William Walton: Behind the Façade 
by Susana Walton.
Oxford, 255 pp., £12.95, February 1988, 0 19 315156 1
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Façade: Edith Sitwell Interpreted 
by Pamela Hunter.
Duckworth, 106 pp., £10.95, September 1987, 9780715621844
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Composers are supposed to die young, preferably of consumption. Their women, if their tastes lie in this direction, may be called to matrimony and motherhood: but they are seldom given to authorship, and they are not encouraged to own independent musical personalities. These preconditions leave a clear field for the imagination of Hollywood scriptwriters or the industry of Berkeley musicologists. But it is better so. Beethoven’s reputation has survived his sharp practices with publishers, his intermittent problems with servants, and his ‘Battle’ Symphony: but he could hardly have recovered from ‘Life, Laundry and Ludwig: The Diaries of Frau van Beethoven’. At the same time, the composer myth is woefully inaccurate. Haydn, Telemann, Verdi reached their eighties. Anna Magdalena Bach, Constanze Mozart, Clara Schumann and Alma Mahler did more for their husbands’ posthumous fame than a gaggle of critics and sycophants. As for musical cipherdom, the unmistakable rages and affections of Frau Strauss are preserved in the concertante solo violin part of Heldenleben, just as Benjamin Britten’s dependence upon Peter Pears, the sharer of his bed, shines through most of his later music.

Susana Gil alighted upon the gossip circuit of musical Europe as a living anachronism. ‘By God, William is going to marry a native,’ said one of Walton’s friends when the eminent composer’s Buenos Aires flag-showing trip in 1948 turned into a fishing expedition. It wasn’t only her youth and insouciance that astounded them. An Argentinian virgin of 22 (ipsa dixit) at her marriage, a willing victim of semi-Sabine rape by a British roué of 46, she was ‘quite perplexed’ when she noticed the Britten-Pears double bed at Snape. (How will Suffolk’s local authority promote the lives of these eminent musical dollar-earners to tourists and schoolchildren after Clause 29?)

She meekly submitted to her bridegroom’s wedding-day instruction: ‘No children – and no mistakes.’ After the inevitable pregnancy (in spite of an ‘adorable rubber cap’) and botched abortion,

I had a week of high fever, but I forced myself to stop crying, because I saw that it made William look very black. I had only myself to blame. I had agreed not to have children, although I had not realised it would mean taking this awful step. I felt quite sorry for myself, and longed to be comforted ... But I did not feel it wise to test further the great love that had impelled him to marry me, so I never mentioned this unhappy experience again.

Her mother was understandably cross but ‘William, unperturbed, gallantly offered to help Mama produce a child by him if she was so very keen to add to the family.’ As she put it, Que barbaridad. Yet 34 years later, alter William had died in her arms in the house they created in Ischia:

The night passed in a flash; in my mind I chatted to William, reviewing our plans for the future of the properly and what the William Walton Trust’s future activities were to be. I turned my thoughts on the happy chance of our unlikely meeting in Buenos Aires, how we had cared for our love, and how it had grown more and more. I remembered how attentive he had always been in keeping me from steering a course of my own too far from his side. We had been so fortunate.

And so on. The author even quotes Christabel Aberconway’s reassuring remark to her: ‘My dear, of all the women you will meet tonight, I will probably be the only one that William has not been to bed with. Such a pity.’ She cannot, however, be expected to reproduce what Edith Olivier said of him in the Twenties: ‘Willy looks a pitiable little cad-and a diseased one too – rather like a maggot.’ Laurence Whistler, in his biography of Rex Whistler, hastily excuses this stab from the Wiltshire queen wasp: ‘cad to her meant nothing more dishonourable than street boy, as it still did at Eton, and relates to an evening when in front of them all “with some purpose, Willy told us the whole story of his life so that we should realise that he rose from the ranks, and so far has made no money, so isn’t marriageable. This made clear, he can let himself go and is having great fun. I believe that he has more character than appears.” ’ The whole truth is unlikely to have been told about Willy’s fauve period and partial taming, in spite of the relish with which Lady Walton speaks of her husband’s fondness for his physiotherapist; and her chief virtue, according to him, was her unmusicality, so judicious accounts of his work cannot be looked for here. This does not prevent her from dropping delicious apercus about other 20th-century composers and their ladies. Bartok was ‘morbidly interested in the anatomy of ducks and forced his wife to dress as a “ducky little girl” ’.

Neither Walton nor his critics – ‘that viperish Peter Heyworth’, as Susana puts it – would ever have used ‘modernist’ as an adjective for his music. Indeed, one of the endearing and perhaps enduring qualities of the English composers whose names have registered on the public since 1900 – Elgar, Walton, Britten, Tippett – is their essential conservatism – their instinctive preference for working with the grain rather than against it, notably in their respect for the characteristics of orchestral instruments and for the rhythms of the English language. Since the world needs our words more than it needs our music, performances of British music round the globe sometimes depend upon, or at least are assisted by, literary as well as musical values. In his maturity, Walton missed Britten’s unfailing touch (shared by Pears) with words and poems. Apart from his songs with guitar (written for Julian Bream, another sardonic sybarite), Walton’s between-the-wars promise as a composer for the human voice was never properly fulfilled, in spite of his father (a singer and teacher). It was a great misfortune that he fell out with the Sitwells before he could afford – literally, for want of time and money – to embark on an opera, and when Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde came up as a subject, he was lumbered with Christopher Hassall, at Stanford Robinson’s suggestion. Hassall had the ego of an Italian tenor (as I recall from a college production of one of his verse plays in the Fifties) and he ‘could not distinguish between a trite line of verse and an inspired one. William came to believe that Ivor Novello had taken possession of Christopher’s soul.’

At the formative stage Walton was better served. ‘What on earth can I become?’ the young Cecil Beaton once implored a friend. ‘I shouldn’t bother too much’ was the reply. ‘Just become a friend of the Sitwells and see what happens.’ It is hard to imagine how the 17-year-old Christ Church music scholar might or might have not developed had Sacheverell Sitwell not met him and decided that his ‘very clever-shaped head’ recalled John Wesley. Of William’s Sitwell friends, Sachie was the intimate, however exhausting: ‘one weekend at Sachie’s house in Weston, he had sacked all the servants, rearranged the furniture, and jumped out of the car to stop two dogs fighting, chasing them as far as the horizon, and had then returned to the car and his discourse on Baroque architecture.’ Osbert was the patron and tease and later librettist (for Belshazzar’s Feast), once William had established his heterosexual tastes. (I never knew the risks I ran as a teenage Sitwell groupie when I presented myself for tea at Renishaw forty years ago.) Moreover, both brothers nourished Walton with money and encouragement and drew him into a circle and atmosphere which may seem inevitable now but which at the time alarmed the fledgling composer’s Oldham parents and cathedral protectors. Fortunately, Constant Lambert and Lord Berners, Berg and Stravinsky, Van Dieren and Gershwin, Salzburg and Sicily and Spain, all delighted him without dazzling.

In specific inspiration, however, Edith was the indispensable Sitwell. It is too soon to know how much of Walton’s self-critical, precisely-crafted music will outlast this century: the Viola, Violin and Cello Concertos, the two symphonies, Belshazzar, the Violin Sonata, the String Quartet perhaps. But Façade is secure, written at the age of 22, just as Mendelssohn once or twice matched but never surpassed the Octet which he composed at 17. I am prejudiced because I first fell in love with the Façade verses long before I heard the music. Recently I had the opportunity to take part in performances in London drawing-room settings similar to the sociable premiere in Carlyle Square on Sunday, 24 January 1922. It is as true of Façade as of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier that it was conceived for an instrument that had not yet been invented. Beethoven was waiting for Steinway and making do with Broadwood; Walton was making do with the Sengerphone and waiting for the clip-on mike and unobtrusive amplifier that enable the voice to ride the trumpet, clarinet, piccolo, saxophone and percussion while still producing soft and subtle vocal timbres.

The models and allusions of the music, and its astonishing dexterity of scoring, are often remarked. But the exact relationship of the notes and the words has yet to be properly analysed. Walton’s tonal painting and exuberant rhythms reflect something more than nonsense, less than fantasy, in Edith Sitwell’s creation. The singer and reciter Pamela Hunter has made a beginning in her ‘interpretation’ of Façade. She goes behind the verbal ‘technical exercises’ (in Edith’s and Osbert’s slightly misleading accounts of the genesis of the poems) to the nursery-world imagery of the Renishaw childhood. But Hunter is both a leaden-footed writer and a short-breathed researcher, and the result wastes her opportunity. For instance, she refers ‘Jodelling Song’ (musically famous for Walton’s jocose quotation from his favourite composer Rossini, once taken by an Italian audience as an insult to Mussolini) to Gertrude Stein’s ‘Accents in Alsace’. Fair enough, but she overlooks Lady Ida Sitwell’s Swiss maid Frieda and the pleasure her yodelling demonstrations gave to mother and daughter. They are described by Osbert in Laughter in the Next Room: ‘Exquisitely ridiculous, these intricate vocal exercises summoned up for us vistas of her native peaks; we could hear the cowbell, watch the goats, and pluck the gentians near the melting snow; we could hear the sound of waterfalls and of a thousand waiters placing cups on saucers,’ The point of Walton’s setting is not just the poem, ‘We beat velvet cream’, evocative as it is, nor yet the Swiss and their Alps (already done by Richard Strauss on an appropriate scale), but the re-created domestic scene enjoyed, the charade-like fun on a wet afternoon in Derbyshire. Not just the yodel, but the meta-yodel.

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