Personalities | William Walton | Modern Era | Opera

1902–83, English

Walton had a strong musical background and was the child of two musicians – his mother was a voice teacher and his father was a chorus-master. Walton as a young boy was a chorister at Christ Church, Oxford, later becoming an undergraduate there. His Belshazzar’s Feast (1931) and Symphony No. 1 (1935) assured him of his place in British music, and following the success of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, the BBC wished to commission an opera by a British composer.

Walton was commissioned to write Troilus and Cressida for the reopening of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, and began work on it in 1947. It took him 6 years to complete, and its premiere was plagued by numerous setbacks. When the opera was finally performed in December 1954, it received a lukewarm reception. The verdict was that Walton had written some effective orchestral music but the work itself was old-fashioned. Walton revised and re-worked Christopher Hassall’s libretto and re-scored portions of the opera, in addition to transposing the role of Cressida for mezzo-soprano Janet Baker.

His one-act comedy The Bear performed in June 1967 at the Aldeburgh Festival is a witty parody of the vocal excesses of the operatic style and the compositional mannerisms that are often used to underscore the action.

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