Saturday, 4 August 2012

William Walton: Beyond the Façade

A general outline of the musical career of William Walton (1902-1983) would say that be was no prodigy but, perhaps due to being a choirboy at Oxford Cathedral, was capable of writing so beautiful and harmonically interesting a piece as A Litany by the age of 14. He quickly acquired a professional approach to composing, writing such accomplished pieces as the teenage Piano Quartet - a work whose pervasive use of modality (including pentatonic melodies) isn't a sign of the future as far as this composer is concerned but which still sounds fully mature. The vigour and force of argument found in later Walton is found most clearly in the finale, along with obvious signs of the influence of the Stravinsky of Petrushka

The serious tone of that early chamber piece was soon pushed aside by Façade - Walton's breakthrough piece. Smart, slick and entirely in the spirit of light-hearted of the time, Façade was a sensation in its day. The abstract poetry of Edith Sitwell is spoken, the rhythms of which are reflected in the accompanying music which has more than a little of Les six and the chicest Stravinsky about it - and seems to show the influence of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire. This was William Walton leaping straight to the front of the stage of British music with a work of brazen cheekiness. I like the daftness of the poetry and the parodic panache of Walton's music. You should definitely experience the piece in its original form (see link below). Partaking of some of the same spirit, the breezy brilliance of the concert overture Portsmouth Point - depicting a bustling scene of 18th Century British sailors contained in a Rowlandson print (see below) - also shows the influence of Stravinsky but also demonstrates that, despite the scandalous intent of Façade, Walton was a man who liked to write music that people would enjoy. The rhythmic ingenuity of the piece, with its hint of jazz, is a sign of things to come. The other concert overture of that time, Siesta,  also inhabits the world of Façade, sounding rather like an extension of one of its slumber songs. 

This 'radical' enfant terrible phase was not long in lasting and with the Sinfonia Concertante Walton's 'inner Romantic' begins to emerge - especially in the sensuous decoration of the somewhat Ravel-like slow movement. Then came the first of his three concertos, the masterly Viola Concerto. Here the snapping, irregular rhythms of Portsmouth Point (now established as a trait of the composer's mature style) are allied with bitter-sweet lyricism and symphonic breadth. The harmonic language is strongly rooted in tonality, though Walton makes it more astringent through the use of dissonance -including his trademark use of 'false relations'. 

His most famous work, Belshazzar's Feast ('Belli's Binge', as he liked to call it!), was a large-scale public statement for soloist, choral and orchestra - an unconventional oratorio that conveys the harshness and pity of the Bible story. The harshness is heard in the opening prophecy, with its dissonances and irregular rhythms, while the short orchestral passage that introduces the lament 'By the Rivers of Babylon' (which follows straight on) switches miraculously to pity. The work is powerfully dramatic, especially the climactic scene - the death of Belshazzar - which ends on a great shout of "slain". The piece contains much that has its roots in the jazzy works of the 1920s and is a virtuoso feat of composition from someone who had been a virtuoso composer for some ten years by that stage. It also contains passages of more traditional choral writing which may be traced back to A Litany and certainly can be projected forwards to the later choral works. 

The First Symphony is the next masterpiece in this string of masterpieces. My favourite movement is the first. Its grinding, tragic symphonic sweep and fruitful echoes of Sibelius place it among the greatest pieces of symphonic writing of the last century. It is based on three essential ideas - a rhythmic figure, a tune that hovers between two keys, and the interval of a falling seventh. The scherzo, written after an unhappy break-up with a girlfriend (who dumped him), is marked con malizia (with malice) and crackles like spat-out venom. Cross-rhythms (most notably five-against-three), false relations, unexpected cut-offs of phrases, misplaced accents and all the tricks of orchestration are placed in the service of creating the effect of a musical hissy-fit. The con malinconia (with melancholy) slow movement is full of wistful woodwind writing and musical sighs. The finale is not quite on par with the rest of the symphony, being composed later (and more effortfully) than the first three movements, and shows the first significant arrival in Walton's music of that Elgarian streak of pomp and circumstance that he was to make his own shortly after in the coronation march Crown Imperial - the first of a long line of such pieces (all very much to my tastes), as you will hear if you explore the music in the list below. 

The Violin Concerto returns to the world of the Viola Concerto, its first movement beginning with the delicious presentation of a long, lyrical, bitter-sweet melody; however, it has sharper contrasts (of ferocity and tranquillity) that give it its own, more hedonistic character. As in the Viola Concerto, a scherzo comes second. This is a capricious affair marked alla napolitana, full of dazzling solo writing. It has a gorgeously-scored trio for contrast. A sonata-form finale follows. This contains another of the composer's unforgettable melodies among its main themes. 

Scapino is a comedy overture concerning the mischievous servant of Commedia deli' Arte, inspired by an etching by Jacques Callot, and shows Walton recapturing some of the spirit of  Portsmouth Point. It was written at the time of the Second World War, a period when the composer took to film writing with a vengeance - most famously for Laurence Olivier's patriotic Henry V. Oliver credited Walton's score for making the film the triumph it undoubtedly is. It is truly superb music, putting all the composer's knack for pastiche to the best possible use. 

The great debate concerning William Walton has long been whether the post-war part of his composing life (marked by his move to live on the Italian island of Ischia, where he was to settle with his new wife Susana)  represents a significant falling-off from his pre-war mastery and originality. You can judge that for yourselves by clicking through the links in the list below. Is the Second Symphony inferior to the First? Is the Cello Concerto a thin re-brew of the Viola and Violin Concertos? Is Orb and Sceptre less lustrous than Crown Imperial? Are the Gloria and Te Deum pale shadows of Belshazzar's Feast? (My answers would be qualified yeses to all of those questions). 

The String Quartet of 1946 - and its glorious reincarnation in 1971 as the Sonata for Strings - unequivocally belongs with the great pre-war works. It has a very clear structure and superb themes, with a powerful fugato section in the development section of the first movement, another scintillating scherzo, a particularly beautiful slow movement and an energetic finale full of characteristic cross-rhythms. 

The Cello Concerto certainly does re-brew elements from the early concertos but its warm, nostalgic first movement has always been one of my favourite things by Walton - the lyrical melody which opens it being one of his finest tunes. The central scherzo is a capricious but symphonic affair. The third movement - a variations-plus-coda with two long solo passages for the cellist - doesn't hold the attention so strongly (the cadanzas sap it of some of its energy). 

The Second Symphony has another beautiful opening, seemingly evoking the sparking seas around Ischia and if the first movement cannot quite match the sweep and drama of its counterpart in the First Symphony it has sufficient energy and inventiveness (part nervous, part sardonic) to hold the interest. The introspective yet lyrical Lento is beautifully orchestrated. The problem is the finale, a Passacaglia built on a 14-note theme employing all twelve notes of the chromatic octave - an importation of serialism into Walton's style that feels (to me) added-on rather than integral. 

The work that dominated these years was the Shakespeare-based opera Troilus and Cressida - a work that has passionate supporters but also sharp detractors. I'm afraid I don't know the whole opera and cannot comment, but extracts suggest it is a sensuous and lyrical work. 

Besides all the delightful pieces in Crown Imperial mode (about which I've enthused elsewhere), please try the Johannesburg Festival Overture which has some of the bright, breezy character of Portsmouth Point.   The Partita is similarly lively and light in tone. One of the best of the late orchestral works, the Variations on a Theme by Hindemith, takes as its starting point music from the slow movement of Hindemith's Cello Concerto

Hope you enjoy exploring the music of William Walton!

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