Personalities | (Sir) William Walton | Modern Era | Classical

English composer

After singing in the choir at Christ Church, Oxford, Walton became an undergraduate there, his talent attracting the attention of the Sitwell family (the poets Edith and Osbert and their writer brother Sacheverell). They supported him for 10 years, enabling him to write music at leisure until he earned enough to become independent. At first he was something of an enfant terrible, epitomized in a Schoenberg-influenced string quartet, later withdrawn, and the ‘entertainment’ Façade (1926), instrumental music accompanying rhythmically declaimed poems by Edith Sitwell, but his astringently melancholy Viola Concerto (1929, first performed with Hindemith as violist) demonstrated affinities with both Elgar and Prokofiev. The short and powerful oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast (1931) blew an enlivening blast of fresh air through the venerable English choral tradition, and his tense First Symphony (1935) deepened his emotional range while profitably learning from Sibelius. After his rhapsodic Violin Concerto he was criticized for repeating himself, but his atmospheric scores for Laurence Olivier’s three Shakespeare films (Henry V, Hamlet and Richard III) in fact prepared the way for his unfashionably Romantic opera Troilus and Cressida (1954).

Recommended Recording:
Symphony No. 1, Belshazzar’s Feast, Thomas Hampson, Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, CBSO & Chorus (cond) Sir Simon Rattle (EMI/Warner)

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