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.

He was already, however, a neoclassicist in essence. Though the First Symphony bursts out of any formal mould by force majeure, writing such a work in 1934 was a rearguard action, and the Viola Concerto is profoundly conservative – ‘profound’ being the operative word. Portsmouth Point, prototype of his numerous orchestral ‘openers’ in which a rapid succession of diverting if short-winded ideas pass by in a jogging continuum, and Siesta (1926) – a gentler, small-orchestral variant of this plan – are more original conceptions, and in some ways represent the most telling part of his legacy. But there is one totally spontaneous and unique creation, the work for which I think he will be chiefly remembered: Façade, for reciter and five players.

Nothing else he wrote has the freedom from models, the fluidity of inventiveness, the flawless combination of unpredictability and decisiveness of this seemingly biz-arre ‘entertainment’, which brilliantly transcends the eccentricity of its occasion. Walton seems to have produced it almost by mistake. At that age, and in social and financial thrall to the grimly colourful Sitwells (he lived with them), he did not have the option not to supply these musical backgrounds to a selection of Edith’s verse, which she recited to exact rhythms through a sort of megaphone in her brother’s house in Chelsea. Taken on their own, the verses are fairly amusing nonsense with a certain metrical appeal. Taking it on its own – as one does listening to the two Façade orchestral suites – the music is virtuosic pastiche. But when the words and music are taken together, an imaginary landscape opens up that can suggest classical Greece, nursery-rhyme England and the alienated 20th century (or ‘Hell’ as Sitwell calls it) all at once. As a piece of music, Façade has something of the allusive power of the contemporaneous Waste Land. There is clearly a world behind the capricious surface. Personalities such as the bearish Mr Wagg or Mr Belaker ‘the allegro negro cocktail-shaker’ (though reduced to his ‘navy-blue ghost’) have the peculiar presence of a Mr Eugenides, and in the latter case a similar acquaintance with the Brighton Metropole Hotel.

Walton’s settings release this poetic power not only because they are so intimately nuanced – he seems to have had an instinctive accord with Sitwell’s purposes – but also because his precisely notated rhythms send the verses past us at such speed that we cannot stop to examine them. The ‘nonsense’ does not have time to signify as such (this is perhaps a new sense of ‘endstopping’) and the wider suggestiveness is immediately and magically taken up by the music. We only see the larger picture by glints, but we do see it. In the process, the music, too, is lifted to a new level. Walton’s skill is easily underestimated – the parodic deftness that makes the score a mesh of popular tunes while always instantly recognisable as Façade; his ability to reduce a swaggering brass band to the single point of a trumpet line or by the same adroit synecdoche turn his alto saxophone into a jazz orchestra – but this is more than a work of skill. It is compar-able in its final form to a masterpiece that seems to have influenced it, Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire (1912) for reciter and five players. Like this setting of 3 x 7 moonstruck poems by Albert Giraud (in German translation), Walton’s 7 x 3 compilation of batty Sitwell poems repositions cabaret as high art and is a formal construction of revolutionary newness.

With the early String Quartet he took a few more steps towards Schoenberg, and, indeed, met the great man who, as Walton told Foss in a 1932 letter sketching out his biography, ‘gave the little brute his blessing (luckily he has not to the composers [sic] knowledge heard any of his late compositions)’. One does not, perhaps, have to be a follower of Adorno to see his subsequent steps as a series of retreats. First, he flirted with a less stringent form of Modernism in a Fantasia concertante for two pianos, jazz band and orchestra (he subsequently met Gershwin), but the work was unfinished and the manuscript lost. The jazz thwack is enshrined in the exploding rhythm of Portsmouth Point, which had a Modernist shock value in its day, though its true antecedent is probably Elgar’s overture Cockaigne. Released from his immediate obligation to Sitwell avant-garderie, which was perhaps a kind of class servitude (the lower-middle-class Oldham boy was liable to be treated as a public-school fag), he settled into the traditional forms – symphony, concerto, oratorio, chamber music. I have always heard the lyrical melancholy infusing his slower sections (not to mention the brass bands thrown liberally into Belshazzar’s Feast) as a sort of homesickness for the Lancashire he effectively expunged from his life. The accent is left for jokey phrases in the letters (‘too late now to do owt about it’; ‘I’m a bit oopset’) and his mother makes no appearance in this selection after 1938 (the first part consists mainly of the letters he sent her as a Christ Church chorister). Both parents’ deaths happen offstage.

Writing Façade he can have had no time for anxiety (beyond ensuring that the Sitwells did not enlist Constant Lambert’s talents instead of his own). With the works he now embarked on, however, there was the question of influence to worry about – being done in, for instance, by old Elgar. Perhaps this was as much a reason for his failure to complete his First Symphony by the time of its 1934 finale-less premiere (which is what had ‘oopset’ him) as the personal problems arising from the collapse of his affair with the Baroness Imma von Doernberg – one of the aristocratic ladies whom he had a positively Rilkean knack for winning to his cause (even if this one proved penniless).

Very few letters survive from this early period, and Hayes’s selection is necessarily weighted to the long agonising over the writing of the Chaucerian opera Troilus and Cressida, but there is a magical moment when, persisting with the First Symphony, Walton comes up with a crucial idea for the finale and puts it in a letter to Foss. It is one of the long fugue subjects that are as characteristic of him as the stabbing rhythms of the work’s ‘malicious’ scherzo or the swelling elsewhere of an ‘imperial’ theme. He is ‘shivering on the brink about it’ but he brings off the movement, and one would never guess at the Symphony’s painful parturition.

It is a big, broad-shouldered piece, nearly fifty minutes long, which compels attention by scale alone. The Biblical cantata has a similar power. No one could sit, as I did earlier this year, in the Royal Festival Hall during a performance by the Philharmonia and London Symphony Chorus under Richard Hickox and not be shattered into submission. Belshazzar’s Feast takes Elgarian oratorio by its neck and flings it into the 20th century. But it is dramatically broken-backed. Its performing forces are massive; its timescale – it lasts roughly thirty minutes – far too short. A great misery – the lamentation of the captive Jews in Babylon – turns into a great rejoicing (when Belshazzar’s fate is sealed) without any transition. The drama is over just as we are getting involved. The work deals in big, unwieldy emotions, which need sections to themselves, but doesn’t develop properly, and the result is musical giganticism.

There could hardly be a greater contrast than that between these two works and the unbombastic, fugue-free Façade. Though one is featherlight and the other brass-heavy, each is a compositional tour de force. There is a comparable parallel between the furious rhythmic stabs (Frank Howes compared them to forked lightning) that launch the huge chorus in the second part of the cantata and those announcing the allegro finale of the 1946 String Quartet. An idea is not, for Walton, reducible to its textural weight. It is from its lightness of touch as well as its play with popular songs, that Façade derives its artistic weight, while the ambition of a work such as Troilus is its undoing.

A light-music element is found throughout Walton’s oeuvre, not only in Troilus (Pandarus’s scene at the start of Act Two is one instance) and, less surprisingly, in the one-act comedy of The Bear (Smirnov’s song, ‘Madame, je vous prie’), but even in the high seriousness of the String Quartet, when a soaring cantilena at the heart of its lento movement is underpinned by pizzicati in a way that fleetingly evokes light-music classics by Anthony Collins (a notable conductor of Façade), Trevor Duncan or Ernest Tomlinson. In a sense (an uncharitable one) Walton is the greatest British composer of light music, transforming it at will but retaining its immediacy in a surprising variety of contexts.

The popular-tune quality of Façade leads straight into Siesta (echoing the shanty of ‘Mariner Man’) and Portsmouth Point and a host of wartime film scores. ‘Tarantella’ is revisited in the rhythm of the presto middle movement of the Violin Concerto, inspired, as Walton wrote to Foss, by the bite of an actual tarantula. The movement opens with more of those rhythmic stabs, and its virility remains high, as Joshua Bell’s Festival Hall performance with the Philharmonia and Hickox in March this year made spectacularly clear. The work asserts itself in part against Elgar, cast as it is in the same B minor key as his one concerto for the instrument (which seems more romantically rambling than ever beside Walton’s concision). They both wrote a single violin and piano sonata too, as well as a single string quartet, and their only other important chamber music is in Elgar’s case a piano quintet, in Walton’s a piano quartet, both predominantly lyrical and contemplative.

Like Elgar in his Pomp and Circumstance marches, Walton in his Coronation Marches and Henry V film music was able to give voice to an authentic patriotism while elsewhere conveying unmistakable melancholy and disaffection: it is curious that both these composers from humble backgrounds could re-create English pageantry at the drop of a hat. Each completed two symphonies, wrote a lot of choral music but no piano music of note, and was essentially a virtuoso orchestral composer: neither could easily compose a piece for orchestra without making it a showpiece. (Walton’s Spitfire Prelude and Fugue unites pomp and sizzling virtuosity. Like his other fugues, this one has a long sinuous subject but, from a strict contrapuntal point of view, quickly fizzles out.)

Unlike Elgar, Walton succeeded in writing an opera, indeed two. His arduous cross-Channel collaboration with Christopher Hassall on Troilus is documented more fully in the archives of La Mortella, the composer’s home, than it is here. In the end, and without consulting Hassall, Walton sought help from Auden, who was staying on Ischia. He contributed the Act Three Sextet, the libretto’s only distinctive passage, but still the outcome was a less than convincing exercise in Puccinian dramaturgy. If Auden had been in charge, his cerebralism might have reacted fruitfully with Walton’s yearning Neoromanticism, or even stirred him into new invention, the absence of which is all the more conspicuous in a project that mattered so much to him. (Their only other joint venture, the anthem The Twelve, is certainly fresh.)

Troilus was revised and revised – in the face of a strikingly unlucky performance history – but the result, as semi-staged this year at the Festival Hall (again by the Philharmonia and Hickox), struck me as flawed in its very tautness: the music wants to expand and soar, the drama is afraid to give an inch. Walton’s grand opera is nearly as impacted as his one-acter. The case of The Bear is very different. The tautness of this fifty-minute, three-handed Chekhov adaptation is its triumph. Paul Dehn was a sympathetic librettist – Walton thanks him for his ‘smashing verses’ produced so quickly, and their correspondence amounts to only half a dozen little notes in this selection as opposed to the reams of queries for Hassall – and Walton completed the work in just two years, despite developing lung cancer. There is nothing especially new about the musical imagery, but it is put to masterful dramatic service. As in Façade, the texture is light and parodic and the pace fast. Walton’s aptitude for musical comedy is manifest. He is sure-footed where before he had floundered. The moment when the young widow and her landowner-creditor aim duelling pistols at each other has far more erotic charge than anything in Troilus, even its orchestral mimicry of copulation in Act Two.

The Bear was well received by critics in the mid-1960s when Walton’s style could not have been more unfashionable, and his increasingly sparse output was taken, not least by himself, as a sign of creative impotence. It is true that he began the 1960s with his Second Symphony, the passacaglia finale of which has a 12-note theme – he cites it in a letter to Alan Frank, Foss’s successor at OUP – but such nods to Schoenberg’s serial or, as Walton liked to call it, ‘cereal’ technique were very much in the air: Tippett opens The Knot Garden in similar fashion and Britten is drawn to the ‘total chromatic’ in The Turn of the Screw, Owen Wingrave and elsewhere. Walton tells Frank he is ‘not being too pedantic’ in his serial working but is ‘beginning to see that there is something after all to be said for that method, even if in the end it works back to old tonic & dominant!’ There is, of course, a big difference between a 12-note row and a 12-note tune: the former is rarely also the latter, and Walton’s conflation of them is not without a clodhopping aspect. When he scatters his 12 notes pointillistically across a tutti texture the effect is less of subtlety than of double underlining.

Like the compact Second Symphony, with its memorably clipped opening and haunting flecks of vibraphone and celesta colour, the orchestral Variations on a Theme by Hindemith (1963) and Improvisations on an Impromptu of Benjamin Britten (1970) are attractive, tersely eloquent works (without the Symphony’s 12-tonery or the film-music lapses of its slow middle movement), which, unlike the later output of Britten and Tippett, are not shaped by the pressure of having something new to say (however odd the results in Tippett’s case). They are Waltonism distilled, and always a pleasure to listen to, but they revert to old habits: maestoso and fugato modes come side by side in the Hindemith Variations. Walton was well aware of the danger of mannerism, as a letter to Frank about the Second Symphony reveals, but he couldn’t do ‘owt about it’.

He couldn’t be other than himself – it was just a pity that that self was shrinking. After the poignant, unexpected Britten tribute there was little music left in him: a few fanfares and arrangements of his own pieces, the skilfully Spanish Five Bagatelles for guitar, the sadly desiccated Prologo e Fantasia (1982) for orchestra. He did not accept decline gracefully. His epistolary style becomes more testy, as when, urging Christopher Morris at OUP to pull strings to get him the sort of big prize that Britten always won, he takes objection to a critic (his name withheld by Hayes): ‘Talking of prod the Sod. What shall I do about her “S-ship?” A good kick in the cunt, I think! Or better leave well alone.’ To Douglas he writes: ‘Even I myself am now completely horrified at my impotence . . . I am afraid it won’t pass & that I shall never be able to put pen to paper again.’ And later, disingenuously: ‘I know only too well about commissioned works; the only thing I can say about them, is if I’d not had a commission I should have produced nothing at all, which would be probably just as well.’ Britten’s Cello Suites arrive and ‘very depressing I find them,’ he informs Morris, ‘full of tricks & not much else, – or am I being blasphemous?’ But he does strike up a new postal friendship with the admiring young Oliver Knussen.

The Walton centenary has provided a useful occasion for a reappraisal of his work and his slide from major to minor, from a risk-taking, precocious genius whose (choral) orchestral music thrashes about with barely controllable power, to a studious, exemplary craftsman performing the role that Auden assigned to ‘minor poets’ – teaching compositional ‘good manners’.

None of the centenary books takes revaluation as its brief. Hayes maintains a critical awareness in his chapter introductions and textual annotations (there are rather few of these, but at least he doesn’t try to emulate Donald Mitchell-Philip Reed’s ploy when editing Britten’s letters of slipping a full-blown biography into the footnotes) while always putting the case for the defence (if sometimes disapproving of Walton’s egotism). Stephen Lloyd’s solid monograph is unexceptional if careful in its judgments, marshalling the available facts about each piece and its reception, copiously quoting from Walton’s letters (from one not included by Hayes we learn that Walton saw his Hindemith theme as a tone-row lacking a note), and rich in appendices.

Humphrey Burton’s and Maureen Murray’s stylishly informative life-in-pictures is pure celebration, and it’s fascinating to follow the unlikely but unwinding road that leads from Werneth to Oxford to Chelsea, Ischia and Grand Old Sod-dom. Walton’s sheer luck is apparent, as is the limousine plushness of his lifestyle. My favourite photos show him as an implausible Bright Young Thing dressed as a shepherd with the likes of Stephen Tennant, and as a crusty old thing being welcomed at Downing Street by Edward Heath and the Queen Mother for a 70th-birthday dinner.