WALTON’S VIOLIN and VIOLA CONCERTOS
An editing, by Ian Lace, of writings by
Lady Walton, Michael Kennedy and Christopher Palmer with an extract
from an interview with Tasmin Little (© Ian Lace)
Walton wrote three concertos for string instruments:
the Viola Concerto (1929), the Violin Concerto (1939) and the
Cello Concerto (1957). Of them Christopher Palmer has written,
"Walton knew little or nothing of strings as a performer.
Yet his three string concertos are amongst the finest written
The Viola Concerto
It was Sir Thomas Beecham who suggested, in 1928,
that Walton should write a Viola Concerto for Lionel Tertis. According
to Susana Walton, writing in her book, William Walton, Behind
the Façade, Walton was somewhat perplexed and wondered
why Sir Thomas thought he should be able to write such a work.
At the time Walton confessed that he knew little about the viola
except that it made a rather awful sound! "The only piece
of viola music he admired and knew was Berlioz’s Harold in
Italy, which he thought quite beautiful, although it was not
highly thought of in those days." Nevertheless, Walton rose
to the challenge and proceeded with the task, finishing his Viola
Concerto at Amalfi. Alas, when he sent it to Tertis, the viola
virtuoso sent it back by the next post declaring it too modern.
Understandably, Walton was deeply hurt. He thought of transposing
it so that it would become a violin concerto but Edward Clark
at the BBC sent it to Hindemith in Germany. To Walton’s delight,
Hindemith accepted to play the Concerto.
Musical politics then raised its ugly head. Hindemith’s
publisher, Willy Strecker, the London manager of Schott, wanted
to launch Hindemith as a viola soloist (he was a marvellous player)
at a Courtauld-Sargent concert. These concerts were extremely
fashionable and very successful (each performance had to be given
twice). When Strecker heard that Hindemith had instead agreed
to play Walton’s Concerto at a Henry Wood promenade concert at
the Queen’s Hall, he was furious. He wrote to Gertrude, Hindemith’s
wife: "Your husband should make himself harder to get. An
appearance with Wood to play a concerto by a moderately gifted
English composer - and that is what Walton is - is not a fitting
debut. Wood’s Promenade Concerts are like their conductor, himself,
a worthy institution at which the playing is so-so and never a
sensation of the sort I am hoping for."
Thankfully, Hindemith did play the Walton Viola
Concerto, which he liked and again quoting Lady Walton, "Playing
William’s Concerto endeared Hindemith to the British public more
than any number of Courtauld-Sargent concerts could have done."
Walton later admitted that he had been much influenced by Hindemith’s
own Viola Concerto even ‘borrowing’ several bars.
The first performance at that Promenade Concert
was not without its difficulties. Walton "offered to conduct
himself, although he soon realised that this was a mistake. The
orchestral parts were all wrong ... and there was practically
no rehearsal time allowed for the Promenade Concerts in those
days. The first rehearsal was a shambles ... he had to stay up
all night to redo the parts, so he was not feeling his best next
day (3rd October 1929). Anyhow, it delighted him to see how well
the work went down.
"William used to say that Paul’s technique
was marvellous, but that his playing was brusque; he was a rough,
no-nonsense player. He just stood up and played." Tertis
was at this performance and later he sent a letter to Walton apologising
for having turned the work down and that he would play it later.
Tertis did so in Liège and then at Worcester where Walton
met Elgar (in a lavatory as Lady Walton recalls). "Tertis
didn’t care much for William’s work [nor did Elgar], and was heard
to mutter that William had murdered the poor unfortunate instrument!"
Of the Viola Concerto, Christopher Palmer commented:
"It was a work of such obvious mastery that it probably did
even more than Façade, Portsmouth Point and
the Sinfonia Concertante - all already behind him - to
establish his place in the vanguard of contemporary English music.
The concerto exceeded all these in emotional depth, richness and
profusion of ideas and technical assurance. The viola is not an
easy instrument for which to write an effective concerto. The
violin is a multi-faceted personality and it can always ride on
top of the orchestra. The luscious cantabile and expressive power
of the cello can command attention at all times. But the viola
is more introvert, a poet-philosopher, conspicuously lacking in
brilliance of tone and ever liable to be blotted out by an unheeding
orchestra. Yet in Walton’s Concerto we are never aware of any
of these limitations ...
"... (For) the original version of the Viola
Concerto [which can be heard in the recording made under the composer
by William Primrose in 1946] ... the orchestra is literally that
of Brahms: no harp, no percussion except timpani, no exotica of
any kind. In 1962 Walton gave the orchestration a major overhaul,
using double (rather than triple) woodwind, eliminating one trumpet
and the tuba, and adding a harp."
Michael Kennedy has written that "The unobtrusive
dramatic presence which Tovey discerned may well be attributed
to the existence of an undisclosed emotional programme. The concerto
is dedicated ‘to Christabel’ and probably records feelings engendered
by Walton’s unrequited passion for Christabel, Lady Aberconway
(who remained a lifelong friend). But there is no need to know
this to appreciate the lyrical melancholy and poetic longing at
the heart of the music."
Kennedy goes on to describe the work thus: "Although
Elgar himself disliked the work when he heard it at a Three Choirs
Festival, it is nonetheless Elgar’s Cello Concerto which is constantly
recalled by the ways in which the solo instrument is allowed to
achieve prominence. Walton, like Elgar, begins with a ruminative
slow movement. The hallmarks of the composer’s style can be identified:
wide intervals, looping arabesques, and added-note minor-major
diatonic harmony together with irregular and syncopated rhythmic
patterns. The progress of the first movement is twice interrupted
by faster dramatic outbursts. The scherzo flashes by, witty and
epigrammatic, leaving the finale as the most substantial movement.
Developing from the bassoons’ hesitant initial theme, it builds
to a fugal climax for the orchestra after which the soloist recapitulates
the first movement’s amorous principal subject with the finale’s
main theme as accompaniment. It is one of the most beautiful passages
in all Walton’s music."
The Violin Concerto
In 1936 Jasha Heifetz took Walton out to lunch
in London and commissioned him to write a Violin Concerto for
£300, a great honour from the greatest virtuoso of the day. Walton
had actually been thinking of writing a piece for clarinet and
violin that Benny Goodman and Joseph Szigeti had asked him to
do when Spike Hughes, an old friend, introduced him to Heifetz.
Lady Walton recalls: "William was delighted and accepted
[Heifetz’s commission]. It had been William Primrose, the viola
player whom William had met at one of Alice’s (Alice Wimborne)
parties, who had suggested to Heifetz to contact William. The
viola concerto was by now thought successful, and Heifetz was
keen on having a work written especially for him."
"... As usual writing it gave him a lot
of trouble [he had refused a lucrative offer to write music for
a film of Shaw’s Pygmalion to concentrate on the concerto - Honegger
picked the commission up]. He said he did not know how to make
the violin part elaborate enough, and therefore unworthy of Heifetz.
In a panic, he thought he had better give it instead to Fritz
Kreisler to play. Eventually he was satisfied that he had exhausted
the possibilities of what one could do on a violin. Yet he always
thought of it as a rather intimate piece, a bit like the Elgar
concerto; as a matter of fact it is in the same key."
The concerto was originally intended for premiere
at a British Council sponsored concert at the 1939 New York World
Fair (along with other works requested from Bax, Bliss and Vaughan
Williams) but when it was found that Heifetz could not play there,
it was decided to postpone the first performance since Heifetz
wanted exclusive playing rights of the work for two years. When
Walton arrived in America he took the concerto to Heifetz who
seemed more interested in planting in his garden. "He didn’t
even play the piece through," Walton told Lady Walton later,
"although he did later jazz up the last movement a bit."
"William tried to play it to him, but he couldn’t get his
fingers in the right places."
Walton and Heifetz worked further on the concerto,
especially the third movement. When the task was completed Walton
said, "I seriously advise all sensitive composers to die
at the age of 37. I know I have gone through the first halcyon
period, and I am just about ripe for my critical damnation."
He need not have worried. The work’s premiere was variously hailed
as a "stirring performance of a work of character and quality
... personal, intense, direct, straightforward ... The use of
the violin is felicitous, from soaring cantilena to brilliance."
Susana Walton goes on to relate - "William
wasn’t at the first performance, which took place in Cleveland,
Ohio [on 7th December 1939 under Rodzinsky with, of course, Heifetz].
War had been declared by then and the house in South Eaton Place
was bombed flat. There had earlier been a bomb scare, in the middle
of which the score of the Violin Concerto had actually got lost.
‘A pity it was ever found, really,’ was William’s wry comment.
Heifetz’s own copy of the score, complete with his bowing marks,
was later lost in the Atlantic, sunk during a convoy crossing."
Walton conducted the first British performance
in London on November 1st 1941 when Henry Holst was the soloist.
Substantial revisions to the orchestration were
made in 1943. The concerto has a more substantial element of technical
virtuosity than the earlier Viola Concerto.
Michael Kennedy comments: "Like the Viola
Concerto, the Violin Concerto is a declaration of love, but this
time without frustration. The ‘dreaming’ (sognando) opening
theme sets the mood of a great work in which the pyrotechnical
demands on the soloist are reconciled with music of ultimate poetical
expressiveness. As in the earlier concerto, the first movement
theme returns in the finale and the whole work has an Italianate
warmth and languor, with the rowdier side of Italy surfacing in
the tarantella scherzo."
The lady with whom Walton was in love was, of
course, Alice Wimborne. Walton said, "Women have always been
important to me ... and I’ve been very lucky. Alice Wimborne -
very beautiful, intelligent, kind, very rich, a grand hostess,
very musical ... she had all the virtues. A marvellous woman."
Christopher Palmer writes, "Walton was blissfully in love
as he worked on the concerto through the late 1930s and it is
tempting to relate the solo violin’s expression of radiant happiness
to its unrivalled capacity for free-ranging lyricism for what
someone once called instrumental bel canto. We like singing when
we are happy."
Christopher Palmer picks up Michael Kennedy’s
point of Italianate writing. "It was the marvellous light
he found overwhelming, the brilliant sunshine and vivid colours
of the Mediterranean scene. This quality of light suffuses all
Walton’s later music - for example, the opera Troilus and Cressida
and the Cello Concerto - written when he made his home in Ischia
off the coast of Naples. Odd intimations of this ‘Mediterraneanism’
do occur in earlier Walton: in the Spanish stylisations of Façade,
in the small-orchestra idyll called Siesta. But the first
full-scale manifestation is surely to be found in the Violin Concerto,
specifically in the orchestral textures of the finale’s second
subject, which shimmer like the blue of the summer sea; nor would
the marvellously dreamy (sognando is a favourite Walton
term) accompanied cadenza towards the end of the movement, with
its succulently seductive consecutive 3rds in the solo instrument,
be out of place in one of the sea- or sky-scapes in Troilus
and Cressida. We might remark too in this connection the second
movement’s marking of ‘Presto capriccioso alla napolitana’, and
its ‘Canzonetta’ trio. Both napolitana and ‘canzonetta’
bear connotations of light Italian song, there are hints of tarantella,
and Frank Howes, in his book on Walton, informs us that this movement
was actually composed in Italy."
Heifetz recorded the concerto shortly after its
premiere and then re-recorded it in 1950, when he was touring
in England. For this recording, the composer was invited to conduct.
Before the sessions commenced, he made substantial changes in
the orchestration but did not alter either the violin part or
the thematic material.
Tasmin Little on the Violin Concerto (and
the Viola Concerto)
One performer’s view of Walton’s Violin Concerto
was expressed to me, in a wide ranging interview on British music,
by Tasmin Little. She said:-
"The Walton Concerto dazzles. You can identify
the parts that were influenced by Heifetz. With Walton’s natural
feel for the virtuosity of all instruments, he would have been
tending towards that kind of writing in the Scherzo anyway but
there are two passages in that movement where you really feel
that Heifetz would have said, "Now come on, Willy, let’s
really go to town here!"
There’s some fiendishly difficult passages in
the Scherzo but interestingly, these are for the orchestra, it’s
not so difficult for the soloist. The difficulty lies in the dramatic
rhythmic changes: I’m thinking particularly of those two passages
near the end of the Scherzo where the music changes into 3/8 then
4/8 - it is a very tricky passage for the wind section. Walton
was not scared of writing difficult music. I believe he wrote
very slowly, but whatever he wrote was very well thought out.
On the other hand, I do not think the Walton Concerto is nearly
as difficult to shape as the Delius Violin Concerto or the Delius
Double Concerto because the line of the Walton Concerto is much
"I would love to play the Walton Viola Concerto
but I fear it is not possible. I enjoyed playing the viola at
school but my hands are very small and I have a hard enough time
getting my fingers around some stretches in the violin repertoire
let alone that of the viola where you’ve really got that much
more to contend with. I can play the viola but because I feel
that I could not perform to the proficiency I would want to attain,
I shall stick to the violin - in any case it’s not as if I were
in any danger of running out of violin repertoire ...!
"Returning to the Walton Violin Concerto,
it has suffered less neglect than say the Delius concertos. I’m
not quite sure why - except, perhaps that Walton’s music sparkles
more overtly and most of his orchestral works are quite showy
so that people can get excited by their colour, vitality and virtuosity.
Even so, playing the Walton Concerto abroad can be a worry because
of the question of how, and with what, to place it in programmes."
Christopher Palmer’s Orchestration of the
Walton Violin Sonata
This article would not be complete, I feel, without
some tribute to the late and much missed Christopher Palmer who
did so much to champion the music of so many British composers
including Walton. His orchestration of Walton’s Violin Sonata
has, in this writer’s opinion, given us a ‘second Walton Violin
Palmer wrote: "The Violin Sonata was also
- at least - initially connected with Lady Wimborne though in
different and tragic circumstances. In September 1947 she became
ill in Switzerland en route with Walton for a holiday in Capri.
To pay for her emergency treatment Walton received money from
Yehudi Menuhin’s wife Diana - whom he met by chance in a train
- in return for a violin sonata for Yehudi and her sister Griselda’s
husband, Louis Kentner. By the time the work was finished (1948;
revised 1949-50) Alice had died and Walton had married señorita
Susana Gil Passo in Buenos Aires."
I remember reviewing the Chandos recording of
Palmer’s transcription in BBC Music Magazine in 1992 -
"This orchestrated version of the Sonata for Violin and Orchestra
is a masterly transcription ... He has not tampered with the original
text but has ‘dressed up’ the work in the bright colours of Walton’s
orchestral palette while observing all the felicities of his style."
Walton Viola Concerto
Frederick Riddle with the London
Symphony Orchestra conducted by William Walton (rec.1937) in a
concert of other items Dutton Laboratories CDAX8003
Walton Violin Concerto
Heifetz with the Philharmonia Orchestra
conducted by William Walton (recorded July 1950) (coupled with
Heifetz playing the Elgar Concerto with the LSO conducted by Sargent
RCA VICTOR Gold Seal GD87966
Walton Violin and Viola Concertos
Yehudi Menuhin with the London
Symphony Orchestra conducted by William Walton part of EMI’s Walton
Edition EMI CHS5 65003-2
Nigel Kennedy with the Royal Philharmonic
Orchestra conducted by Andre Previn (coupled with Walton’s Viola
Concerto) EMI CDC 7 49628 2
Walton (orch. Christopher Palmer) Sonata for
Violin and Orchestra
Lydia Mordkovitch with the London Philharmonic
Orchestra conducted by Jan Latham-Koenig (With the Violin Concerto
and Two Pieces for Violin and Orchestra) CHANDOS CHAN 9073
William Walton Behind the Façade
by Lady Susana Walton Oxford University Press (1988)
Recordings booklet notes from recordings released
by EMI and Chandos