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ClassicsOnline Home » WALTON, W.: Quest / The Wise Virgins (English Northern Philharmonia, Lloyd-Jones)
By Anthony Burton
BBC Music Magazine
By Edward Greenfield
William Walton (1902-1983)
The Quest Siesta The Wise Virgins
Waltons characterful and highly theatrical score for his only original ballet, The Quest, is the most enigmatic of his entire uvre. At forty minutes duration it constitutes one of his half-dozen most substantial works, yet since the limited run of the original production in 1943 it has received only two further performances, a first recording in 1990 and the present one. Part of the explanation lies in the fact that, in the confusion of wartime, Walton and the ballet company lost track of its whereabouts; only in 1958 was the score rediscovered in a warehouse in North London.
In 1943 the Sadlers Wells Ballet was in a very low state of morale because its chief choreographer, Frederick Ashton, had for two years been serving as an intelligence officer in the RAF. Thanks to the efforts of Kenneth Clark, the distinguished art historian, later author of the television series Civilization, he was suddenly given six weeks leave to create a new ballet for the company. Ashton decided that Walton was the obvious choice of composer for a major new score, and to inspire and assist him, made a detailed timed synopsis of what was required, which Walton was to follow remarkably closely.
Less obvious was the subject matter that Ashton chose for his new ballet. This was a scenario prepared by his friend the writer Doris Langley Moore that was derived from the allegorical poem The Faerie Queene by Shakespeares contemporary Edmund Spenser. Intractable material for a ballet, it might be thought, but as it featured St George and presented in graphic form the conflict between good and evil, it provided a good opportunity to present a morale-boosting patriotic spectacle at a low point in the war.
The conditions under which the ballet was created were far from ideal, quite apart from the very tight schedule imposed by the limitations of Ashtons leave. The company was on tour, while Walton was living in rural Northamptonshire. Getting the piano score of each hurriedly composed section to Ashton and the company was fraught with difficulty, and the composer frequently had to resort to bribing guards on trains to act as couriers.
Eventually choreography, orchestration and design came together, and the ballet received its première on 6th April 1943 at the New Theatre, London. Ninette de Valois Sadlers Wells Company danced, scenery and costumes were by John Piper, Constant Lambert conducted and the cast included Margot Fonteyn, Beryl Grey, Moira Shearer and Robert Helpmann. Sadly the production failed to impress and did not stay long in the repertory, although both Ashton and Walton found an opportunity to tighten its structure.
A brief outline of the complex plot is as follows:
Scene I. 1 Lost in a storm, St George, personifying Holiness [1:32] and Una (Truth) fall under the spell of the magician Archimago (Hypocrisy). Una dances a weary Siciliana [2:07], and she and St George fall asleep. Archimago transforms his female servant into an evil semblance of Una [4:29], but after her dance of seduction with St George [5:29] he rejects her. The angry Archimago makes his male servant lie with the false Una and summons St George to observe them; he leaves in disgust [7:05]. Una enters [7:32] vainly searching for St George, then leaves. Furious at finding her gone, Archimago disguises himself in armour like that of St George [8:14].
Scene II. 2 The three knights Sansloy (Lawless), Sansjoy (Joyless) and Sansfoy (Faithless) dance to compete for the hand of Duessa (Falsehood). St George enters [3:19], fights and kills Sansfoy. He leaves with Duessa. Una enters, still searching for St George, then falls asleep. Archimago, as the false St George [5:40], wakes Una and leaves with her.
Scene III. 3 Pride is discovered on her throne, surrounded by the other deadly sins. 4 Each sin then dances. 5 St George enters with Duessa; they dance. Sansloy enters and St George fights and kills him. St George is repelled and disillusioned by what he has observed.
Scene IV. 6 Sansjoy mourns the death of his two brothers. Archimago enters, still disguised as St George [1:25]. Sansjoy kills him and then performs an impassioned dance of seduction with Una [1:47]. St George enters [2:23], kills Sansjoy and is reunited with Una.
Scene V. 7 Faith, Hope and Charity dance with attendant virtues. St George and Una enter and dance together [1:20]. St George is reminded of his duties; after putting on his armour again and pledging himself to England, he bids farewell to Una [3:53] and, in an imposing apotheosis, departs on his quest.
Siesta, for small orchestra, was composed in 1926 shortly after Waltons first orchestral work, the overture Portsmouth Point. Very little is known about its origins, but it clearly derives in some measure from the young Waltons already established devotion to Southern Italy. It could well be that the piece has a hidden programme; otherwise the sudden loud interjections and frequent false relations hardly suggest the average siesta. Walton revised it in 1962 and retained a soft spot for it to the end of his life. Ashton twice used the score as the basis for an occasional pas de deux, once in 1936 and again, for a celebration of Waltons seventieth birthday, in 1972.
Waltons orchestrations of J.S. Bach for The Wise Virgins were commissioned by the Vic-Wells Ballet, as it was then called, in 1940. Frederick Ashton had set himself the wartime task of reading the entire Bible, and conceived the idea of choreographing the parable of the wise and foolish virgins from Matthew XXV. Constant Lambert selected eight appropriate numbers from Bachs Cantatas and Chorale Preludes, most of which were available in existing piano transcriptions, and Walton was invited to orchestrate them. The ballet was first performed under Lambert at Sadlers Wells Theatre on 24th April 1940 with impressive designs by Rex Whistler, and with Margot Fonteyn as the Bride and Michael Somes as the Bridegroom; it achieved a solid success. Although Walton uses a full symphony orchestra, his arrangements are notable for their imagination and avoidance of vulgarity. He made and recorded the six-movement suite from the ballet in the same year. It is interesting to note that the celebrated Sheep may safely graze where a good shepherd watches, which conveys such an atmosphere of piety, in fact comes from a secular cantata written in praise of a local Duke, who is likened to the shepherd.
For the 1990 première recording of The Quest, the late Christopher Palmer prepared an edition which considerably expanded Waltons orchestration, written for slightly reduced wartime forces, especially in the matter of added brass, percussion and piano; it also introduced a number of additional dynamic effects. The present recording presents Waltons original orchestration, though with reference to the modest augmentations that he made when the short Suite from the ballet was published in 1962. The other important difference is that it incorporates the cuts, mainly in Scenes 1 and 4 and amounting to some sixty bars, that Walton subsequently insisted on introducing to his hurriedly composed score, while at the same time restoring some bars missing from the Palmer edition. This hitherto unknown list of cuts is preserved in the Walton Museum, Ischia.
THE ROYAL BALLET BENEVOLENT FUND
Chairman Dame Beryl Grey DBE
The Royal Ballet Benevolent Fund was founded in 1936 to assist dancers who performed with both Britains repertory ballet and contemporary dance companies respectively, who have either suffered injury or are now in need of support. To become a professional dancer takes years of strenuous training. Dancers, having given much pleasure to so many and who, through no fault of their own, may now require help and deserve to be supported. Thanks to careful maintaining and generous support, the compassionate work of the Fund continues. However, there is no room for complacency and the Trustees strive to address the need to attract funding.
For further information or to make a donation to The Royal Ballet Benevolent Fund please contact the Secretary, Michael J. Crookes, The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, LONDON, WC2E 9DD.
Tel/Fax: 020 8570 7569. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
This recording was made with financial support from the Underwood Trust.
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