William Walton's 107th
Today would have been the 107th birthday of English composer William Walton, who died in 1983.
His violin, viola and cellos concertos have earned a permanent place in the repertoire. His movie soundtracks for Laurence Olivier’s post-World War II Shakespeare films (which earned him two Oscar nominations) will always be around. Guitar students love the Bagatelles he wrote for Julian Breem. But the rest of his considerable output of chamber, symphonic, choral, theatre, ballet and sacred music is slowly disappearing under a layer of dust.
With lights turned out but video screen glowing, my Earth Hour activity last night was watching Tony Palmer’s 1980 film biography of Walton, At the Haunted End of the Day. (The title comes from a truly haunting aria sung by Cressida in his 1954 opera Troilus and Cressida.)
Walton was not a flamboyant or controversial man. He was someone who, in the classic British sense, got on with what he had to do. Palmer says his is the only full-length interview ever recorded with Walton. Even so we learn little about what may have been going on inside Walton’s head.
As with most of Palmer's DVD reissues, there is no full-length performance of any one work included on the disc, so one has to go looking elsewhere.
Walton’s Oldham, Lancashire boyhood, lucky admission to Oxford’s Christ Church Cathedral choir and precocious talent for composition make a great beginning.
Walton had no knack for mastering piano or violin at school. “So I had to find a way to make myself interesting, or risk being sent back to Oldham. So I tried composing,” he recalls.
His years at Oxford placed him amidst people who would later help kick start his career. The most prominent were Sacheverell (Sacha) Sitwell and his poet sister Edith, who eased his entry into the clique of London’s bright young things in the 1920s.
But the documentary’s 95-minute march forward can’t pause, and must plod on. What we do begin to see forming is a morose, self-absorbed personality.
One of the film’s unintentional laughs comes when Walton laments the onset of World War II: “It was a shame, because I had just bought a house in Belgravia, and it was bombed flat.”
We catch excerpts of the major musical highlights -- including Belshazzar’s Feast, conducted by a very young Simon Rattle.
When Palmer asks the composer what he is looking forward to next, the old man shrugs slightly. “I don’t know. Death, I suppose.”
Fortunately, enough of his music does live on to perhaps inspire future musicians. Don’t miss an opportunity to give it a listen.
There’s an excellent resource site (that hasn’t been updated for a couple of years) at www.williamwalton.net
Given that it’s his birthday, and that it’s a Sunday, let’s celebrate with William Walton’s extravagant setting of Te Deum (We Praise Thee, O God) for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation (as performed ata memorial service for Laurence Olivier in Westminster Abbey, in 1989):