Film composer John Williams once told me that William Walton's
film music was held in very high esteem in Hollywood. In fact his scores for
Hamlet and Henry V were nominated for Academy Awards (both facts shamefully
ignored by Halliwell's Film and Video Guide in their crassly brief
coverage of his film career). This new picture biography from OUP in their celebrated
'portrait album' series that has included Elgar and Vaughan Williams, includes
a full coverage of the composer's achievements in film music. In the main I
shall confine my remarks to this genre because my colleague Christopher Fifield
has contributed an excellent review of the book on our sister site MusicWeb
and I direct admirers of Walton's music, as a whole, to his review via this
Walton's life story would have made an interesting screen play
in itself. Born in Oldham Lancashire, he left that mill town to enter Christ
Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford at ten, and went on to become an Oxford undergraduate.
As a young man he became something of a 'cuckoo in the nest' with the bohemian
Sitwells and wrote for Edith Sitwell music for her extravagant verses (Façade).
His love life was colourful. He had an eye for the ladies. One of his first
loves was the daughter of a German prince and widow of a baron much older than
herself. At length the affair foundered and caused Walton much pain, pain that
he sublimated in his First Symphony. Later, he fell happily in love with Alice,
Viscountess Wimborne, beautiful, intelligent, fun-loving and patroness of the
arts and married to one of the richest men in Britain. Theirs was what they
used to call an 'Edwardian marriage'. She was twenty-two years older than William.
Her love inspired his beautiful Violin Concerto. Alas Alice died of cancer in
1948. Then, in Buenos Aires, Walton caught the eye of the British Council's
social secretary, a vivacious girl of 22. Immediately he proposed marriage to
her and kept on proposing when she refused him. Ultimately, he succeeded and
they married in 1949. She became Lady Susana Walton in January 1951 and they
settled on the idyllic island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples well away from
the British musical establishment.
The book includes stills from many of the films that Walton
scored; plus a full list of them commencing with Escape Me Never (there
are rare stills from this 1935 film and from Stolen Life and Dreaming
Lips, scored in the late 1930s) to his last film Laurence Olivier's film
version of his National Theatre production of Chekhov's The Three Sisters
(1970). Walton had a great admiration and affection for Sir Laurence
Olivier; accordingly, the book includes many pictures of the celebrated actor.
There is for instance, a photograph from 1942 of Olivier as an officer in the
Fleet Air Arm. Another shows him with his wife Vivien Leigh together with William
and Susana. The caption reads: "
the Waltons sustained Olivier through
his wife's bouts of mental illness." On a page devoted to the making of
the film, The Battle of Britain (1969), there is not only a picture of
Olivier in the role of Air chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding but also a photograph
of the film's producers, S.Benjamin Fisz and Harry Saltman who rejected Walton's
score. (Reportedly, Walton had not composed enough music to fill a soundtrack
LP and they favoured the more commercial music of Ron Goodwin.). Olivier threatened
to remove his name form the film credits unless some of Walton's music was restored.
Sir William Walton died on March 5th 1983, just
three weeks before his 81st birthday.
For film music fans and lovers of Walton's music in general,
this tome is highly recommended a coffee table format book to be treasured.