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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

How Walton killed his own talent

By Norman Lebrecht / January 9, 2002

STAND by for a splendid celebration of a Great British Composer. The centenary of William Walton's birth falls on March 29, and the tributes start mounting tomorrow, when Birmingham jumps the gun with the much-loved Violin Concerto.

The LSO and Philharmonia follow in the coming weeks with London concert cycles; Oxford University Press is preparing a 23-volume edition of collected works; the selected correspondence is being published by Faber, and there's a coffee-table photobook from OUP; there will also be a commemorative concert at Westminster Abbey. As tributes go, it's not a bad show for a choirboy who rose from the cotton capital of Oldham, Lancashire, and wound up with the most exclusive of royal honours, the Order of Merit, carved on his slab.

Walton's greatness is undisputed hereabouts. The editor of the arts page is Lancastrian, as is her deputy; my esteemed Sunday colleague Michael Kennedy is Walton's chosen biographer. Many in the North feel about Walton as they do about LS Lowry, George Formby and the Lake Poets, cherishing them as the distilled spirit of a resourceful region.

To suggest, as I am about to do, that Walton is not worth the candle of retrospection is to risk the wrath of friends and the scorn of patriots. Walton was a talented composer. He was also, in objective terms, an archetypal English failure whose shortcomings cry out for critical examination. When a king walks down Centenary Lane clad in nothing but local adulation, there must surely be one voice in the throng to draw attention to his immodesty.

Take a look at the music, and there's more of it than you might imagine. Search those 23 volumes for an unqualified masterpiece and you will find, to paraphrase Rossini on Wagner, some beautiful moments and terrible longueurs. Lapses of creative concentration occur in all the orchestral scores. Few of his works engage the attention undividedly from start to finish.

The all-hailed First Symphony is maimed by a patchwork finale, the Second by stale anachronisms. Belshazzar's Feast is better to sing than to hear. The Viola and Cello Concertos are thematically meagre; the Variations on a Theme by Hindemith are a weak reprise of Hindemith's symphonic metamorphoses on a theme by Weber.

They have not set the world's feet tapping. The centenary diary on Walton web shrines is conspicuously bare of international dates. Only the Violin Concerto gets much of a hearing abroad. The 14 film scores for which Walton is widely famed failed to earn an Oscar.

Yet OUP, on its portrait album, maintains that "William Walton's reputation has never been higher", and Malcolm Hayes, shrewd editor of the selected letters, calls him a "master composer". Not for the first time, the indigenous perception of a composer's merit seems ever so quaintly exaggerated.

The Walton story can be recounted from one aspect as a classic English murder, titled "Death by Over-praise". In a country that claims against all evidence to possess the finest health service, public ethics and football league in the world, the addition of a great composer harmlessly enhances our collective self-delusion.

Walton was a victim of reputational inflation. Lionised at 19 for the flapperish Façade, he drifted through the Twenties as a Bright Young Thing. "I was a scrounger," he cheerfully admitted. By the time he got round to writing a symphony, he was past 30 and intermittently blocked. He coughed up three movements in December 1934, the fourth a year later, interrupted by a change of mistress. "Historic night for British music," proclaimed one headline, and Walton was cloaked with Elgar's mantle as imperial muse. He was summoned to write the Coronation March for King George VI, and another 16 years later for his daughter, Elizabeth II.

The exuberant Violin Concerto was begun in 1936 under the severe eye and $1,500 commission of Jascha Heifetz, who found some sections too easy and jazzed them up. The concerto has a puzzling autumnal glow, a middle-agedness surprising in an ascendant artist. Heifetz, who had lately reignited the Sibelius concerto, turned the Walton into an initiation rite for international virtuosi.

Walton's war work was mostly in films, with Laurence Olivier, and in ballets, with Frederick Ashton. Ever clubbable, he joined the board of the Royal Opera House with a view to advancing self-interest and stifling Benjamin Britten's. Stunned by the triumph of Peter Grimes in June 1945, Walton spent much of the next decade writing an opera, only to see Troilus and Cressida flop comprehensively at Covent Garden, New York and Milan. He blamed the conductor, Malcolm Sargent, the ROH and the critics - and stomped off to spend the rest of his life in Italy with an ever-thinning output that admirers ascribed to fastidious perfectionism. At his death, in March 1983, he was writing a ballet for Covent Garden. England mourned, and for all the wrong reasons.

For Walton's contribution was not as a national treasure but as a false dawn, a sun fogged by premature celebrity and his own acquiescence to luxury. The social life of William Walton would make a Noel Coward melodrama. A scholarship boy at Oxford, he was taken up by the fashionable Sitwells and adopted something of their aristo ennui, prizing elegant languor above creative effort. He never lost the taste for a title or a pretty face. While writing the First Symphony, he upgraded mistresses from baroness to countess and bought himself a house in Belgravia. On the ROH board, he slept with the wife of its acting chairman, Kenneth Clark. He married, in 1948, a young Argentine beauty and forbade her to have children.

His focus on personal comfort, so antithetical to the northern grit on which he was raised, blunted the edge of an art that started acidulously angry and ended smug and hazy. One can almost detect a Faustian pact being made with his inner self, a swap of vision for venison, fiery art for fireside celebrity.

Some modern commentators wonder whether Walton had much of a talent to squander. That view is easily refuted. In Façade and the flawed First Symphony one hears an original voice - neither Satiean nor Sibelian but a collation of chords that is waspishly Walton and none other. Most composers would give their mother's metronomes to be recognised by sound alone. Walton had that gift all his life, and he blew it.

There was a glimpse, after the war, of Walton at his most Waltonish in a violin sonata that he wrote for Yehudi Menuhin and a string quartet for his chum Harry Blech (whom he proposed, absurdly, as music director for Covent Garden). In both tone and substance, these intimacies suggest a man who knows exactly where he is going - until the next distraction comes along. Kennedy rightly regards the underplayed sonata as "one of its creator's greatest works".

The tragedy of Walton is his failure of will, his fall to a uniquely British set of temptations that bestows lifelong fame for a modest down payment and a mortgage that gets easier as you go. This national ethos is antithetical to art, removing the impetus of hunger, the need to make a mark with each original work once you have crossed the threshold of fame. Walton signed the deeds and paid with his posterity.

His weakness could have been calamitous, setting British music back by a generation. Happily, Britten was there to resist complacency and redeem the future of art.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001