Grand Old Sod

Paul Driver

  • The Selected Letters of William Walton edited by Malcolm Hayes
    Faber, 526 pp, £30.00, January 2002, ISBN 0 571 20105 9
  • William Walton: Muse of Fire by Stephen Lloyd
    Boydell, 332 pp, £45.00, June 2001, ISBN 0 85115 803 X
  • William Walton, the Romantic Loner: A Centenary Portrait Album by Humphrey Burton and Maureen Murray
    Oxford, 182 pp, £25.00, January 2002, ISBN 0 19 816235 9

Malcolm Hayes tells us that the letters he has selected are merely a quarter of a fifth of those so far available, but one would not want the volume longer. William Walton is no prose stylist, not much of an anecdotalist, and his letters reveal remarkably little about him. They are nearly always utilitarian – money, advice, favours to be sought, contracts to be finalised, parts to be corrected, a libretto to be endlessly rejigged, practicalities of life on an Italian island to be discussed – and not infrequently duplicitous. Writing a self-confessed ‘fan letter’ to Britten about the premiere of Peter Grimes, he is also shooting off a note to the copyist Roy Douglas asking: ‘Did you see or hear “Grimy Peter”?’

Asperities about fellow composers are in plentiful supply. Tippett was another admired colleague/bugbear. To Douglas in 1945 he describes him as ‘arse over tippett’; to Walter Legge in 1975 he writes that the success of Tippett’s opera The Midsummer Marriage ‘to me is one of the mysteries of life’. He looks forward to having him stay in one of the houses that he and his wife rent out on Ischia, ‘as I’m very fond of him, though I’m more often than not completely baffled by his music . . . I persevere – but have little hope of catching up with any of them. All rather depressing.’

There was little love lost the other way round, as I can vouch from personal knowledge. ‘Arse over tippett’ was not, I think, forgiven, nor Walton’s campaign, provoked by the success of Britten and Tippett’s operas, to ‘keep the buggers out of Covent Garden’. Which did not stop him from writing a chamber opera, The Bear, for Britten’s Aldeburgh Festival. A more sober and admirably egalitarian appraisal of the postwar needs of the Royal Opera House took the form of a memorandum commissioned in 1948 and published here complete for the first time – one of very few pieces of formal prose to Walton’s name.

His rivalry extended to older composers. He was irked by Vaughan Williams’s preferential treatment at Oxford University Press, where Walton was otherwise the star. It made him susceptible to attempts at poaching by Boosey & Hawkes – a long, furious letter to Walton from Hubert Foss, his OUP publisher, written in 1937 at the time of the first such overture, is further new material – though there he would have been eclipsed by Britten. Bliss he pokes fun at – a ‘moustachioed cod-fish’, ‘Arturo pomposo’. As for Elgar, whom he generally admired, it was to avoid being ‘done in by old Elgar’s No. 3’ (the symphony he did not manage to write) that Walton was ‘fired’ to complete his own First Symphony, as he explained to his generous patron, Siegfried Sassoon.

He was happier in his cordial though not unclouded relationship with the less creatively threatening Malcolm Arnold; and in his Ischia-based friendship with the much younger and stylistically distant figure of Hans Werner Henze, but to understand the gnawing anxiety about his standing one has to remember that he began as the whitest of British white hopes. Being the youngest undergraduate at Oxford for centuries (though he did not stay the course) was less significant than creating the score for the Sitwellian Façade at 19. It would take several decades for this masterpiece to achieve its final form but this was always implicit. At 21 – in 1923 – he completed an atonal String Quartet (later withdrawn) that was given in Salzburg during the first festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music. At 23 he wrote his distinctively bustling comedy overture Portsmouth Point, an instant repertory piece; at 25 the three-movement Viola Concerto, premiered at the Proms with the composer Paul Hindemith as soloist; and at 29 the most galvanising of British cantatas, Belshazzar’s Feast. Then came his First Symphony: a structure of such immensity that its almost expressionistic impact alone discharges any debt that Walton is supposed to have incurred to Sibelius. Though he borrows a trick or two with pedal notes and ostinati from him, he never really sounds like Sibelius, only like himself.

In fact he always sounds like himself, though this is not an unmixed blessing. Indeed, with this inspirational outpouring he had laid out most of what he could do: a new note in the later part of his (not enormous) oeuvre is rare. The Waltonian mode, with its snappy, often jazzy rhythms, its melancholy, often bluesy lyricism, bustling orchestral tuttis and sterling craftsmanship (not to mention its glossily ceremonious Crown Imperial side), solidified early, but Britain had seen nothing like this degree of precocious success. Elgar, whom Walton resembles in so many ways, was 42 before the Enigma Variations brought him to notice. Walton could have been resting on his laurels by that age. But Britten had come along.

It is as though this early expenditure of creative energy exhausted him for life. From the Violin Concerto onwards he was basically a neoclassicist, reclassicising himself. This work, though beautiful, is a carbon copy of the Viola Concerto – it uses the same three-movement pattern with central scherzo and nostalgic reprise of the opening theme at the finale’s end – but less precise in its effect. (The return of the theme is more poignant in the earlier work because it strains against a more contrasted context: the Violin Concerto’s finale is already swimming in nostalgic lyricism before the first movement tune can insinuate itself.) The 1956 Cello Concerto unbelievably resorts to the same paradigm. It is not surprisingly the least memorable of the three (Walton thought it the best), but nonetheless beguiling, and like all his pieces a wonderful display of musical joinery.

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