William Walton’s music is one of the features of this year’s Proms season. He is not exactly an enigma — he was one of the most open of men, with the bluntness and bluffness of the typical Lancastrian that, in almost all other respects, he was not. He remains however something of a puzzle, and rather frustrating. He was one of those rare things in British music, an enfant terrible. Our canon doesn’t often do enfants — Benjamin Britten, whose career overshadowed Walton’s to the chagrin of the latter, was the obvious other one, but there was nothing really terrible about him, in his desire to become an establishment figure. Usually our composers are well into middle age before anyone realises they are any good — Elgar and Vaughan Williams are the obvious examples — but Walton was a star from his early twenties.
The frustration for his admirers lies in the relatively small size of his output, for the works he produced in a compositional career that lasted from the early 1920s until the 1970s were more often than not startling in their quality, compelling and beautiful to hear. They also seem to advertise a confidence, an ease and a creative capacity that, when one picks up that particular stone, turn out to have been rather far from the truth.
Walton (1902-1983) had something of a charmed life. His father was a music teacher in Oldham, and when William was 12 saw an advertisement for choristers at Christ Church, Oxford. His mother took him to the audition but they were late: Walton’s father had spent in the pub the money put aside for the train fare, and Mrs Walton had to borrow it from a local shopkeeper. On arriving at Oxford Mrs Walton begged the interviewers to hear her son even though they had missed their appointment. They relented, and he was offered a scholarship.
He showed enormous musical talent as a teenager — Sir Hubert Parry saw some of his juvenile compositions and marked him out as someone of great promise — and rules were bent to keep him at Oxford. The choir retained him after his voice broke and he missed out the usual next step of public school (which his family could not possibly have afforded), going up to Christ Church itself aged 16. Within two years, having come nowhere near the mark academically, he was sent down without a degree, but not before being befriended by the Sitwells and their set, a friendship that brought about the first of his well-known compositions, Façade.
Walton’s perfectionism has often been adduced as the reason for his limited, but high-class, output. Maybe it was; but as large a factor was the distraction provided in his life by women. He had a ferocious interest in the opposite sex, and spent much of his time pursuing them and, when the pursuit was successful, concentrating much of his creative and emotional energy on them. He took a long time to grow up: he became a sort of pet of the Sitwells, and lived with them from leaving Oxford until 1934, when he started a long affair with Alice Wimborne, a viscountess 20 years his senior. But the success of his music (notably, by that stage, his Viola Concerto of 1929 and his great choral work Belshazzar’s Feast of 1931) had given him the money to live independently, and from then on he was regularly in demand as a writer of film music as well as of major classical works.
Walton’s other handicap was the huge amount of time and effort he devoted to his opera Troilus and Cressida, which he worked on for the best part of a decade before its first performance in 1954. It was poorly received — Sir Malcolm Sargent, who conducted the premiere, had not bothered to master the score properly — but even conductors who have treated it with respect have struggled to make it truly appealing. Another major work of the 1950s, the Second Symphony, has also languished, despite being championed by conductors such as the late Richard Hickox. It was preceded by a Cello Concerto, first performed in 1956, which again audiences found unappealing, but which has since taken its place as one of the great works for that instrument of the 20th century. For the remainder of Walton’s creative life there was a tailing-off, symbolised by the indignity of the music he wrote for the 1969 film The Battle of Britain being binned and Ron Goodwin being asked to supply it instead.
Walton’s problem was also the succession of works written in the decade before the Second World War — the Viola Concerto, Belshazzar’s Feast, the First Symphony and the Violin Concerto, all of which became internationally renowned very quickly and set the bar exceptionally high.
The First Symphony, which is to be performed at the Proms along with the two concerti, is in my opinion Walton’s true masterpiece. He took so long to write it that its first performance in 1934 consisted only of the first three movements; the fourth was completed in time for a full performance a year later. But its musical language is startlingly original, for all those who have heard elements of Stravinsky and other European contemporaries in it.
The first movement has a relentlessness and momentum without precedent in the English canon, suggesting nothing quite so much as an excess of testosterone (the composer’s private life was said to have inspired the tone of the whole work). The use of brass and percussion give a power, violence and aggression to the music prefigured perhaps by Holst in the opening movement of The Planets, but nowhere else. The second movement was to be played “with malice”, according to the instruction in the score; the third is melancholy but the finale proclaims itself with a jubilant flourish and ends in triumph and grandeur.
A crisp and effective new recording of the work (coupled with Tamsin Little playing the Violin Concerto) has just been released by Chandos, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner, and is well worth acquiring. But if you can find the recording on the same label by Sir Alexander Gibson, made with the Scottish National Orchestra 30 years ago, you will find an unparalleled reading with the power to leave the listener amazed even after years of hearing it: exactly the reaction that the composer, given the almost brutal energy with which he infused the work, would very much have wanted.