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Walton(1902-83) - Symphony No. 1 in B flat minor

His father being a choirmaster and singing teacher, himself a chorister at Christ Church Cathedral School, Oxford (1912-18), so presumably raised in the English Church choral tradition, William Walton seemed destined for a conventional career. However, fortune decreed that on leaving school he would encounter the welcoming arms of the Sitwells, who were instrumental in making him a thoroughly modern composer. Within two years, his collaboration with Edith Sitwell on Façade was a succes de scandale, and the young Walton an enfant terrible. By 1930, through gems like Portsmouth Point, Siesta, the Viola Concerto, and Belshazzar's Feast, he had outgrown this reputation. 

Uncharacteristically, the First Symphony took nearly four years to produce. In 1931 or 1932, experiments with an allegro theme foundered. The first two movements were eventually drafted, by spring 1933. Over a year later the first three movements were ready. These were performed minus the finale, which took another year to complete. 

Why did it take so long? Walton admitted that the second movement was provoked by the acrimonious break-up of a passionate love affair. The first movement, apparently conceived contemporaneously, may have been similarly motivated. The relatively reluctant emergence of the other two movements, whose compositions overlapped, suggests that Walton needed time to fully realise his incipient “programme”. 

The First Symphony is difficult to pigeonhole. It directly follows the precedent of Beethoven's Fifth, of “triumph over adversity” through commanding unity of purpose and strong “corporate identity”. Moreover, the first movement possesses that same feeling of organic growth found in the corresponding movement of Beethoven's Ninth. Although Walton eschews the Romantic fashion for thematic integration to “unify” movements into a coherent work, it is even more of a “psycho-drama” than Sibelius’ En Saga, seemingly belonging to the late Romantic. However, is there not a kindred spirit at work in Elgar's First, which stands at the threshold of the Twentieth Century (1908), or in any number of works of the 1920s and early 1930s by Stravinsky or (especially) Prokofiev, with whom Walton shared a style both romantically lyrical and pungently incisive? Yet surely its highly subjective nature is at odds with the objectivity of the time, not to mention his own other music? Walton's First, put bluntly, is a one-off

The First Movement: Allegro assai is the embodiment of sheer, undiluted rage. In a mere half- minute, the first subject spews forth four explosive elements (anger was ever profligate): a neurotically twitching violin rhythm, a five-note growl from 'cellos and basses, a plaintive oboe echoing the twitchy rhythm then turning in on itself, and a rising bassoon figure. These fuse into a fulminating climax out of which the second subject struggles to assert itself, its rising intervals disintegrating neurotically into whirling confusion. I won't even try to “analyse” such a seething storm, other than try to “signpost” the recapitulation: as a climax subsides onto the twitchy rhythm, horns precipitate a tuba ostinato on the “growl”, over which the violins spread the oboe theme. The coda is an implacable procession which pauses for one massive inhalation, before blasting a succession of granitic chords and hammering an unrelenting conclusion. Definitely “X-Certificate” stuff! 

The Second Movement is not marked “scherzo”, because it's no “joke”, but presto, con malizia, very apt for music dripping bitter bile from every viciously-spiked note. Surprisingly perhaps, there is an underlying form - the thematic alternation normally associated with a minuet (!). A fusillade of fractured two-note cells introduces a jagged first subject based on three-note cells. The frenzied second subject, still abrupt but more recognisably a theme, appears on violins, quickly passed to horns and trumpets. These are subjected to vitriolic contortions, all equally unpleasant (if you're the object of Walton's disaffection). A shrill trill capped by a savage crunch ends the movement. But wait! Having rained a torrent of abuse on his hapless “ex” and stormed out, he returns to fling one final poisoned, but pointless barb. 

Once the spleen is fully vented, the only way out is down, into the self-pity and depression of the Third Movement's Andante con Malincolia. Over a pin-pricked texture, a mournful, lonely flute weaves a long, heartbroken song, none other than the abortive allegro theme originally intended for the first movement. A continuously evolving string of variations traverses the entire melancholic spectrum, from sentimentality, through bittersweet regret and black remorse, to racked anguish (though not necessarily in that order). Finally the flute returns, its bleak lament succumbing to thrumming deep chords, fading into vague unease: the dark before the dawn. 

When all sorrow is spent, the only way out is up: the first subject of the Finale: Maestoso; Brioso ed Ardemente resolves the unease, a quickly rising summer sun casting a brassy glow. It's so invigorating, Walton repeats it before launching his brioso, the jagged now turned jaunty. Springing abruptly but naturally out of the first, a jazzy second subject fugues for all it's worth. Unexpectedly, a mellow third subject (oboes) creeps over the fugal subject's tail. A spirited development eventually precipitates a crisis on the brass, all the more devastating for deriving from the mellow third subject. The original brioso soon dispels the cloud, a varied recapitulation eventually soaring to a tremendous climax: an ostinato thrilling with trilling piccolo. Joy unlimited breaks out, tympani pounding and tamtam splashing all over the place. This massive peroration is briefly interrupted by a twinge of regret, solo trumpet musing on the first subject, and woodwind the second. One of the triumphant endings in music, it nevertheless seems a nadge aggressive, culminating in bruising, staccato chords reminiscent of Belshazzar's Feast. Maybe, in his enthusiasm, Walton is putting the past behind him just a wee bit over-emphatically?

© Paul Serotsky
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