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Classical Composers A-Z: William Walton

Peter Wintersgill tells us something of the Oldham-born composer, William Walton.

Born
29th March, 1902, in Oldham.

Father
Charles, singing teacher and choirmaster, very strict.

Mother
Louisa, contralto, daughter of upholsterer.

Family
Older brother Noel, younger brother Alex and sister Nora.

Childhood
Could sing before he could read, went to local school, forced by father to sing in church choir. Later sang in choir at Christ Church Oxford, aged nine. Started to compose at 11.

Stayed on at Christ Church after voice broke, because of his composition, but couldn't play the piano.

Adolescence
Became undergraduate at Christ Church aged 16, joined Bach choir. On leaving Oxford at 20, moved to London to live with the Sitwells, Edith, Osbert and Sachie. Went for three months, stayed for 15 years.

Early Adult Life
Met many musicians there: Beecham, Gershwin, Constant Lambert, who remained a life long friend, Sassoon, Masefield and Olivier. Had hardly any income, so was supported by Sitwells.

Wrote Facade (1922) for narrator and small orchestra, based on poems by Edith Sitwell; also string quartet for Contemporary Music Festival. Later came a breezy overture Portsmouth Point (1925) and Belshazzar's Feast (1931) for Leeds Festival.

His first major success was the Viola Concerto (1929) with Hindemith as soloist, which made him really well-known. This was followed by the First Symphony (1934), to which he added the finale in 1935. Shortly after this he wrote the march Crown Imperial for the Coronation in 1937.

Later Adult Life
During World War II, after the Violin Concerto (1939), he wrote mainly film music for the Ministry of Information. Firstly The Foreman Went to France (1940) was followed by The First of the Few (1942).

Then came incidental music for Shakespeare plays, notably Henry V with Lawrence Olivier, Hamlet and Richard III. Then his first venture into opera Troilus and Cressida (1954), his Cello Concerto (1956) and Second
Symphony (1960).

In the meantime for the Coronation of the Queen in 1953 he wrote another march, Orb and Sceptre. In 1951 he was knighted.

On a visit to a conference in Buenos Airies he met and later married his Argentinian wife Susana Gil in 1948, settling in the Mediterranean island of Ischia. She was 20 years younger than he was and was sometimes taken for his daughter. At his insistence they had no children.

Walton was a slow composer; it was the only way for him to get it right. He was shy and retiring by nature; he liked his friends but hated crowds. He was chary of accepting honours, but did have several honorary degrees, was knighted in 1951 and received the O.M. in 1967.

In 1961 he received the freedom of the City of Oldham, when he wrote a Gloria, sung initially by Huddersfield Choral Society. In 1963 he wrote his Variations on a Theme of Hindemith.

His health on the whole was good, but he went through a bad patch in 1965, when he had a resection of lung for cancer, followed by DXR therapy.

His second opera, The Bear (1967) was based on a Checkhov play.

Musically he was really two people in one, a traditional Englishman in the Elgar style, and a modern jazzy Stravinsky-like type. In his best works, such as the 1st symphony and the
concertos, these two were well reconciled.

As he got older his output declined, especially of major works. For Chichester's 7OOth anniversary he wrote a Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis.

On his 70th birthday, the Prime Minister, Edward Heath, conducted a concert in his honour at 10 Downing Street.

He survived a stroke, but was never the same again, wheelchair bound. He visited Gracie Fields at Capri. He died quietly at his home on Ischia on 8th March, 1983, of lung haemorrhage aged 81.

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