WILLIAM WALTON – Fathers of Film Music, Part 13
Article by Craig Lysy
Born: 29 March 1902, Oldham, England.
Died: 8 March 1983.
William Turner Walton was born into a musical family of Charles Alexander Walton and Louisa Maria Turner in the English mill town of Oldham in Lancashire, the second son in a family of three boys and a girl. His father was a trained musician who studied under Charles Hallé at the Royal Manchester College of Music. He supported the family as a singing teacher, church organist and choirmaster. His mother before marriage had been a professional singer. William’s musical gift manifested when he was a young boy, taking up both the piano and violin with vigor, although he never truly mastered either instrument. He had however his mother’s gift and was more successful as a singer in his father’s choir. In 1912 at the age of ten his exceptional voice earned him a place at the Christ Church Cathedral Choir School in Oxford. The school’s Dean, Dr. Thomas Strong, cultivated his progress, and by age twelve William was composing choral works, songs and organ music. During his Oxford years Walton came under the influence of Hugh Allen, the dominant figure in Oxford’s musical life who made a lasting impression. Allen introduced Walton to a tableau of modern music, which included the works of Stravinsky, Debussy, Sibelius and Roussel. Although at 16 he was one of the youngest to ever enter Oxford, he regretfully failed after four years to achieve his BA. While he passed his musical examinations with ease, he failed the Greek and algebra courses required for graduation.
Upon leaving Oxford Walton moved to London in 1921 and took up residence in Chelsea with Osbert and Edith Sitwell. Edith eventually assumed the role of patron and collaborator. From the Sitwell’s small attic where he would reside for fifteen years, he launched his career. He debuted two years later with what many regard as his most individual and contemporary-sounding score, Façade (1923), in which a small ensemble supported readings of Sitwell’s poems. Although it did not secure critical acclaim, it did not impede his progress. Over the next seven years he had a series of minor successes with the Overture Portsmouth Point (1925), Siesta (1926) and a Sinfonia Concertante for piano and orchestra (1928). His break came next year with a seminal work that at last demonstrated his musical genius – his Viola Concert (1929), which was written at the behest of Sir Thomas Beecham for viola virtuoso Lionel Tertis. Walton received critical acclaim and he followed up with another masterwork of his canon, the massive choral cantata Belshazzar’s Feast (1931). Critics hailed his cantata as the most important English choral piece since Elgar’s “Dream of Gerontius” thirty years earlier. Two affairs with Baroness Imma von Doernberg and later with Viscountess Alice Wimborne lead to an estrangement with the Sitwells, and they parted ways in 1934.
Walton took up residence in the plush Belgravia district in the city of Westminster and was solicited to provide his first film score for Paul Czinner’s drama Escape Me Never. The cinematic experience, while interesting, was insufficient to divert him from the concert hall. He at last completed his first symphony, which debuted in 1935. It was a massive work reminiscent at times of Sibelius. Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians offers the following description; “orgiastic power, coruscating malice, sensuous desolation and extroverted swagger make the symphony a tribute to Walton’s tenacity and inventive facility”. Walton was lured back to the cinema after this success and provided scores for a trio of films, which included; an adaptation of Shakespeare’s As You Like It in 1936, the drama Dreaming Lips in 1937, and the romantic drama Stolen Night in 1939. Although he acquainted himself well to the task in each film, none duplicated his success of the concert hall.
With the death of court composer Sir Edward Elgar in 1934, Walton was commissioned by the Crown to compose a march in the Elgarian tradition to celebrate the coronation of King George VI. The resulting piece, Crown Imperial (1937), was a splendid success, which both the Royals and the public loved. Walton closed the decade with another of his masterworks, his Violin Concerto (1939). Acclaimed violin virtuoso Jascha Heifetz had solicited Walton to write for him a violin concerto. Walton responded with what critics and violin enthusiasts describe as one of the finest romantic concertos ever composed for the instrument. Walton would later state that his love Alice was his muse for the concerto.
The war years of the 1940s were a grim time as London reeled from the Blitz and England fought for its very survival. He was exempted from military service and instead tasked by the government with writing music for British propaganda films. He also did some service as an ambulance driver during the war years. Walton himself suffered when his residence at Belgravia was destroyed by bombing in May of 1941, and he moved to Alice’s family home at Ashby St. Ledgers in the countryside of Northamptonshire. During his stay in the countryside, Walton shifted his focus from the concert hall to film scores with the comedy Major Barbara (1941), the suspense-thriller propaganda film The Next Kin (1942), the war drama The Foreman Went to France (1942), what many consider as on of Britain’s best war films, The First of the Few (AKA Spitfire), in 1942, and the war thriller Went The Day Well?, also in 1942. All these were successful efforts, which helped divert a war weary public, and demonstrated Walton’s skills in writing for the cinema.
1944 proved to be a breakout year for Walton when he was selected to score Laurence Olivier’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V. The film provided a massive tapestry for Walton to compose, and he rose to the occasion, achieving a result worthy of his concert hall successes. His Agincourt battle music may perhaps the greatest ever written, fully empowering the fierce French Knights. The score is in my judgment is a masterwork of film score art, and his Magnum Opus. Its grand, glorious and epic sweep earned him his first Academy Award nomination, losing to Friedhofer’s own Magnum Opus, The Best Years of Their Lives. Regretfully 1947 proved to be a tragic year as Alice, who was 22 years his senior, died unexpectedly. Walton was devastated and took his publisher’s advice to get away from it all with a trip to Buenos Aires. Fate intervened as he met and courted Susana Gil Passo, a daughter of a wealthy lawyer who, at 22, was 24 years his junior. She eventually succumbed to his charm and they were married in Buenos Aires in 1948. They vacationed on the Italian isle of Ischia off the coast of Naples and split their time between Ischia and London until 1956 when Ischia became their permanent residence.
With his happiness restored, Walton accepted another assignment from Olivier, a new adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in 1948. Once again Walton wrote a score of uncommon beauty and power, one of the finest in film score art, which earned him his second and final Academy Award nomination, losing to countryman’s Brian Easdale’s astounding balletic score to The Red Shoes. Despite this success, film score composing took a back seat to other projects. He closed out the decade when he at last completed his opera Trolius and Cressida. Although his effort was graced with truly beautiful music, it unfortunately suffered from a weak libretto, thus never achieving critical acclaim or resonating with the public.
The 1950s brought Walton acclaim when he was knighted in 1951. In 1953 he was once again commissioned by the Crown to compose music for the coronation of Princess Elizabeth in 1953. He wrote a wonderful coronation march, “Orb and Scepter”, as well as a choral piece “Te Deum”. In 1955 Walton completed his trilogy of Shakespearean films with Olivier with the final installment, Richard III. Although he again offered a beautiful and powerful score, which fully matched Olivier’s optics and narrative, it did not achieve the same critical success of the two prior films. In 1956 he offered his latest concert piece, an introspective Cello Concerto. Like his earlier concertos it opened with an air of contemplation, is structured in three movements, and contrasts warm romantic passages against more agitated passages. 1956 also marked the year that Walton sold his London home and purchased a full time hilltop residence on Ischia. He named their new home La Mortella, and he and Susana would spend the rest of his life there.
Walton’s output was never robust, and after his relocation to La Mortella it slowed even further. He closed the 1950s with his Symphony No. 2 in C major, which had been commissioned by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic society. This symphony did not achieve critical success, as it was compared unfavorably with his superb first symphony. Critics found it enigmatic in mood, with a pre-war romanticism that seemed out of step with post war culture. The 1960s opened with a number of small pieces for solo voice or chorus including; Gloria (1961), A Song for the Lord Mayor’s Table (1962), The Twelve (1963), and An Anthem for the Feast of Any Apostle (1964). Orchestral works included Variations on a Theme by Hindemith (1962), Prelude (1962), The Bear: An Extravaganza (1967), which received an enthusiastic response from the public and critics alike, and Cappricio Buriesco (1968). In 1966 Walton underwent successful surgery for lung cancer, after which he gave up his life long passion for pipe smoking. The following year Walton received the prestigious Order of Merit, a royal order that recognizes distinguished service in the armed forces, science, art, literature, or the promotion of culture. King Edward VII established it in 1902, and admission into the order remains the personal gift of the British sovereign.
1969 marked Walton’s last efforts in writing for the cinema. His score for The Battle of Britain was rejected by studio executives and wounded him deeply. He swore afterwards that he would never compose for film again. However, his old friend Olivier coaxed him into to one final effort for his film The Three Sisters (1969), which was based on the 1900 play by Anton Chekov. Olivier always seemed to bring out the best in Walton, and he responded with his fourth superb effort for the director. The score is subtle, nuanced, distinctly mellow, and autumnal, one that speaks expertly to the tragic dimensions of the play. For me, this cinematic requiem offers a fine goodbye from a masterful composer of the cinema. Walton lived out his final years peacefully at his idyllic La Mortella, passing on 8 March 1983 at the age of 80. His ashes were interned on his beloved Ischia, and a memorial service was held at Westminster Abbey, where a commemorative stone was unveiled near those for Edward Elgar and Benjamin Britten, which for your author is a fitting commemoration.
Walton was a notoriously slow worker who repeatedly revised his music, both during composition and afterwards, He once related that “Without an India-rubber I was absolutely sunk.” His canon, when compared to his peers, seems meager for his sixty-year career, yet he never the less achieved distinction. In terms of his compositional style Walton style is often described as romantic, bittersweet, lyrical, and nostalgic, with a sterling resplendent glamour. He remained true to himself throughout his long career providing a rhythmic vitality, sensuous melancholy and orchestral flair that was singularly unique. Yet one also observes that he was able to assimilate and incorporate a wide array of contemporary idioms into his style such as Angelical anthems, jazz and the techniques of the modernists.
His style was instantly identifiable due to its intrinsic individualism – Walton always sounded like Walton. With his concert pieces we see a proclivity for the sonata-Allegro form with his trademark four and eight measure phrasing. Yet what separates him from his contemporaries was his singular use of rhythm. Stravinsky had a profound effect on Walton’s concepts of rhythm, and his works characteristically demonstrate incredible rhythmic drive and vitality. In terms of harmony, Walton once again offered a singular voice, his writing often heavily accented with added 7ths, 9ths, tonal centers, and non-chord tones. Yet it would be wrong to say that he embraced atonality given his rich romantic harmonies and innate chromaticism.
Regarding Walton’s compositional style, William Foss commented in the 1940 issue of Musical Quarterly:
“For this is where I find Walton different from the majority of composers. He has a searchingly accurate judgment of the weight and value of his own inventions. He knows precisely whether that passage is right, just there, or wrong, and if he does not know he probes until he finds out, and if it is wrong in his opinion, he is quite ready to go on writing until he at last finds the right passage. He seldom makes a hair’s breadth’s mistake in the assessment of his music as he writes it. A sense of shape, of temporal design, that it is very hard to appease, is often at war with a mere capacity to invent sounds: the critical sense of style may make peace terms, but the sense of form never loses the battle. Hence there is little of useless merely good-sounding music in Walton’s works: hence each work finds an artistic integrity on its own scale. Walton has become an artist in moods. He constructs emotionally. You will never find a trace of anti-climax in Walton’s works. I think Walton touches us all with his own humanity. There is at once friendliness in this music and an oracular vision that comprehends but stands above sympathy.”
In summation, music was in transition during Walton’s time with peers shifting from classical European romanticism to the modernist traditions of Impressionism and Expressionism, which were ascendant in the post WWII era. Although atonality was very much in vogue, Walton continued steadfast, remaining true to his own sensibilities, thus maintaining his singular voice until the very end.
One may argue that William Walton was the last of his kind, the final classical age concert composer to write for the cinema. Like Korngold, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Vaughn Williams and Copland, he brought the beauty, richness and complexity of the concert hall to the big screen. His trilogy of masterworks composed for Sir Laurence Olivier’s Shakespearean films affirms his mastery of his craft, and take their honored place within the hallowed halls in pantheon of great film scores. Rarely has a composer been able to achieve a truly divine synergy with film imagery and narrative. From my perspective, with only a small canon of only thirteen scores, Walton’s contribution to film score art leaves me wanting; taking solace in the Trilogy.
Because Walton set himself apart when he took up residence in Ischia, he held no posts in music conservatories from which he could shape new generations of composers. To his contemporaries, he was viewed as a pre-war composer in the post WWII era. Nevertheless his legacy cannot be discounted. I will close with a tribute by Hubert J. Foss who wrote in “The Book of Modern Composers” the following;
“Walton was 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 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.”
Academy Award Nominations:
1946 Academy Awards – Best Original Score – Henry V
1948 Academy Awards – Best Original Score – Hamlet
Walton provided a small canon that stretched over four decades and consisted of thirteen film scores. Although small in number, several have made lasting impressions, attesting to his mastery of this medium;
Escape Me Never (1935), As You Like It (1936), Dreaming Lips (1937), A Stolen Night (1939), Major Barbara (1941), Went The Day Well? (1942), The Next Kin (1942), The Foreman Went to France (1942), The First of the Few (1942), Henry V (1944), Hamlet (1948), Richard III (1955), Battle of Britain (1969), Three Sisters (1969).
Walton, like Moross, and Korngold, had a very modest canon of scores with limited commercially available. The Chandos label has produced three releases, which offer the Olivier’s Shakespearean Trilogy in all their resplendent and epic grandeur. I offer these three albums for your consideration.
This CD presentation does not offer traditional score cues, rather Christopher Palmer has adapted it into a 61 minute concert piece of ten cues for orchestra, chorus and speaker – Christopher Plummer. It is comprised of 90% of the original score and offers a truly impressive and dramatic presentation of Walton’s masterpiece. His Agincourt battle music may perhaps the greatest ever written, fully empowering the charge of the fierce French Knights. Included on the CD are three additional pieces; Rosa Solis by Giles Farnaby, Watkin’s Ale – anonymous, and Obal, dinlou Limouzi by Joseph Canteloube. Henry V is Walton’s Magnum Opus and I highly recommend you explore its majesty and add it to your collection. I believe this score to be among the 100 greatest film scores ever written.
This CD presentation does not offer traditional score cues, rather it has been adapted into a 39 minute concert piece of 14 cues for orchestra, chorus and speaker – Sir John Gielgud. It is comprised of most of the score and offers a truly impressive and dramatic presentation of Walton’s second masterpiece. Alice died at this time and we feel in Walton’s music his own pathos of grief, notably in Ophelia’s music, the funeral march, and especially in the sublime threnody, which follows the duel scene. Included on the CD is a 13-minute concert suite from his first Shakespearean score, As You Like It (1936), which is presented, as a sublime “Poem for Orchestra” comprised of five cues. This second CD in the series is just wonderful and I highly recommend you explore its majesty and add it to your collection.
This CD presentation does not offer traditional score cues, rather it has been adapted into a 44 minute concert piece of 10 cues for orchestra, chorus and speaker – Sir John Gielgud. It is comprised of most of the score and offers a truly impressive and dramatic presentation of Walton’s final masterpiece. Richard III is a stunning work with the Main Title offering up one of Walton’s most memorable and glorious melodies, and a finale for the ages where he provides shattering fortissimo chords and a stirring cello solo for Richard’s passing. Included on the CD is Walton’s Fanfare and March form Macbeth, part of the incidental music he wrote for Gielgud’s 1941 production. It is an inspired piece, one of the finest Walton ever wrote. Lastly, we have an 11 minute suite from Walton’s score to Major Barbara (1941) This third CD in the series is just wonderful and I highly recommend you add it to your collection.
- William Walton – Wikipedia
- William Walton at the Internet Movie Database
- Classic Film Music: http://www.classicfm.com/composers/walton/
- Encyclopedia Britannica: http://www.britannica.com/biography/William-Walton
- Oxford University Press: http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/category/music/composers/walton.do
- Robert Meikle, William Walton: Music and Literature, (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited), 68-70.
- The Historical Impact Of William Walton’s Concerto For Violin And Orchestra By Marcus Scholtes