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William Walton (1902 - 1983)


Overture "Portsmouth Point"

Portsmouth Point is Walton's first published orchestral work, written in 1925. At this time he had recently gone down from Oxford University, having failed to complete his degree, and was lodging with the Sitwell family in London. The Sitwells often took Walton with them on their many travels, and Portsmouth Point was written on a trip to Spain when he was 23.

The title comes from an engraving by the English artist Thomas Rowlandson, who was a caricaturist and satirist working about 1800 - 1820. His drawings are similar to those of Hogarth, with clarity and vigour of line, and many are biting and savage commentaries on political and social behaviour.

Despite its debt to early Stravinsky and jazz, this overture is immediately recognisable as by Walton - direct and energetic. It is dedicated to his friend the poet Siegfried Sassoon, and earned Walton the princely sum of £20 from Oxford University Press.

Spitfire Prelude & Fugue

William Walton was 37 at the outbreak of World War 2, and found his plans to write chamber music thwarted. In fact the wartime years turned out to be quite fruitful ones for him, and included several notable film scores. Writing in March 1942, Walton was quite clear about his views of film music - "The music is entirely occasional and is of no use other than what it is meant for ... Film music is not good film music if it can be used for any other purpose ... The music should never be heard without the film.

He wrote the music for Leslie Howard's film about R.J.Mitchell, designer of the Spitfire fighter aircraft "The First of the Few" in June 1942. The film was released in August 1942 and was an outstanding success, to which the music made a great contribution. The march during the opening titles and the dazzling fugue accompanying the assembly of the aeroplanes were particularly impressive, and by the end of the year Walton had rescored them as "Prelude and Fugue". This had its first concert performance in Liverpool on 2nd January 1943 with Walton conducting.

Since by the end of the war Walton's superb music for Laurence Olivier's Henry V had also been arranged as a successful concert suite (though not by Walton himself), one assumes that his trenchant views on the re-use of film music had been moderated!

Suite from "Henry V"
I. Prologue
II. Interlude
III. Agincourt
IV. Epilogue

William Walton's life was an unusual kaleidoscope of places and styles. Born in Oldham, Lancashire of a musical middle-class family, he won a place as a junior chorister to Christ Church, Oxford. He went straight from there to Oxford University as a music undergraduate, where he met the hugely talented, upper-class Sitwell family. On leaving Oxford, he went to live with the Sitwell family in London - and stayed for 15 years! This gave him the material security to gradually develop his career as a composer. Later in life he fell in love with the country and people of Italy, where he moved with his Argentinean born wife, and ended his days at Ischia.

His works are quite small in number - he found composition slow and laborious - but the quality of the resulting works is invariably very high. In addition to the oratorio Belshazzar's Feast, his orchestral output includes two symphonies, concertos for viola, violin and cello, and a number of overtures and occasional works. The latter includes the coronation marches Crown Imperial and Orb and Sceptre.

Walton's work for the cinema dates from the years before and during World War II. He wrote for 14 films in total, many of them versions of Shakespeare's plays. The last film he worked on was Battle of Britain, his music for which was largely rejected in favour of an alternative score by Ron Goodwin. He was furious about this, and never returned to the movies.

His collaboration with Laurence Olivier began in 1936, when he wrote a score for a film version of 'As You Like It', directed by David Lean and starring Olivier and Elizabeth Bergner. 'Henry V' followed in 1943, with a stormy Olivier producing, directing, and taking the lead role. As usual, Walton found writing the music hard work. "How does one distinguish between a cross-bow and a long bow, musically speaking?" he once asked in despair. But Olivier was delighted - "William knocked out the most fantastic score for Henry V; why it didn't win every award throughout the film industry I'll never know, because it's the most wonderful score I've ever heard for a film." The film was hugely successful on its release, being just the right blend of quality, tradition and patriotism for the national mood, as the tide of war was beginning to turn, and an Allied victory began to look increasingly sure.

Tonight we are playing four movements, from a suite adapted by Christopher Palmer. After a short prologue for the whole orchestra, the interlude 'Touch her soft lips, and part' is for strings alone, and comes from one of the more tender moments in the play. The third movement, Agincourt, depicts the battle itself: the charge of the mounted knights is realistically depicted, but whether you can distinguish the cross bows from the long bows is debatable! The medieval sounding tune in the closing Epilogue is the famous 'Agincourt song', a popular song from the 15th century celebrating the victory at Agincourt.

Symphony No. 1
I. Allegro assai
II. Presto con malizia
III. Andante con malincolia
IV. Maestoso - Brioso ed ardamente - Vivacissimo

Few English compositions have been as eagerly awaited as William Walton's first symphony. After the wit of Façade (1923) and Portsmouth Point (1926), the lyrical beauty of the Viola Concerto (1929) and the splendour of Belshazzar's Feast (1931), expectations were high that the enfant terrible of 1930s English music would produce something very special.

It was commissioned by Hamilton Harty for his Hallé orchestra in January 1932. Initially work was very slow, and it was obvious by December 1932 that the premiere planned for April 1933 would have to be postponed. However early 1933 saw good progress and by the summer the first two movements were complete. The slow movement followed and by October the beginning and end of the last movement were also complete. Unfortunately Walton now got stuck and could find no satisfactory completion for the finale. Harty had by now moved to London and the LSO, and had announced a revised premiere for March 1934. Walton had to call this off, too, but his continuing difficulty with the last movement resulted in the LSO persuading him to allow a performance in December 1934 of the first three movements only. This performance, on 3rd December 1934, achieved a notable success, and there were two further performances of the unfinished symphony in April 1935 under Malcolm Sargent. Walton then resumed work on the finale. He later said that it had been his friend Constant Lambert's idea to use a fugue in the central section. When Walton objected that he did not know how to write one (he never completed his music degree at Oxford!) Lambert suggested "There is a rather good article on fugues in Grove's Musical Dictionary". So Walton wrote the fugue, with Grove at his elbow! He finished the movement at the end of August 1935, and the long awaited premiere of the complete symphony was given by the London Symphony Orchestra under Hamilton Harty on 6th November, 1935.

Critics have never agreed about the symphony. Composer John Ireland called it "the work of a true master, in the real symphonic tradition. It is colossal, grand, original and moving to the emotions to the most extreme degree" while Benjamin Britten condemned it for its "pretentiousness and its abominable scoring". It may have stylistic affinities with Sibelius in its use of long pedal notes and its sinuous melodies (particularly the opening); it may have similarities to Prokofiev in its emotional lyricism and pungent harmony (particularly in the slow movement). What is undeniable is its relentless drive and energy, which are quite unique.

It is interesting to note that the published score is dedicated to Baroness Imma von Doernberg, with whom Walton had lived and been much in love since 1931. Imma left him in 1933, before the completion of the symphony, and even though he was soon in a relationship with Alice Wimborne, he still kept the dedication to Imma.

There are three main themes in the first movement: the winding oboe tune at the opening, a long and slower moving violin tune which seems to have no end, and a more angular theme on violas and cellos. But the movement is underpinned harmonically by the interval of a minor 7th, built on top of a fifth and sixth, as picked out by the horns at the very beginning. This appears in many forms through the movement, which is driven onward by a rhythmic energy quite shattering in its impact.

The scherzo is marked "with malice" and everything is indeed spiteful, bitter and twisted. As a scherzo it is unusual, with no obvious formal structure, and where no tune is played the same twice. The fast 3/4 tempo, frequent and almost random offbeat accents, sudden silences, occasional bars of the wrong length, sudden volume changes: all combine to give a relentless and manic rush which leaves listener (and player!) exhausted.

The slow movement is marked "melancholy", perhaps in reaction to the bitter malice which preceded it. The desolate flute melody at the start, as bleak as Shostakovich, offers little comfort. The movement swells gradually to a passionate and emotional climax before fading to the faltering pulse with which it began.

The finale is multi-sectioned: a ceremonial introduction soon gives way to the fast main body of the movement. This in turn leads to the fugue section, where an angular and energetic theme is passed first from violas to violins, then to cellos and basses, before being developed into a big climax. The tempo then changes to a faster triple time, and the music drives onward to the coda. Walton has kept one trump up his sleeve, and the percussion and second timpanist finally join the fray for the closing peroration whose final bars are punctuated by unexpected silences between the hammer blow chords.

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