“Sir William Turner Walton OM (29 March 1902 – 8 March 1983) was an English composer. During a sixty-year career, he wrote music in several classical genres and styles, from film scores to opera. His best-known works include Façade, the cantata Belshazzar’s Feast, the Viola Concerto, the First Symphony, and the British coronation anthems Crown Imperial and Orb and Sceptre.
Born in Oldham, Lancashire, the son of a musician, Walton was a chorister and then an undergraduate at Christ Church, Oxford. On leaving the university, he was taken up by the literary Sitwell siblings, who provided him with a home and a cultural education. His earliest work of note was a collaboration with Edith Sitwell, Façade, which at first brought him notoriety as a modernist, but later became a popular ballet score.
In middle age, Walton left Britain and set up home with his young wife Susana on the Italian island of Ischia (see image). By this time, he had ceased to be regarded as a modernist, and some of his compositions of the 1950s were criticised as old-fashioned. His only full-length opera, Troilus and Cressida, was among the works to be so labelled and has made little impact in opera houses. In his last years, his works came back into critical fashion; his later compositions, dismissed by critics at the time of their premieres, were revalued and regarded alongside his earlier works.
Walton was a slow worker, painstakingly perfectionist, and his complete body of work across his long career is not large. His most popular compositions continue to be frequently performed in the 21st century, and by 2010 almost all his works had been released on CD.
At Oxford Walton befriended several poets including Roy Campbell, Siegfried Sassoon and, most importantly for his future, Sacheverell Sitwell. Walton was sent down from Oxford in 1920 without a degree or any firm plans. Sitwell invited him to lodge in London with him and his literary brother and sister, Osbert and Edith. Walton took up residence in the attic of their house in Chelsea, later recalling, “I went for a few weeks and stayed about fifteen years”.
The Sitwells looked after their protégé both materially and culturally, giving him not only a home but a stimulating cultural education. He took music lessons with Ernest Ansermet, Ferruccio Busoni and Edward J. Dent. He attended the Russian ballet, met Stravinsky and Gershwin, heard the Savoy Orpheans at the Savoy Hotel and wrote an experimental string quartet heavily influenced by the Second Viennese School that was performed at a festival of new music at Salzburg in 1923. Alban Berg heard the performance and was impressed enough to take Walton to meet Arnold Schoenberg, Berg’s teacher and the founder of the Second Viennese School.
In 1923, in collaboration with Edith Sitwell, Walton had his first great success, though at first it was a succès de scandale. Façade was first performed in public at the Aeolian Hall, London, on 12 June. The work consisted of Edith’s verses, which she recited through a megaphone from behind a screen, while Walton conducted an ensemble of six players in his accompanying music. The press was generally condemnatory. Walton’s biographer Michael Kennedy cites as typical a contemporary headline: “Drivel That They Paid to Hear”. The Daily Express loathed the work, but admitted that it was naggingly memorable. The Manchester Guardian wrote of “relentless cacophony”. The Observer condemned the verses and dismissed Walton’s music as “harmless”. In The Illustrated London News, Dent was much more appreciative: “The audience was at first inclined to treat the whole thing as an absurd joke, but there is always a surprisingly serious element in Miss Sitwell’s poetry and Mr Walton’s music … which soon induced the audience to listen with breathless attention.” In The Sunday Times, Ernest Newman said of Walton, “as a musical joker he is a jewel of the first water”.
Among the audience were Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward. The last was so outraged by the avant-garde nature of Sitwell’s verses and the staging, that he marched out ostentatiously during the performance. The players did not like the music: the clarinettist, Charles Draper asked the composer, “Mr Walton, has a clarinet player ever done you an injury?” Nevertheless, the work soon became accepted, and within a decade Walton’s music was used for the popular Façade ballet, choreographed by Frederick Ashton.
Walton’s works of the 1920s, while he was living in the Sitwells’ attic, include the overture Portsmouth Point, dedicated to Sassoon and inspired by the well-known painting of the same name by Thomas Rowlandson. It was first heard as an entr’acte at a performance in Diaghilev’s 1926 ballet season, where The Times complained, “It is a little difficult to make much of new music when it is heard through the hum of conversation.” Sir Henry Wood programmed the work at the Proms the following year, where it made more of an impression. The composer conducted this performance; he did not enjoy conducting, but he had firm views on how his works should be interpreted, and orchestral players appreciated his “easy nonchalance” and “complete absence of fuss.”…”