RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS – ARTHUR BLISS – WILLIAM WALTON – MICHAEL TIPPETT
Matthew Taylor has chosen the above four composers for one lecture on British composers and the Concerto (1900- 1950). For those of you familiar with Who Wants To Be A Millionaire this list sounds like fastest finger first: Starting with the earliest, name these British composers in the order they were born. As it happens Matthew is spot on which could put him on the way to a million pounds. This note will differ from those I usually prepare as it will encompass two of the
SIR WILLIAM WALTON (1902-1983)
William Walton is one of those rare composers who emerged out of nowhere with little or no formal training and just became a composer. As a fact he was born in Oldham, a fact he did his best to forget. His parents were local musicians, his father having been to the Northern College of Music and a local organist. It became clear that William was not going to be very good at the violin or the piano but he had a voice and at ten he won a place for six years as a chorister at Christ College, Oxford choir. There he wrote his first juvenile works. He went on to university where he failed his Greek and algebra examinations and got sent down. It was at Oxford that he met Sacheverell Sitwell, brother of Osbert and Edith Sitwell, and he was invited to their London home. He was the man who came to dinner and stayed 10 years with an attic room in their house. He became part of their circle meeting various society figures and others from the world of the arts including Constant Lambert and Siegfried Sassoon. He was introduced to Ernest Ansermet who gave him some lessons as did the composer, Busoni. In 1920 he wrote a string quartet in the style of the Second Viennese School which came to the notice of Schoenberg and Alban Berg. On the other side of the coin he also met George Gershwin and went to listen to the Savoy Orpheans. From all of this emerged Façade, an entertainment with nonsense rhythmic poems written by Edith Sitwell and recited by her behind a curtain through a megaphone to music for six instrumentalists written by Walton. The first performance at the Aeolian Hall was a scandal although it is now seen as fun and harmless. Still the ragtime “See Me Dance the Polka” would shock. The evergreen “Popular Song”, a slow tap dance à la Fred Astaire, later became the signature tune to the BBC music quiz “Face The Music”. Still everybody that was anybody was there at the time and Noel Coward who was certainly somebody walked out in the middle of it all.
Façade showed Walton to be a master of rhythm which was clearly demonstrated in his next work, Portsmouth Point, a concert overture first performed in 1926 and dedicated to Siegfried Sassoon who helped get it published. It is a depiction of an etching by Thomas Rowlandson of British 18th century sailors, jigging a rumbustious hornpipe. Its Stravinskyan dissonant syncopations give it a salty tangy taste. A year later Walton set out to write a concerto for piano but settled with the title of Sinfonia Concertante, in other words an orchestral work with a prominent part for piano. What is noticeable are neo-romantic touches with one principal theme which sounds very similar to Pohjola’s Daughter by Sibelius. This romantic leaning was no blip. He followed this within two years with his viola concerto commissioned by the most famous player of the day, Lionel Tertis. The first notes give out a haunting subjective tune which returns at the end of the work. It is a new aspect of Walton, warm and sorrowful with revisits to the jagged rhythms and the dissonances of yore. Tertis to his later chagrin rejected it and it was premiered instead by Paul Hindemith with Tertis sitting in the audience. Tertis to his credit took up the work and played it at the Three Choirs Festival in the presence of Elgar. It turned out that Walton for all his youthful fun and acerbity was a keen admirer of Elgar although Elgar was not as reciprocative when it came to the viola concerto. It is said to be the first major work for the viola since Berlioz’s Harold in Italy although there are others. Walton has moved further still from the naughtiness of Facade and the flapper school to a new expression of romanticism he had not previously eschewed. It was at this time that he began a long affair was with Imma von Doernberg, widow of a German baron.
All eyes were now on Walton and little wonder the BBC commissioned a “small scale?” work for the wireless, Belshazzar’s Feast, which growed like Topsy. This was an oratorio to be performed at the Leeds Festival in 1931 and conducted by Malcolm Sargent. It was written for solo baritone, large orchestra and large chorus in the English tradition of Handel. It was based on the fall of the Babylonian king with verses arranged by Osbert Sitwell taken from Daniel and Psalms. Sir Thomas Beecham, the Festival director is reputed to have said “As you’ll never hear the thing again, my boy, why not throw in a couple of brass bands as well?”. So Walton did. It is the most electrifying work. Walton knew how to write for a chorus – after all he had been a chorister for six years – and he could now apply all the rhythmic skills he had acquired especially for a paean by Belshazzar to the Babylonian gods, the gods of gold, silver, wood, iron, stones and brass in respect of each of which Walton created an appropriate orchestral sound to match. The extra brass enters for the god of brass. The church establishment was horrified and some bishops forbade performance of such pagan praise in their cathedrals.
Now more was awaited, a symphony. And Walton made them wait. It was a slow and difficult birth. It went over its perform-by date and with only three of its four movements completed after three years Sir Hamilton Harty conducted a first performance in 1934. It took another year for Walton to add a fourth movement. It was a full length heroic symphony with a first movement set to a constant repetitive jagged rhythm; the second movement spitting out the most vituperative expressions of malice; the third movement, con malinconia, building to a climax where one could have possibly considered the work complete. It could be thought to pre-echo the gathering storm but this was actually about hate and love. The hate came from a bitter split with Baroness von Doemberg which left Walton creatively frozen and which only got unblocked by his new love affair with Alice, Viscountess Wimborne. Our Willie from Lancashire could choose his aristocrats when he wanted. Now at last came the fourth movement of the symphony which starts in a mood of happy ennoblement, owing something to Elgar, includes a jazzy fugue and builds to the climax it needs with a second set of timpani joining together with a last post perhaps for the life he had now left behind including the Sitwells from whom he broke away.
The remaining years of the thirties were as fruitful as they were different. George V died and was succeeded by Edward VIII for whose coronation Walton was commissioned to write a coronation march. Of course we all know his coronation did not take place but the planned event went ahead with George VI being substituted for the recipient of Crown Imperial. It follows the Elgar tradition with added jagged rhythms and one can detect a relationship to the fourth movement of the symphony. Walton would go on to write a coronation march “Orb and Sceptre” for Elizabeth II and also a Coronation Te Deum but to his relief he was not made Master of the King’s or Queen’s Musick because he could never have turned out music to patronage except when commissioned with a fee to go with it. At this time he began a unique partnership with Lawrence Olivier writing the music for “As You Like It” in 1936. His genius as a film composer would later come to the fore in Olivier’s film of Henry V in 1944. The timing could not have been more apt. The embarking to Harfleur and Agincourt was a foretaste for the D Day landings awaited by a public hungry for good news and victory. The music still leaves one with a tingle especially the Battle of Agincourt which owes a lot to Prokofiev’s Battle on Ice in the Eisenstein film of Alexander Nevsky written in 1938. The Walton/Olivier team would later produce Hamlet and Richard III. Later in 1969 Walton had written the music for “The Battle of Britain” but when Harry Salzman was made producer he had Walton removed and replaced by Ron Goodwin who had reached the top of his form as a fifth rate platitudinous hack composer. Olivier, playing Air Marshall Dowding, asked for his name to be removed from the credits. Walton vowed never write film music again although he did, for Olivier in The Three Sisters..
Returning to the close of the thirties, Walton received a commission from Jascha Heifetz for a violin concerto which he completed in 1939. It is a bigger work than the earlier viola concerto. At the same time it is more emollient with a new tendency towards mellow with a taste of honey as opposed to his earlier saccharine. He includes a presto “alla napolitana” introducing a taste for the Italianate. One will soon meet with other titles such as Siesta, Siciliana and Burlesca. In fact the violin concerto was followed in 1940 with Scapino, a comedy overture based on a character from the commedia dell’arte, involving a scoundrel whose need to escape gives rise to the nickname.
In 1948, Alice Wimborne, with whom Walton had been living, died of cancer. They had been together for fourteen years living in her stately pile after Walton’s Belgravia home had been bombed damaged. Walton who had after all spent ten years living off the Sitwells developed a reputation as a sponger best not invited in if he turned up. Now with the death of Lady Wimborne he was at a loss. It was felt that he had not turned out much in the 1940’s which was a bit unfair as he had done his bit for the war in film work and had produced a first rate string quartet. He felt perhaps overtaken by the rising star of Benjamin Britten following that composer’s return from America in 1942 and the impact of Peter Grimes. To take Walton’s mind off his grief, it was suggested he become the British delegate for a conference on copyright in Buenos Aires. There he was assigned a PA, Susana Gil Passo to look after him. Things happened as they do. At first she rejected his advances but he persisted. It wasn’t exactly “Oh Susana, don’t you cry for me” but, without a banjo on his knee, he got his woman in the end, by December 1948 in fact. He was conscious that she probably might feel out of place in Britain and so they spent half the year on the isle of Ischia which had more in common with her Argentinean roots. Within a few years they moved there permanently. La Mortella was the house they built and despite its rough terrain Susana developed a renowned and acclaimed garden. William had made it absolutely clear that he did not want children and that was that. He did however get a knighthood in 1950.
Having got back his life he reverted to an opera that had been commissioned 1947, Troilus and Cresida, after Chaucer, not Shakespeare. He had encountered considerable difficulty in writing it and had to call in Christopher Hassall as a librettist. The Sitwells were rather put out. His life was not made any easier by the shenanigans of Sir Malcolm Sargent, engaged to conduct it and who in customary style had taken over. This opera did suffer in comparison with those of Britten and it ought to find its way back into the regular repertoire. Walton had shown his Italian leanings since holidaying with Osbert Sitwell in Amalfi back in the late twenties. Now his music develops a more warm and sensuous manner. This would throw many of his adherents. It is hard to explain this sense of Italianate but it bears no resemblance to any Italian composer I can name. Walton has imbued his music in part with the sounds and perfumes of Southern Italy, not a hint of O Sole Mio or Walls ice cream. I say Italianate in part. It is still the same Walton with bursts of the old fire but a more mature Walton. His music, like him, has put on weight round the hips and waste. It can perhaps be likened to the differences between late Beethoven and his earlier incarnation. They differ but they are the same Beethoven. The cello concerto written for Piatigorsky in 1956 is in this mould and is said to be inspired by Susana’s garden. Walton rarely repeated himself but in 1959 he produced a second symphony. It disappointed as everyone expected a repeat of the 1935 symphony which owed more to Sibelius than anyone else. The first was structured and angular. The second was more a work of colours from his palette. It was seen as eccentric and conservative despite the introduction of a twelve note series in the final movement.
Walton continued to write to commission which he was always on watch to receive. He looked out for performances of his works. He was slow at the best of times and towards the end he found composition, not inspiration, more difficult. He was later championed particularly by Andre Previn who certainly had the wavelength for Walton. Karajan conducted Belshazzar’s Feast just the once and thought it the greatest choral work of the twentieth century. William was treated as the squire of Ischia by the locals who knew him to be an undoubted great composer even though they probably never heard a note of his music. He was visited by friends, particularly Malcolm Arnold, who had the facility to write and, between you and me, produce very quickly and more than once helped out by adding a thing or two of his own to a Walton score.
One cannot deal with all his works in this summary but there is one which stands out for me although rarely played. Walton and Britten had a mutual respect of sorts but were still a little distanced, not surprisingly when it got to Britten’s ears that his opera adaptation of Gay’s Beggars Opera in 1947 was dubbed by Walton as the Buggers’ Opera. In 1969 Walton wrote an orchestral piece entitled “Improvisations on an Impromptu of Benjamin Britten”. The theme he chose as his homage was that of the slow movement from Britten’s 1939 piano concerto. It is as different from the cello concerto as the North Sea is from the Bay of Naples. The Britten theme is expressed in glacial sounds. Walton has managed to absorb Britten’s Suffolk intonation and produced an even more steely East Anglian cold. It is not a Rory Bremner type impression but, like Delius with his North Country Sketches over 50 years earlier, this is Walton’s own English character re-emergent.
Walton lived on and wrote on until his death in 1983. A great composer, warts and all and a bit of a grump to boot. A bit like Brahms. Self taught; no pupils, no school. No statue in Oldham either and, you know what, I don’t suppose he would have cared.