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William Walton (1902 - 1983)– Violin Concerto (1938-9, rev. 1943)

1. Andante tranquillo
2. Presto capriccioso alla napolitana
3. Vivace  

A choirmaster’s son, Walton became a chorister at Christ Church Cathedral School, Oxford (1912), and seemed set fair for a conventional choral career. However, fear provoked him into composing, specifically anthems “to make myself interesting . . . or when my voice breaks I’ll be sent home”. His nascent Piano Quartet entranced the undergraduate Sacheverell Sitwell. When Walton, having failed his exams, bemoaned his fate, the Sitwell siblings’ solution was to “adopt” him, organising an income so that their “pet genius” could compose in comfort. Living in London, mingling with the cream of artistic society, Walton had everything on a plate. 

It showed. For all its effrontery, Façade was a confection. Yet, as Walton matured, real creative fires ignited - the Viola Concerto (1929), Belshazzar’s Feast (1931), and the lacerating First Symphony (1931-5). The spur? Basically, the women in his life, but something else: accompanying the Sitwells on their Italian jaunts, he quickly became captivated. Maybe more than in any other work, these factors fuse in the Violin Concerto. Born out of love - for Italy and Alice Wimbourne - it was “fathered” by Heifetz. Daunted by the honour, Walton struggled more than usual, ultimately enlisting Heifetz to help “jazz up” the fruits of his limited technical knowledge. 

This also shows. Numerous gratuitous virtuoso flurries possibly explain Walton’s wry comment on recovering the lost score, “A pity it was ever found, really.” Speak for yourself, Mr. Walton! As the throw-back to the First Symphony seems a storm-threat (or a lovers’ tiff?), so those flurries seem irksome midges, all part of a musical picture exquisitely reflecting romance on the Tyrrhenian Sea’s idyllic shores. Of course, there’s much more to it, but no space to say, so for now just bask in the festive syncopations, the “folksy fiddling” and, most of all, the languorous luxuriance of Walton’s “bel canto” violin. 

Note originally commissioned by the Vancouver Symphony for a concert given on 19 February 2005

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© Paul Serotsky
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