storytelling, one that continues to make a potent effect when played and sung with the right mixture of melancholy lament and swaggering flamboyance. In addition, it is only modern on the surface: Walton’s harmonic language is unabashedly tonal and is in no way the weaker for its accessibility.
More to the point, Belshazzar’s Feast is the work of a man whose temperament was passionate, even turbulent, and it is no surprise that while composing it, Walton was intimately involved with a widowed German baroness whom he could not hope to marry because of his lower-middle-class status. The deterioration of their relationship reduced him to emotional disorder, and his next large-scale piece, a symphony on which he began work in 1932 and completed three years later, is a hard-hitting musical portrait of his state of mind at the time.
Once again, the main influence on Walton while he was working on his First Symphony, in this case the symphonies of Sibelius, is easy enough to hear, though its jolting (if tonal) harmonies and asymmetrical rhythms are more modern-sounding than anything Sibelius ever wrote. The desperate, catastrophic first movement gives way to a violent scherzo “con malizia” and a tragic slow movement whose visceral impact goes deeper than any British composer had gotten down on paper. The symphony’s premiere clinched his reputation as the leading British composer of the ’30s.
It was around this time that Walton scored his first film, Paul Czinner’s Escape Me Never (1934), finding in the process that he had a knack for writing for the screen, one that thereafter relieved him of all pressure to top himself, or anyone else, in the concert hall. “From then on the finances were no real question,” he later recalled. “I could always do a film.” But while Walton’s film scores are, as one might well have expected from the composer of Belshazzar’s Feast, vivid and colorful, they are also, like much movie music of the ’30s and ’40s, specific to their works in a way that makes them unsatisfactory when heard apart from the films they were written to accompany. More and more, he devoted his energies to commissioned works and occasional pieces that were, while listenable to a fault—never more so than Crown Imperial, the symphonic march that he wrote for the 1937 coronation of King George VI—not quite what one would have expected from a composer of his stature.
Walton then became acquainted with Benjamin Britten, whose diary entry about their first meeting is doubly revealing: “He is charming, but I feel always the school relationship with him—he is so obviously the head prefect of English music, whereas I’m the promising new boy….Perhaps the prefect is already regretting his lost freedom, & newly found authority!” But the “promising new boy” soon proved to be far more prolific than the “head prefect,” and as Walton’s music gradually lost its powerfully personal impetus, Britten began to supplant him as the British composer to whom their contemporaries looked for innovation and stylistic leadership.
Just before the beginning of World War II, Walton wrote a richly lyrical large-scale violin concerto for Jascha Heifetz that was out of his top drawer. It was the last such work he would write for eight years. After the war, he produced a fine string quartet whose 1947 premiere bode well for the future, but he then spent seven years working on an operatic version of Troilus and Cressida whose complete failure demoralized him deeply. “Everyone is queer and I’m just normal,” he told Michael Tippett, an up-and-coming composer friend of Britten’s who was himself openly gay. On another occasion he told Tippett that “I have heard that Britten may be appointed director of the [Covent Garden] opera house. There are enough buggers in the place already, it’s time it is stopped.”
Walton’s life took an unexpected turn when, in 1948, he met and married a much younger Argentinian woman, moved to an Italian island to become a tax exile, and devoted himself to serious composition for the rest of his life. While few of the works he produced after 1948 were comparable in quality to his prewar creations, he was still capable of producing wonders, as he did in 1963 with the Variations on a Theme by Hindemith—which he composed for George Szell, his great American advocate. Like his Second Symphony (1960), also taken up by Szell, it is a work of miraculous poise and lucidity, the high-water mark of his postwar career.
Walton’s lifelong insecurity, rooted in his self-consciousness about his lower-middle-class status, grew greater as he grew older, with younger critics dismissing even his great works of the ’30s as old-fashioned—the cruelest blow of all. As he said late in life, echoing their unwarranted denigration, “I don’t say that the works are disappointing, but I could have done better if I’d thought about it.” But while his catalogue was smaller in size and more uneven than that of Britten, it is no small thing to have written a half-dozen or so large-scale works of the highest possible quality, and it is not hard to imagine a younger conductor, here or in England, taking up his cause with the requisite enthusiasm.
The First Symphony, above all, is a work of colossal force, one that has always belonged in the international repertoire, and this symphony as well as its companion pieces of the ’30s deserve to be known as masterpieces whose accessibility is a mark not of their superficiality but their distinction. They may not sound all that English, but they sound like no one else—Britten least of all—and their time will come.
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