VIDEO: William Walton
Born in Lancashire to a musical household, William Walton went to Oxford as a chorister at Christ Church Cathedral and began to compose. His music was heard by the wealthy aristocratic Sitwell family, who took him under their wing at just 16 and introduced him to the great and good of British musical life. Walton’s early music dabbled with the then fashionable atonal serialist style, and his String Quartet was admired by that great serialist composer Alban Berg, no less.
But Walton was really a populist at heart, a man whose music was firmly rooted in the grandeur of Elgar, mixed with the piquancy of Prokofiev and Shostakovich. His first popular work was his Façade, a lively, witty, slightly superficial entertainment for six players and speaker, but his first serious piece which really made his reputation was the luscious Viola Concerto, premiered by Hindemith in 1929. From there, Walton hit his stride, his music bringing the neo-classical and neo-romantic styles crashing together – the huge oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast and his Sibelius-inspired Symphony No. 1, written within just a few years of each other are both ambitious, wide-ranging, brilliant works and still regularly performed around the world.
From there, Walton spent a couple of decades writing music on a smaller scale, music for royal occasions, including his coronation marches Crown Imperial and Orb and Sceptre, but he dabbled in film scores, too, including the wildly successful music for Laurence Olivier’s Henry V, although his score for The Battle of Britain was rejected and replaced with music by Ron Goodwin. Walton found out after reading about it in the Daily Telegraph.
Around this time, Walton met and married the Argentinian Susana Gil Passo, and the two moved from London to the island of Ischia, in the Bay of Naples. It was here that he attempted to complete his only full-scale opera, Troilus and Cressida, sadly a flop at its premiere. Despite the failure, Ischia was fertile ground for Walton, and he wrote some of his finest works there, including the Second Symphony, his Partita for orchestra and the outstanding choral work, The Twelve. Although these works moved Walton closer to a more modern language, he never truly left his tonal, Romantic side behind.