Walton was at the choir school from 1912 to 1918. When war was declared in 1914, Charles Walton’s singing pupils declined in number and William would
In 1918, at the age of sixteen, Walton began to compose a Piano Quartet, his first large-scale composition. This work caught the attention of another undergraduate at Oxford, Sacheverell Sitwell, who insisted that his older brother Osbert should come to Oxford to encounter a ‘genius’. After he had failed his exams, Walton said to Sacheverell: ‘What the hell am I going to do?’ The reply was ‘Why not come to stay with us?’ The Sitwell brothers, with their sister Edith, were intellectual aesthetes who were just beginning to make a flamboyant impact on literary circles in London. Walton went to stay in London for a few weeks – which turned into several years. They more or less adopted him and, with Dr Strong, the composer Lord Berners and the poet Siegfried Sassoon, guaranteed him an annual income to enable him to devote all his time to composition and never to have to fear return to Oldham.
The Sitwells introduced Walton to a milieu he could never have imagined – to Busoni, Lady Ottoline Morrell, T.S.Eliot and Ernest Ansermet. They took him to Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, to jazz, to concerts of contemporary music and, most significant of all, to Italy, with which he fell in love at first sight. The first fruit of his co-habitation with the Sitwells was Façade, an ‘entertainment’ in which eighteen of Edith’s poems were recited over a background of Walton’s music scored for five instrumentalists. The work was first performed privately in January 1922 and publicly in 1923, when it caused something of a furore mainly because of the method of presentation – the poems were declaimed through a megaphone thrust through a painted curtain. By 1926 the work was the talk of the town. Walton continued to revise it, adding and subtracting items. In addition to setting three sections from Façade as solo songs in 1931-32, he made two Orchestral Suites, which were used for ballet, and did not settle on a definitive version of 21 items until 1951, when it was at last published. It was a nineteen-year old’s work of genius, original and, as it proved, inimitable.
Walton’s ‘war work’ was to write music for propaganda films, which he did with outstanding success, as in The First of the Few (about the designer of the Spitfire fighter aircraft) and Laurence Olivier’s Henry V. But after the war, the climate of British music was changed. Benjamin Britten had composed a succession of fine works, culminating in 1945 in the opera Peter Grimes, making Walton appear to some to be a figure from the past. But in 1947 the BBC commissioned an opera from him on the subject of Troilus and Cressida (Chaucer’s version). Before he composed a note of it, Alice Wimbourne died in April 1948. Later that year, while in Buenos Aires, he met and married Susana Gil Passo, who was 24 years his junior. They settled on the island of Ischia, in the Bay of Naples, where in the grounds of their house, La Mortella, Susana
Troilus and Cressida was performed at Covent Garden in 1954 to a respectful rather than ecstatic reception. The pendulum had swung away from romanticism to the newer operatic styles of Britten and Tippett. Walton, who had received a knighthood in 1951, had nevertheless been first choice for another Coronation march (Orb and Sceptre) for Elizabeth I in 1953 and for a Te Deum. Acclaim in America in the 1960s led to a commission from Gregor Piatigorsky for the Cello Concerto (1955-6). This was followed by the one-act comic opera The Bear, the delightful song cycles Anon in Love, and A Song for the Lord Mayor’s Table, the Variations on a Theme of Hindemith and the Improvisations on an Impromptu by Benjamin Britten. The times were out of joint, however. For critics who savoured the avant-garde, Walton was no longer of any interest.
Walton was hurt by this, jealous of the success Britten and Tippett enjoyed. Some believed that his absence in Ischia contributed towards his sidelining. Britten was on the spot to promote his works, Walton was a kind of exile. Some consolation, however, must have been provided by his receiving the prestigious award, bestowed on him by The Queen, of the Order of Merit in 1967. His 75th and 80th birthday concerts in London were illustrious events which can have left him in no doubt that he was regarded as one of the great men of British music. William Walton died in Ischia three weeks before his 81st birthday.
This text is excerpted from “Walton – A Celebration – 2002″, written by Michael Kennedy and published by the William Walton Trust, March 2000.
Photo slider A: Photos 1-4, 6: Source William Walton Trust; Photo 1: WW portrait; Photo 2: WW composing; Photo 3: WW conducting; Photo 4: Sir William and Lady Walton; Photo 5: Sir William Turner Walton, by Michael Ayreton (credit: Kathryn Whitney) from the painting in Walton’s house at La Mortella; Photo 6: Walton in Australia; Photo 7: WW signatures (credit: Kathryn Whitney) from the William Walton Archive, La Mortella.
Photo slider B: Source (all): William Walton Archive, La Mortella. Photo credit (all): Kathryn Whitney. Letter 1: WW to his mother, 8/10/1916 (excerpt) ;Letter 2: Edward Peake, Dean of Christ Church Cathedral School, to WW’s father, 27/12/1916; Letter 3: WW to Benjamin Britten, 21/06/1945 (excerpt); Peter Pears to WW from Aldeburgh, no date (excerpt); Cathy Berberian to WW (excerpt), no date; WW to mother, 11/03/1919 (excerpt).