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THE UNKNOWN WALTON

by

David C F Wright

 

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There were two or three composers who were lifelong friends of Walton. When Lionel Tertis turned down the premiere of the Viola Concerto, Edward Clark of the BBC sent the concerto to Paul Hindemith and the two musicians met in Salzburg in 1923. Hindemith said he would gladly play the concerto because he liked it. In fact there are some bars of the Hindemith concerto in the Walton. When the rumblings of war pervaded Germany Hindemith was disliked because of his one British connection, the Walton Viola Concerto.

Walton wrote Variations on a theme of Hindemith premiered by the composer in 1963. He received a very kind and gracious reply from Hindemith who loved the piece. Sadly Hindemith died later that year. I remember Willie saying that Hindemith was one of the greatest and most versatile composers of all time.

Another friend was Hans Werner Henze, a colourful and fascinating character whom Walton first met in 1953. He had heard Walton’s Symphony no. 1 and was profoundly moved. That is not surprising for, historically, it was the only British symphony, prior to World War Two, that made any impression. It is amazing to think that Henze enlisted in the Nazi army when he was only sixteen. Walton invited Henze to the premiere of Troilus and Cressida but the authorities would not let this political threat into the country! The Waltons had gone to the premiere of Henze’s Elegy for Young Lovers in 1961 (a splendid opera) where Willie lost his rag when a German official refused to serve them having recognising the English accent! Hans introduced Willie to German beer and Walton introduced his friend to certain wines.

It is a dreadful oversight that all the books on Walton omit one of the most vital facts of his musical career. He was self-taught, it is always said.. He did not study at a music college or with a famous teacher as these books will tell you. In fact from 1945 until he went to live on the island of Ischia he studied on a regular basis with Humphrey Searle.

Humphrey being the painfully modest man that he was never spoke of this. But it was well known. Many artists would meet in The George in Great Portland Street and talk. This pub was affectionately known as The Gluepot. Such people as Thomas Empson, Louis MacNeice, Dylan Thomas, Elisabeth Lutyens, Constant Lambert, Alan Rawsthorne would be there as would Humphrey and, sometimes, Walton. Willie was also a member of the IMA, the International Musicians Association, a club in South Audsley Street.

My friend, the composer, John Veale remembers an occasion when in The Gluepot, Searle’s first wife, Lesley, said that she and her husband had to leave as Humphrey was expecting a pupil. John asked who and Lesley replied quietly and discreetly that it was Walton. Denis ApIvor also confirmed this and, in later life, Walton did as well.

With Searle, Walton corrected the faults in his earlier music for his current scores. Whatever else one thinks of the Symphony no. 1 it is overwhelmingly powerful and somewhat exhausting. It is sometimes thick and turgid but in Walton’s greatly superior Symphony no. 2 there is a clarity and spacious texture that can only be admired. This can also be said of the Johannesburg Festival Overture. In fact his work since the last war is of a far better texture and now has a technical assurance. The recklessness has gone. Now his work had a maturity and real quality, the music of a professional.

Willie told us that he owed more to Humphrey than anyone else in the musical realm. He wrote to me as follows:

Humphrey was the focal point of music in London. All important musical events seemed to involve him and yet he was never in the limelight. He did a million times more for others than he ever did for himself. He understood music to a degree unequalled among composers and musicians alike. He was not only a walking encyclopedia but his judgements were always right. I could have studied with anyone but only Humphrey would do. He was a brilliant teacher. You could never ask him a question that he did not know the answer to. If I had gone to anyone else they would have broadcast it far and wide to suit their own advancement. Not so, Humphrey. He said that it was not in my interests to say that I was having music lessons. I tried in my Violin Sonata to write serial music to emulate his genius but it did not work.

This was a great accolade from Walton particularly since he was very cagey when commenting about other composers. He did once say that he liked Rawsthorne’s music but had reservations about the music of Rubbra.

Walton was very discerning. He had a gift as a talent spotter. Sir Hugh Allen, who was tragically killed on a wet night in Oxford in 1946, being run down by a motor cyclist, sent a score of John Veale to Walton while he was living with Lady Alice Wimborne at Ashby St Ledgers near Rugby. Walton took a great interest in this and invited John to visit him. John was in the Army but on his next leave, sometime during 1943, visited Walton who was very kind and helpful. In fact Walton used his influence to mount a read-through of John’s proposed Symphony no. 1 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the legendary Sir Adrian Boult in 1947. A work by Geoffrey Bush had a similar run-through at the same time. Boult liked Veale’s piece.

John met Walton several times after that at the IMA.

Walton was also kind to performers; even to those who played his work badly. He felt that to have it played was better than to have it ignored. A concert programme or recital advertising one of his pieces to be played was just that ... advertising and publicity. He was not the best of conductors of his own work and he was never a man who wanted to dress for the occasion. I can see him now at a rehearsal conducting and his trousers going up and down on his braces. He was very gentle, almost embarrassingly modest. He was always gracious. He would thank the orchestra and the soloist and he was sincere.

Peter Katin made one of the first recordings of the Sinfonia Concertante with Walton conducting, and Peter told me what a splendid man he was to work with. The piano part is not a concerto part but an obbligato one. Walton could not write for the piano at all. I do know that Peter made some helpful suggestions and Walton, never an arrogant man, accepted them willingly. This recording is still the best available.

One could always tell if Willie approved of a performance. If he did, he would wait about ten seconds to savour the moment and then applaud and smile. He adored Katin’s performance.

I think it was for his 80th birthday that Kyung-Wha Chung played his Violin Concerto in London. Willie had heard good performances of this piece many times before. He thrilled at Ida Haendel’s playing of it. But, on this occasion in the Royal Festival Hall the tears flowed from his eyes. The performance ended, he sat quietly and then embraced this magnificent soloist. Afterwards he said that he had never had such a marvellous birthday present. He was transported to another world, a better world and he did not expect to hear it played again so well.

The other performer he admired was the cellist, Gregor Piatigorsky who was the dedicatee and first performer of Walton’s Cello Concerto of 1957. I will admit that it loses its way a little in the finale but it is very well scored. Humphrey’s influence is seen here: it has more rhythmic contrast and its lines and orchestration are clear.

Piatigorsky loved the Walton piece. Janos Starker told Ngoc and I it was the best British cello concerto although he did add that the Finzi was also a good piece.

The Walton Violin Concerto has a good structure and is clearly well written for the instrument and the orchestra. It is a very attractive, sunny work. It has substance and logic and, as someone said, "It shines." I know many concert violinists who have confessed their allegiance to this work.

Walton’s judgement in his early career was often suspect. The Viola Concerto is considered by some to be his masterpiece. I tend to that view. It is now almost always played in the revised version where the orchestral forces are reduced. In the original the woodwind is triple but in the revision it is double and there is no tuba. The revision calls for a harp which is out of place in this work. I can understand Walton’s ideas. The viola is not an instrument with the strongest sound and can easily be swamped but the revised version loses something of the original.

In a BBC 2 series ‘Masterworks’ which dealt with Belshazzar’s Feast, the composer Michael Berkeley, for whom I have a lot of genuine respect, as I did for his father, said that as Walton came from the north he knew all about brass bands and he indeed includes two brass bands in Belshazzar’s Feast. A brass band usually consisted of cornets, flügelhorns, saxhorns, euphoniums and bombardons (as well as other instruments) but none of these are in the Walton piece. The brass section of an orchestra is horns, trumpets, trombones and tuba but that is not a brass band. In the score Walton does mention two brass bands in the sense that a band is a collection of instruments but this is very misleading. The orchestra has trumpets, horns, trombones and a tuba and on each side of the stage there are the two brass bands each of three trumpets, two tenor trombones, one bass trombone and a tuba. But they are not brass bands. Was this Walton being mischievous? For that certainly was in character.

Walton did not find composing easy. He often struggled to get the first idea hence his use of other material and the repetition of some of his own. The last movement of the Viola Concerto is similar thematically to the finale of the Symphony no.1. The first movement of the Symphony no. 2 is very closely linked with the Partita and the String Quartet by a similar theme as in the Viola Concerto. There is a striking resemblance between the respective second movements of the Viola Concerto and the Symphony no.1. In the symphony what Walton does is psychologically revealing. Here it is coarse and angry whereas in the Viola Concerto it is subtle.

Walton’s music has an essential quality ... class!

David C F Wright

Copyright Dr David C. F. Wright 2002

This article must not be used in part or the whole for, purpose or by any means without obtaining the prior written permission of the author.

 


 

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