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William Walton: Forgotten Son
Overshadowed by Elgar and Britten, his old-school style and move to Italy put him out of the English spotlight
The English classical composer William Walton can be said to have a similar style to John Williams: neo-romanticist. His style is almost one that merges the Englishness of Sir Edward Elgar along with composers such as Stravinsky, blending the latter's driving rhythms (evident in works such as The Rite of Spring) and other features such as wide intervallic jumps with a predilection for the more melancholic tunes reminiscent of the English countryside that are normally associated with composers such as Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams. While Walton's music may not be regarded as one of the most challenging works in the twentieth century, the composer, who was born in 1902 and lived until three weeks short of his eighty-first birthday, wrote a few pieces particularly worthy of attention.
His early years may have provided some insight into his later development. His father was a singing teacher and organist, and his mother had been a singer, and while young William had had lessons in piano and violin, he showed more aptitude as a singer and spent his teens as a chorister at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, where he encountered the vast corpus of choral music and the various musical styles. It was then that he also started composing, accomplishing success later in his twenties with Facade, a modernist piece for six players and narrator. The narrated poems were by Edith Sitwell, of the upper-class bohemian family, with whom Walton lived with both in London and Italy. Facade's premiere in 1926 made Walton known to the general public, and his fame was further enhanced by the Viola Concerto which was premiered by Paul Hindemith in 1929.
The most well-known of Walton's works is arguably Belshazzar's Feast, a cantata which at the time was held in regard as one of the finest works of English choral tradition. It is a dramatic work that may be classed as "Biblical Gothic", and is scored for a baritone, a fully choir and orchestra. While the handling of these large forces won Walton acclaim for his orchestration and small ensemble writing, the nature of the material - which at times was violent and dark, and bordering on quasi-paganism - upset some of the concert public. For instance, the Three Choirs Festival - a week-long programme of choral and orchestral work, with a history that dates back to 1715 - veered away from the work for nearly three decades before considering it.
Walton wrote music for many film scores and followed up the success of Belshazzar with Symphony no 1 - his only one. This piece, and his Violin Concerto (commissioned in 1939) gave him some extended success; the unfortunate decline of Romantic music after the war meant Walton produced less and less music after his post-war move to Italy. His sensitive Romantic style unfortunately caused him to be labelled retrogressive and put him out of the spotlight in favour of upcoming composers such as Benjamin Britten. The latter once noted of Walton that the impression he gave was that "he is the head prefect of English music" - probably implying he was rigid and slightly locked in the past.
Walton died at La Mortella on 8 March 1983, three weeks short of his eighty-first birthday, and his ashes were buried on Ischia.
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