William Walton29 mar 1902 (Oldham) - 8 mar 1983 (Ischia)
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His style was influenced by the works of Stravinsky and Prokofiev as well as jazz music, and is characterized by rhythmic vitality, bittersweet harmony, sweeping Romantic melody and brilliant orchestration. His output includes orchestral and choral works, chamber music and ceremonial music, as well as notable film scores. His earliest works, especially Edith Sitwell's Façade, brought him notoriety as a modernist, but it was with orchestral symphonic works and the oratorio Belshazzar's Feast that he gained international recognition.
Early life and rise to fame
Walton, the son of Charles Alexander Walton and his wife Louisa Maria (née Turner), was born into a musical family, in Oldham, Lancashire, England. At the age of ten, Walton was accepted as a chorister at Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, and he subsequently entered Christ Church of the University of Oxford as an undergraduate at the unusually early age of sixteen. He was largely self-taught as a composer (poring over new scores in the Ellis Library, notably those by Stravinsky, Debussy, Sibelius and Roussel), but received some tutelage from Hugh Allen (organist of New College and then Professor of Music). At Oxford Walton befriended two poets — Sacheverell Sitwell and Siegfried Sassoon — who would prove influential in publicizing his music. Little of Walton's juvenilia survives, but the choral anthem A Litany, written when he was just fifteen, exhibits striking harmonies and voice-leading which was more advanced than that of many older contemporary composers in Britain.
Walton left Oxford without a degree in 1920 for failing Responsions, to lodge in London with the literary Sitwell siblings — Sacheverell, Osbert and Edith — as an 'adopted, or elected, brother'. Through the Sitwells, Walton became familiar with many of the most important figures in British music between the World Wars, particularly his fellow composer Constant Lambert, and also in the arts, notably Noël Coward, Lytton Strachey, Rex Whistler, Peter Quennell, Cecil Beaton and others. Walton's first reputation was one of notoriety, built on his ground-breaking musical adaptation of Edith Sitwell's Façade poems.
The 1923 first public performance of the jazz-influenced Façade resulted in Walton being branded an avant-garde modernist (the critic Ernest Newman described him thus: 'as a musical joker he is a jewel of the first water'), though the first performances stimulated a considerable amount of controversy. An early string quartet gained only slight international recognition, including a performance at the 1923 festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music in Salzburg, with a much appreciative Alban Berg in attendance.
During the 1920s Walton spent most of his time composing in the Sitwells' attic. The orchestral overture Portsmouth Point (which he dedicated to Sassoon) was the first work to point toward his eventual accomplishments, including a strong rhythmic drive, extensive syncopation and a dissonant but predominantly tonal harmonic language. It was the Viola Concerto of 1929, however, which catapulted him to the forefront of British classical music, its bittersweet melancholy proving quite popular; it remains a cornerstone of the solo viola repertoire. This success was followed by equally acclaimed works: the massive choral cantata Belshazzar's Feast (1931), the Symphony No. 1 (1935), the coronation march Crown Imperial (1937), and the Violin Concerto (1939). Each of these works remains firmly entrenched in the repertoire today. Though Belshazzar's Feast is a cornerstone of the repertoire of any up-and-coming choral society, the First Symphony remains a challenge even to professional orchestras without generous rehearsal time to devote to it.
After World War II
During World War II, Walton was granted leave from military service in order to compose music for wartime propaganda films, such as The First of the Few (1942), and Laurence Olivier's adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry V (1944), which Winston Churchill encouraged Olivier to adapt as if it were a piece of morale-boosting propaganda. By the mid-1940s, the rise to fame of younger composers such as Benjamin Britten substantially curtailed Walton's reception among music critics, though the public always received his music enthusiastically. After composing a second string quartet (1946), his strongest achievement in the world of chamber music, Walton dedicated the considerable period of seven years to his three-act tragic opera, Troilus and Cressida (1947–1954). Walton composed the music for two more Shakespeare-Olivier films - the Academy Award-winning Hamlet, and Richard III.
After Troilus and Cressida, Walton returned to orchestral music, composing in rapid succession the Cello Concerto (1956), Symphony No. 2 (1960), and Variations on a Theme by Hindemith (1963). He was knighted in 1951 and received the Order of Merit in 1967. His one-act comic opera, The Bear, was well received at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1967, and commissions came from as far afield as the New York Philharmonic (Capriccio Burlesco, 1968), and the San Francisco Symphony (Improvisations on an Impromptu of Benjamin Britten, 1969). His song-cycles from this period were premiered by artists as illustrious as Peter Pears (Anon. in love, 1960) and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (A Song for the Lord Mayor's Table, 1962).
Walton was commissioned to write the score for the 1969 film Battle of Britain. The music was orchestrated and conducted by Walton's friend and colleague Malcolm Arnold, who also secretly helped Walton compose several sequences.
The music department at United Artists objected that the score was too short. As a result, a further score was commissioned from Ron Goodwin. (Goodwin, when told he would replace a score by William Walton, reportedly replied, "Why?") Producer S. Benjamin Fisz and actor Laurence Olivier protested this decision, and Olivier threatened to take his name from the credits. In the end, one segment of the Walton score, titled The Battle in the Air, which framed the climactic air battles of 15 September 1940, was retained in the final cut. The Walton score was played with no sound effects of aircraft motors or gunfire, giving this sequence a transcendent, lyrical quality. Tapes of the Walton score were believed lost forever until being rediscovered in 1990. The score was restored and released on compact disc with the Goodwin version. The Walton/Arnold score has since been remixed with the film and added as an alternative audio track on MGM DVD and Blu-Ray releases.
In his final decade, Walton found composition increasingly difficult. He repeatedly tried to compose a third symphony for André Previn, but later abandoned the work. His final works are mostly re-orchestrations or revisions of earlier music, and liturgical choral music.
Throughout his life Walton conducted his own works both on the concert platform and the recording studio. He was regarded as an outstanding interpreter of his own works, a claim that cannot always be made for composers.
He settled on the Italian island of Ischia in 1949 with his Argentine wife Susana Gil Passo (30 August 1926 – 21 March 2010), where she created the gardens of La Mortella. In the last year of his life, in his only acting role, he played King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony in the 1983 miniseries Wagner, while Susana as the King's wife "stood at his side in regal attire". He died at his home in Ischia on 8 March 1983. His widow Susana, Lady Walton died on 21 March 2010, aged 83, from natural causes.
Solo vocal music
Note: Dates listed are of musical composition, not film release.
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