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ClassicsOnline Home » WALTON: Spitfire Prelude and Fugue / Sinfonia Concertante / Hindemith Variations
William Walton (1902-1983)
Sinfonia concertante (1927 version)
Variations on a Theme by Hindemith
Spitfire Prelude and Fugue
March for "A History of the English-Speaking Peoples"
William Walton occupies his own position in English music of the twentieth century, chronologically between the generation of Gustav Hoist and Vaughan Williams and that of Benjamin Britten. Born in Oldham in 1902, the son of a local singing teacher and choirmaster, he became a chorister at Christ Church, Oxford, and followed this with admission to the university at the early age of sixteen, with support from the college. His Oxford career brought success in music but failure in the necessary academic tests to allow him a degree. At the same time his friendship with Sacheverell Sitwell led to his adoption by the three Sitwell children, Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell, as an honorary brother. The practical help of the Sitwells and the musical and cultural influences of their circle allowed him to devote his attention to composition in the years after he left Oxford, followed by increasing independence, as he won a wider reputation for himself and a satisfactory income from music for the cinema and from a generous bequest by Mrs. Samuel Courtauld. In the years after 1945 he was to some extent eclipsed by Britten, whose facility he lacked and whose contemporary achievement now seemed to go beyond Walton's successes of the 1930s. His marriage in 1948 to Susana Gil Passo, whom he had met in Buenos Aires at a conference of the Performing Rights Society, was followed by a move to the island of lschia in the Bay of Naples, continuing an association with Italy that had started in the early days of his friendship with the Sitwells and continued in subsequent years. He died there in March 1983.
In the years between the wars Walton won a succès de scandale with Façade, a collaboration with Edith Sitwell that amused the cognoscenti and shocked wider audiences, before winning an assured if minor position in twentieth century repertoire in its final form, whether as a ballet or in the concert-hall. His dramatic oratorio Belshazzar's Feast, with a text derived by Osbert Sitwell from the Bible, first performed at the Leeds Festival in 1931, was a significant addition to choral repertoire, while the Viola Concerto of 1929 marks a height of lyrical achievement and holds a central place in the viola concerto repertoire. The first of his two symphonies was eventually completed in 1935 and his Violin Concerto in 1939. The popular film music of the war years was followed after the war by the operas Troilus and Cressida and the one-act Tchekov extravaganza, The Bear, as well as the Hindemith Variations, Improvisations on an Impromptu by Benjamin Britten and the Cello Concerto and Second Symphony.
The Russian impresario Sergey Diaghilev exercised a strong influence over the course of Western music from his first concerts in Paris in 1907 until his death in Venice in 1929. In 1909 he established his Ballets russes and it was this company, above all, that impressed audiences by its exoticism, vigor and by the inspired perception that allowed Diaghilev to involve leading musicians, artists and choreographers in the realisation of his ideals. The repertoire developed from something essentially Russian, as in Petrushka or The Firebird, into post-war neo-classicism that owed much to Diaghilev's inspiration. In Paris, composers involved with Diaghilev included Stravinsky, Ravel, Satie, Prokofiev and a younger group of French composers. The first English composer to be employed by Diaghilev was Constant Lambert, whose Romeo and Juliet was staged in Monte Carlo in 1926. With the encouragement of the Sitwells, Walton, anxious to emulate his friend Constant Lambert, wrote a ballet score during the winter of 1925-26 and it was arranged that a piano version should be played to Diaghilev and his entourage, after lunch at the Sitwells. It was found necessary to use the two pianos at the house of the pianist Angus Morrison for this audition and he and the composer played the new work through to Diaghilev, who rejected it, suggesting that Walton would subsequently write something better. The result was a redrafted version of the work as the Sinfonia concertante, completed in this form in 1927 and first performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra tinder Ernest Ansermet in 1928 with the pianist York Bowen, to considerable critical approval. Walton revised the Sinfonia concertante in 1943, now removing something of the complexity of the piano part, cutting some contrapuntal elements and giving it the explanatory title of Sinfonia concertante, for orchestra with piano obbligato. In this form it was first performed in 1944 by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Malcolm Sargent with the pianist Cyril Smith. In its original version the three movements had been dedicated to the Sitwells, the first movement to Osbert, the second to Edith and the third to Sacheverell. These dedications were dropped in the later version of the work.
The Sinfonia concertante opens with a stately introduction, marked Maestoso and introducing the piano in an idiom that seems fully characteristic of the period of the work's initial conception. This triple-metre section grows quieter as it leads to a 6/8 Allegro spiritoso, that bursts into life, like some Petrushka. As the movement draws to a close there is a slackening of tension to a 4/4 Allegretto and a piano accompaniment to an expressive viola and cello melody, marked sognando, a favourite direction of which Walton later made much use. The mercurial variety of the first movement is followed by a more purely lyrical Andante comodo of some harmonic ambiguity, but essentially in D minor after the D major of the first movement to which it is motivically related. A clarinet melody is again marked sognando, giving its own character to the movement in its delicately falling figures. The mood changes abruptly in music that may suggest the energetic rhythms and figuration of Prokofiev, elsewhere a current influence on Walton. There is space for references to what has passed, the lyrical second movement and the brusquer elements of the first movement, with which the work ends.
The next major achievement of Walton was his Viola Concerto, completed in 1929 but rejected by Lionel Tertis, the champion of the viola, for whom it had been intended at the suggestion of Beecham. In the event it was first performed by Paul Hindemith at a Promenade Concert in October 1929, when Tertis heard it and decided to take it into his own repertoire, playing it a year later. Walton had first met Hindemith in 1923 and the latter's last minute intervention with the first performance of the Viola Concerto had left him with a debt of gratitude, at the very least. Hindemith enjoyed an international reputation both as a performer and as a composer, as well as, increasingly, a teacher and theorist. In later years he had for some time hoped that Walton would write something for him and this the latter eventually did in the Variations on a Theme by Hindemith, which takes as its basis the opening of the slow movement of Hindemith's 1940 Cello Concerto. Walton's tribute, duly acknowledged with gratitude and appreciation by Hindemith, was completed in February 1963, but was never performed under Hindemith's direction, as he died in December of that year. Walton's Variations are dedicated to Hindemith and his wife Gertrud and were the result of a commission for a work to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the Royal Philharmonic Society.
The Variations start wish a statement of the theme, marked Andante con moto, the first 36 bars quoted directly, with a readjustment of the scoring to transfer the solo cello part to other instruments. The first notes of the theme provide the tonality of each of the following variations and include, in tonal form, eleven of the twelve semitones of the octave. The first two variations have a characteristic rhythmic energy, with a relaxation of tension in the gentle siciliano that forms the third variation, marked Larghetto. The fourth variation, a moto perpetuo, typically marked con slancio (impetuously, with dash), is followed by an allusive fifth, marked Andante con moto, that finds a place for the musical cryptogram on the name of BACH (B flat–A–C–B natural). There is a sixth, Scherzando, that makes use of varied percussive effects, while in the extended seventh, Lento molto, there is a direct quotation from Hindemith's opera Mathis der Maler (Matthias the Painter), a work banned in Berlin in 1933, when its political implications became clear. The eighth variation, a lively, skittish version of the material, is followed by a very brief ninth, marked Maestoso and only ten bars in length, a prelude to the final fugue. Here there is further reference to the theme from Mathis der Maler, pointing the relationship with the two themes.
Walton's contrapuntal command and originality is evident in his 1942 Spitfire Prelude and Fugue. This had its origin is music for the film The First of the Few, a tribute to R. J. Mitchell, designer of the Spitfire, by Leslie Howard and also including David Niven in its cast. The success of the film and of the music itself induced Walton to offer the Prelude and Fugue as a concert piece, in which form it was first performed the following year by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under the composer's direction. The Prelude was used to accompany the film titles and is in characteristically Elgarian, patriotic vein. The fugue, which at first accompanies busy work in an aircraft factory, has a subject that soars like the Spitfire that it embodies. This is announced by second violins, violas and clarinets, answered by first violins and oboes, and then allowed a third entry from bassoon, cellos and double basses. At the heart of the fugue there is a meno mosso passage in which a solo violin climbs to the heights before the return of the fugal subject, now in the lower instruments, with a repeated single-note rhythm from the double basses. This is duly answered as the fugue unwinds, with shifts of harmony, leading to its final climax.
The March here included was written in 1959 for a television series based on Winston Churchill's A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. However suitable it may appear for its original purpose, to introduce the titles and credits of the series, it was, in the event, not used, but remains a characteristic example of Walton in Crown Imperial vein.
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