William Walton (1902-1983)

Born in Oldham, Lancashire, the son of a choirmaster and singing teacher, William Walton took lessons in piano and violin as a boy and, aged ten, won a prestigious scholarship to be a chorister in the choir of Christchurch Cathedral in Oxford. Almost immediately his musical talent blossomed and he began to compose. By the time he was 16 he had left the cathedral school, two years ahead of time, and was studying music at Christchurch College as an undergraduate. Included in his youthful output is a good deal of a cappella choral music, some solo songs for piano and voice and some organ music.

He left Oxford in 1920 however, without a degree, having repeatedly failed numerous formal examinations. The next decade was spent in London as a permanent house-guest of the poet and writer Osbert Sitwell, whom he had met in Oxford, and his sister Edith, interspersed with periods of travelling across Europe. Walton’s family in Lancashire disapproved deeply of this arrangement, although it gave him space for composition and a number of important and enduring works date from this time, including the viola concerto of 1928. Throughout this decade he made no money from composition, refused to teach, and lived almost entirely off the generosity of the Sitwells.

It was not until 1934 that he first made money out of composition when he was invited to write a film score for the film Escape me Never. The royal commission for his composition Crown Imperial came in 1936. In 1948 Walton further displeased his family when he married an Argentinian, the daughter of a prominent lawyer from Buenos Aires, whom he met at the British Council where she was working. At the time of the marriage Walton was 46 and she was not quite 22. The couple settled on the Italian island of Ischia where she created the gardens of La Mortella. Ischia was to become their home for the rest of their lives, and the residence hosted many celebrities, including Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Hans Werner Henze, W. H. Auden, Terence Rattigan, Binkie Beaumont, Maria Callas and Charlie Chaplin.

The couple dabbled in small-time acting careers for a while and she played alongside Walton in his only acting role when he played King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony in the 1983 mini-series, Richard Wagner, directed by Tony Palmer, while she played the King's wife. She also appeared in Ken Russell's Classic Widows (1995) and Palmer's At the Haunted End of the Day.

Composition from the time of Walton’s marriage onwards was largely dominated by a string of commissions. The opera Troilus and Cressida was written for the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden in 1950, and the only other opera The Bear, based on a play by Chekhov, was written for the Aldeburgh Festival in 1965. Other enduring works are the oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast (1930) with a libretto by Osbert Sitwell, The Twelve (1965) with words by W. H, Auden, Façade Suites 1 and 2 (1926 and 1969 respectively) with libretti by Edith Sitwell. (These being later turned into ballet music without the text.) Other rousing nationalistic music includes the Spitfire Prelude and Fugue adapted from the film score of The First of the Few (1942). Other commissions came from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, the Huddersfield Choral Society, the City of London, the Friends of Coventry Cathedral, the Cork International Festival, the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Exempted from overseas wartime service on the understanding that he compose music for wartime propaganda films, Walton was attached to the British Army film unit from 1940 as composer in residence and ambulance driver.

He died on the island is Ischia, where his ashes are buried. A memorial stone was erected in Westminster Abbey close to those of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Britten.