Born on March 29, 1902, in Oldham, England; died on March 8, 1983, in Ischia, Italy; son of Charles Walton (a choirmaster) and Luisa Turner (a singer); married Susana Gil Passo, 1948. Education: Attended Oxford University.

In the turmoil of twentieth-century styles, schools, movements, and breakthroughs, composer William Walton's music is thought to be remarkably reassuring. Informed by his strong creative personality, Walton's compositions do not follow any pre-established paradigm of compulsory modernism. Because his music is difficult to categorize, critics have tended to define it as "traditional," "nostalgic," even "romantic." But, while Walton's music is tonal and eminently accessible, it is clearly rooted in the twentieth century, expressing the anguished spirit of the times in ways that may elude the superficial listener.

Born in Oldham, England, on March 29, 1902, Walton received his early music education from his father, who was a church choir master. In 1912, he was accepted as a chorister at Christ Church Cathedral, in Oxford. Walton's talent as a composer manifested itself early: in 1916 he composed the mature A Litany. In 1918 he entered Oxford University. Walton's teachers recognized and fostered his immense talent, providing him with an excellent musical education. An eager student, particularly interested in contemporary musical developments, Walton fit well into the academic mold. He left Oxford in 1920 without obtaining a degree. One of the benefits of his student years was his friendship with the Sitwell family, who introduced him to Europe's cultural and artistic elite. During the 1920s, Walton met George Gershwin and Igor Stravinsky, absorbing a variety of musical and intellectual styles. Walton's String Quartet No. 1 (1919-22) exhibits many of those influences. Nevertheless, this powerfully dramatic, even anguished, work received the praise of many, including the noted composer Alban Berg. During this period, Walton traveled to Italy with the Sitwells. This was a tremendous experience, as Walton deeply identified with Italy's music, culture, atmosphere, and flavor of life. Traces of Walton's Italian sojourn can be heard in his Façade, a whimsical, imaginative, eclectic setting of Edith Sitwell's poetry.

The Viola Concerto

In 1929 Walton completed his Viola Concerto, a masterpiece in which Walton emerged as a composer of true genius. If influences of Walton's older contemporaries, such as Prokofiev or Ravel, can be heard, these are very faint echoes. The core of this work is Walton's fully developed voice: reflective, intriguing, imaginative, passionate. Premiered in 1929 by the eminent German composer and violist Paul Hindemith, this meticulously crafted work of many textures and moods established Walton's reputation as a composer of great originality and emotional power.

In stark contrast to the lyricism and philosophical mood of the Viola Concerto, the cantata Belshazzar's Feast (1930-31) exudes enormous energy and dramatic intensity. Based on Osbert Sitwell's unusual, almost eccentric, adaptation of the Old Testament story of Belshazzar's downfall, Walton uses irony, sarcasm, and musical symbolism to represent the hopeless decadence of Babylon, as seen through the eyes of an oppressed, and enraged, Jewish population.

In the 1930s Walton widened his circle of influential friends and patrons, enjoying the protection of Siegfried Sassoon and Lady Alice Wimbourne. However, it was not easy to repeat the success of Belshazzar's Feast. Composing his Symphony No. 1 was an arduous task as he struggled to extricate himself from the web of powerful musical influences. Nevertheless, this work, in which some critics discern the influences of Sibelius, exudes an astonishing primal energy and emotional abandon. However, other works written in the 1930s, such as the Violin Concerto, lack the profound originality of the Viola Concerto.

In the early 1940s, Walton emerged as a superb film composer, writing scores for several patriotic films. Furthermore, he started working with Laurence Olivier, and this extraordinary partnership produced masterpieces of film music, exemplified by Walton's scores for Henry the V (1944), Hamlet (1948), and Richard III (1955).

Settled in Italy

Lady Wimbourne, with whom Walton had an intimate relationship, died in 1948, leaving the composer to start a new chapter in his life. That year, in Buenos Aires, where he had gone to attend a conference, Walton met a young Argentine woman, Susana Gil Passo, and fell madly in love with her. They married in 1948, settling on the Italian island of Ischia the following year. During the 1940s, Walton also composed chamber music, writing, among other works, an admirable String Quartet No. 2 (1945-46), which critics have compared to Maurice Ravel's exquisite chamber music. Following this accomplishment, Walton embarked on a difficult project, his opera Troilus and Cressida (1947-54), which occupied him for many years. Frustrated by a somewhat stilted libretto, Walton nevertheless composed music that did justice to the anguished story, as evidenced by Cressida's moving arias. The opera had a successful premier at Covent Garden in 1954, and successful productions followed, including performances in New York and San Francisco. Unfortunately, the work failed at La Scala. Deeply affected by this setback, Walton revised his opera many times.

Unlike Walton's opera, the Cello Concerto (1955-56) is a work in which the deep power of his musical inspiration manifests itself freely, untrammeled by doubts and worries. Perhaps less popular than Elgar's Cello Concerto and somewhat subdued, Walton's Cello Concerto evinces an astonishing introspectiveness, emotional richness, and idiomatic inventiveness. A profoundly personal statement, this work also embodies the restless, troubled, almost frenzied, spirit of the times. The Cello Concerto was followed by the Symphony No. 2 (1957-60), in which Walton displays his powers of orchestration, thematic development, and formal construction.

Walton's mastery of orchestration comes to the fore in his works dedicated to fellow composers: Variations on a Theme by Hindemith (1962-63) and Improvisations on an Impromptu of Benjamin Britten (1969). Excelling in brilliant orchestration, rich color, and imaginative thematic development, these works are truly representative of Walton's talent and craftsmanship.

Returned to Origins

Walton's musical inspiration was affected, but not diminished, by old age. For example, the austere Prologo e Fantasia (1981-82) for orchestra explores with profound insight and suggestive power the existential strangeness of old age. Walton's musical origins, so to speak, lie in the Anglican choral music of his childhood. As a successful composer in many genres, he nevertheless remained faithful to choral music, composing significant works throughout his career, compositions exemplified by Missa brevis (1965-66), Jubilate Deo (1971-72), Cantico del sole (1973-74), and Antiphon (1977). Walton died in Italy in 1983.

In his assessment of Walton's music, Hubert J. Foss, in a chapter in The Book of Modern Composers, describes Walton as a master of moods. Indeed, unlike many composers who seek to transcend human limitations by devising incomprehensible, distant styles and idioms, Walton illuminates the world of feelings, finding the right musical expression for his insights. "This artistry in moods," Foss wrote, "is but one example of the fine aristocratic eclecticism which colours all Walton's music. Walton is not only master of his sounds and of their combination: he chooses, with the delicate air of an expert in precious stones, those of his store of jewels which will show best in this setting or another. His power of selection, coupled with his sense of style, is evidenced in his orchestration as well as in the texture of his music."

by Zoran Minderovic

William Walton's Career

Composed String Quartet No. 1, 1919-22; wrote masterwork Viola Concerto, 1928-29; composed scores for film adaptations of Henry V, 1943-44, and Hamlet, 1948; wrote opera Troilus and Cressida, 1947-54.

William Walton's Awards

Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society, 1947; knighthood, 1951; Order of Merit, 1967; Benjamin Franklin Medal, 1972; honorary membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1978; Ivor Novello Award, 1982.

Famous Works

Further Reading


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