Sir William Turner Walton OM (March 29, 1902–March 8, 1983) was an English composer who was born into a musical family in Oldham, Lancashire, the second son in a family of three boys and a girl. His father, Charles Alexander Walton, was a musician who had trained at the Royal Manchester College of Music under Charles Hallé, and made a living as a singing teacher and church organist. Charles’s wife, Louisa Maria (née Turner), had been a singer before their marriage. William’s musical talents were spotted when he was still a young boy, and he took piano and violin lessons, though he never mastered either instrument. He was more successful as a singer. He and his elder brother sang in their father’s choir, taking part in performances of large-scale works by Handel, Haydn, Mendelssohn and others.
Walton was sent to a local school, but in 1912 his father saw a newspaper advertisement for probationer choristers at Christ Church Cathedral School in Oxford and applied for William to be admitted. The boy and his mother missed their intended train from Manchester to Oxford. Although they arrived in Oxford after the entrance trials were over, Mrs Walton successfully pleaded for her son to be heard, and he was accepted. He remained at the choir school for the next six years. The Dean of Christ Church, Dr. Thomas Strong, noted the young Walton’s musical potential and was encouraged in this view by Sir Hubert Parry, who saw the manuscripts of some of Walton’s early compositions and said to Strong, “There’s a lot in this chap; you must keep your eye on him.”
At the age of sixteen, Walton became an undergraduate of Christ Church. He came under the influence of Hugh Allen, the dominant figure in Oxford’s musical life. Allen introduced Walton to modern music, including Stravinsky’s Petrushka, and enthused him with “the mysteries of the orchestra.” Walton spent much time in the university library, studying scores by Stravinsky, Debussy, Sibelius, Roussel and others. Little survives from Walton’s juvenilia, but the choral anthem A Litany, written when he was fifteen, anticipates his mature style. At Oxford Walton befriended several poets including Sacheverell Sitwell, who 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, 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, Façade which was first performed in public at the Aeolian Hall, London, on June 12. 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. 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 (1923), inspired by the well-known painting of the same name by Thomas Rowlandson. Walton’s other works of the 1920s included a short orchestral piece, Siesta (1926) and a Sinfonia Concertante for piano and orchestra (1928). The Viola Concerto (1929) brought Walton to the forefront of British classical music. Walton’s next major composition was the massive choral cantata Belshazzar’s Feast (1931). In the 1930s, Walton’s relationship with the Sitwells became less close, and in 1934 he left the Sitwells’ house and bought a house in Belgravia. Walton’s first major composition after Belshazzar’s Feast was his First Symphony. It was not written to a commission, and Walton worked slowly on the score from late 1931 until he completed it in 1935.
During 1934 Walton interrupted work on the symphony to compose his first film music, for Paul Czinner’s Escape Me Never (1934). Following Edward Elgar’s death in 1934, the authorities turned to Walton to compose a march in the Elgarian tradition for the coronation of George VI in 1937. His Crown Imperial was an immediate success with the public. Among Walton’s other works from this decade are more film scores, including the first of his incidental music for Shakespeare adaptations, As You Like It (1936); a short ballet for a West End revue (1936); and a choral piece, In Honour of the City of London (1937). His most important work of the 1930s was the Violin Concerto (1939). During World War II, Walton was exempted from military service on the understanding that he would compose music for wartime propaganda films and others, such as The First of the Few (1942) and Laurence Olivier’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V (1944).
For the BBC, Walton composed the music for a large-scale radio drama about Christopher Columbus, written by Louis MacNeice and starring Olivier. Apart from these commissions, Walton’s wartime works of any magnitude comprised incidental music for John Gielgud’s 1942 production of Macbeth; two scores for the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, The Wise Virgins, based on the music of J. S. Bach transcribed by Walton, and The Quest, with a plot loosely based on Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, and, for the concert hall, a suite of orchestral miniatures, Music for Children, and a comedy overture, Scapino, composed for the fiftieth anniversary of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In 1939 he had been planning a substantial chamber work, a string quartet, but he set it aside while composing his wartime film scores. In early 1945 he turned again to the quartet in A minor, which premiered in May of 1947 and was Walton’s most substantial work of the 1940s.
In 1947, Walton was presented with the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Gold Medal, and in the same year he accepted an invitation from the BBC to compose his first opera, deciding to base it on Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, but his preliminary work came to a halt in April of 1948 when the music publisher Leslie Boosey persuaded him to be a British delegate to a conference on copyright in Buenos Aires later that year. While there, Walton met Susana Gil Passo (1926–2010), daughter of an Argentine lawyer. She eventually accepted his proposal of marriage. The wedding was held in Buenos Aires in December of 1948. Walton’s last work of the 1940s was his music for Olivier’s film of Hamlet (1948). After that, he focused his attentions on his opera Troilus and Cressida.
In 1953, following the accession of Elizabeth II Walton was again called on to write a coronation march, Orb and Sceptre. He was also commissioned to write a choral setting of the Te Deum for the occasion. Troilus and Cressida was presented at Covent Garden on December 3, 1954. In 1956 Walton sold his London house and took up full-time residence on the Italian island of Ischia. Walton’s other works of the 1950s include the music for a fourth Shakespeare film, Olivier’s Richard III, and the Cello Concerto (1956). Walton’s orchestral works of the 1960s include his Second Symphony (1960), Variations on a Theme by Hindemith (1963), Capriccio burlesco (1968), and Improvisations on an Impromptu of Benjamin Britten (1969). His song cycles from this period were composed for Peter Pears (Anon. in Love, 1960) and Schwarzkopf (A Song for the Lord Mayor’s Table, 1962). He was commissioned to compose a score for the 1969 film Battle of Britain, but the film company rejected most of his score. A concert suite of Walton’s score was published and recorded after Walton’s death. After his experience over Battle of Britain, Walton declared that he would write no more film music, but he was persuaded by Olivier to compose the score for a film of Chekhov’s Three Sisters in 1969.
Walton was never a facile or quick composer, and in his final decade, he found composition increasingly difficult. He repeatedly tried to compose a third symphony for André Previn, but eventually abandoned it. Many of his final works are re-orchestrations or revisions of earlier music. He orchestrated his song cycle Anon. in Love (originally for tenor and guitar), and at the request of Neville Marriner adapted his A minor String Quartet as a Sonata for Strings. One original work from this period was his Jubilate Deo, premiered as one of several events to celebrate his seventieth birthday. Walton revised the score of Troilus and Cressida, and the opera was staged at Covent Garden in 1976. Walton died at La Mortella on March 8, 1983, at the age of 80.
Works by Walton in my collection include the following:
Crown Imperial (1937).
Henry V: Passacaglia, The Death of Falstaff, and Touch Her Soft Lips and Part.
Orb and Sceptre (1953).
Symphony No. 1 in bbm.