Allegro scherzando [5'08]
Andante tranquillo [8'23]
Allegro molto [8'19]
Hyperion continues to salute Walton's centenary year with a selection of his chamber music. This is a collection of intimate works providing many insights into the composer's life. The Piano Quartet, for example, is the first work in which Walton considered he had shown any talent as a composer, and the Valse from Façade illustrates his irreverence towards popular music of the day.
Before Anon in Love, Walton had yet to write for the guitar. The work was commissioned by Peter Pears and Julian Bream who coached him about the instrument’s characteristics. The Passacaglia arose from a friendship with Mstislav Rostropovich, who challenged the composer to write something for him. Loosely based on Bach's works for solo cello, the work comprises a theme and ten variations and was premiered by Rostropovich at Walton's eightieth birthday celebrations.
A chance meeting with Diana Gould, the then-fiancée of Yehudi Menuhin, resulted in the prompt commission of the Violin Sonata. It was to become infused with tragedy following the death of Walton's partner of fourteen years, Alice, Lady Wimbourne, during the work's composition. Walton's overwhelming sense of loss is much in evidence and it now stands as one of his finest achievements.
In a letter of 1932, William Walton stated that his Piano Quartet was the first work in which he had shown any talent as a composer. He was being hard on himself since he had written the exquisite A Litany when he was fourteen; it is also in his teenage years in Oxford that the origins of the Piano Quartet lie.
Walton had become a chorister at Christ Church Cathedral at the age of ten, and with help from his principal mentor, the Dean, Dr Thomas Strong, had remained at the choir school after his voice broke in 1916. In June 1918 he passed the first part of his Bachelor of Music examination and the following November was awarded an Exhibition for two years by Christ Church. In the same year he began composing the Piano Quartet. Despite his precocious musical talents he was obliged to pass the University’s Responsions matriculation examination. After three failed attempts he was finally sent down. By this time, however, he had become the protégé of the Sitwell family, in whose company in the spring of 1920 he visited Italy where he completed the quartet. Unfortunately Walton posted the score back to England and it was lost for a year. Amazingly it resurfaced and Walton made further revisions.
Walton’s decision to write a piano quartet was pragmatic, since he hoped to emulate the success of Herbert Howells’s Piano Quartet of 1916, which had won an award in the first of the Carnegie Trust’s competitions. His ambition succeeded for it too won an award and was published under the Trust’s auspices in 1924 with a dedication to Strong. It was first performed in Liverpool on 19 September 1924 by members of the McCullagh String Quartet with the pianist James Wallace. Walton made further revisions in 1973 after a performance at the Aldeburgh Festival and prior to the publication of a new edition by Oxford University Press.
Given its model, it is not surprising that the shadow of Howells is present in the work, particularly in the first movement. Ravel’s influence is apparent too, as is Stravinsky’s in the rhythmic drive found in both the scherzo and finale, a feature that was to become a hallmark of Walton’s mature style. Another aspect of the quartet that was to be a characteristic of the mature composer is the manner in which Walton develops his thematic ideas by a process of constant evolution, rather than within the confines of a ‘development’ section.
The first movement (Allegramente) is cast in a regular sonata form, opening with the violin, accompanied by a cello drone, playing a gentle modal melody clearly imbued with the spirit of English folk music. Of crucial thematic importance are the notes and rhythmic pattern of the second bar, which act as a germ recurring throughout the work. By contrast the piano has a dramatic, staccato downward phrase which leads to a fortissimo repeat of the violin tune. The piano also announces the flowing second subject in octaves. Fragments from the themes are submitted to Walton’s ongoing transformation process in the short development section. In the coda the music quietens to leave just a ghost of the opening.
The exuberant, playful scherzo is created from four elements: the accentuated rhythmic fragments and the teasing cross-rhythms of the opening; a swaying piano tune; a fugato for the strings alone (the notes of which are derived from the Allegramente’s opening theme); and a proud tune, introduced by the piano, which might be summed up as Elgar crossed with Howells.
In the background of the Andante tranquillo Ravel looms large. Indeed, Walton’s friend, the pianist Angus Morrison, pointed out that the main theme, which is shared between strings and piano, bears an uncanny resemblance to ‘Le martin-pêcheur’ from the former’s Histoires naturelles. The middle section is ushered in by doleful piano chords and harmonics from the violin and leads to an extended viola solo. Briefly the music becomes more agitated, then calms to present a barren landscape in which cello and viola play sombre allusions to the Allegramente’s opening theme, alternating with a dark chorale-like passage for the piano. A pianissimo violin solo brings relief to the oppressive mood as the music strengthens and surges to the movement’s climax and a return of the opening idea.
The last movement is a sonata rondo that abounds with syncopated energy. Incisive off-beat quavers from the strings, and a piano plunge downwards set it in motion followed by the swaggering main tune characterised by repeated notes. Typically, a tiny fragment from it is singled out for use from here on. A flowing cello melody is the basis for the first episode and a fugato forms the second, itself derived from the rondo tune. Later the rondo theme is heard at its most vivacious in a passage that brings Petrushka to mind. Towards the end the music stills; there is a brief recall of the opening of the quartet, before the tempo picks up and the work is whirled to an exhilarating conclusion.
Anon in Love arose from a commission by the tenor Peter Pears and the guitarist Julian Bream who gave the premiere at Shrubland Park Hall, Ipswich, on 21 June 1960 during the Aldeburgh Festival. Pears had suggested to Walton that in concept the work might have the character of a ‘one-man opera’; this appealed to the composer who turned to Christopher Hassall, the librettist of his opera Troilus and Cressida, for advice. Six anonymous sixteenth- and seventeenth-century lyrics on the subject of love emerged as the texts, which Hassall chose from the anthology The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems edited by Gerald Bullett. Walton himself coined the witty title. As writing for the guitar was a new challenge for the composer, Bream demonstrated its characteristics to him and provided a diagram of the fingerboard.
The first three lyrics were also used by English Renaissance lute and madrigal composers, and are found respectively in Hume’s Musicall Humors (1605), John Farmer’s first book of madrigals (1599) and John Wilbye’s first book of madrigals (1598). Throughout the songs Walton reflects the spirit of such composers: rhythmic conceits within the poems are exploited; so too is the expressive potential of word-play, as heard in the first setting with its wide, expressive intervals for the voice and the aching dissonance between voice and guitar at the opening.
The second song with its puckish accompaniment finds the lover in cajoling mood, although the saucy punch line of the object of his desire shows that his earnest endeavours were unnecessary! In the third the lover compares the colour of damask roses to his lover’s lips in an ardent vocal line that reaches a sensuous climax, appropriately, on the word ‘lips’. The fourth song has a vivacious scherzo-like quality with the voice part mainly in quavers until it pointedly changes to staccato crotchets for the final pert line, ‘When all her robes are gone’. In ‘I gave her cakes and I gave her ale’ the music has a rollicking character with virtuoso writing for both voice and guitar featuring glissandi, grace-notes and the body of the guitar tapped in imitation of a drum. The melody of the final song is almost like a folk song which in the first three verses is accompanied by the nonchalant ‘vamping’ of the guitar. In the final verse, however, both voice and guitar increasingly become more animated with syncopated rhythms and misplaced accents that create a mood of heady anticipation at the prospect of the lover winning his lady’s hand.
Walton’s name came to the fore with the first public performance of Façade in 1923. Edith Sitwell and her brothers Osbert and Sacheverell had conceived it as a drawing-room entertainment in which Edith’s seemingly nonsensical poems had exploited pure rhythms and the sounds of words. They decided that music was to be an essential ingredient in the ‘entertainment’ and drafted in Walton. Façade was first performed privately in 1922, with the public premiere taking place seventeen months later at the Aeolian Hall, London, where it was greeted with a mixture of bewilderment and hostility – ‘Drivel they Paid to Hear’ was one headline! Between those two performances considerable changes took place, with some numbers being dropped and new ones added. Valse was one of the latter; it became No 16 of the definitive version published in 1951, and was published in Walton’s arrangement for piano in 1928. With its tongue-in-cheek allusions to the popular music of the day, the ‘Valse’ is typical of the delicious wit that characterises the whole of Façade.
Walton met Mstislav Rostropovich at the 1970 Aldeburgh Festival when the latter had played Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante in the same concert that Walton’s Improvisations on an Impromptu of Benjamin Britten received its British premiere. They became friends after a good-humoured exchange of banter during which Walton asked Rostropovich when he was going to play his cello concerto, and the latter replied by issuing a challenge – if Walton wrote him a new work then he would play both it and the concerto! Almost a decade later, in 1979, Walton started work on a short piece for solo cello intended for Rostropovich, but progress was desperately protracted since he found composing more and more difficult in his old age.
The work, titled Passacaglia, was completed the following year. Walton had in mind Bach’s works for solo cello whilst composing it and considered it more suitable for private rather than public performance. Rostropovich gave the premiere in London on 16 March 1982 as part of the composer’s eightieth birthday celebrations. It comprises a sombre theme followed by ten variations. The first three inhabit the instrument’s lower register, whilst the fourth soars to reach the highest. Variations five and six are faster, and in the seventh pizzicato chords accompany an expressive melodic line. The eighth and ninth combine to make a characteristic fleet and rhythmic Waltonian scherzo, and the work ends in a fast and furious plethora of notes.
The Violin Sonata arose out of a period of turmoil and change in the composer’s life. Its composition was begun in 1947 under tragic circumstances arising from the illness of Alice, Lady Wimborne, with whom he had been having a relationship since 1934. It was not completed until 1949, almost a year after her death, by which time he had met and married a young Argentinian, Susanna Gil.
In 1947 Alice Wimborne was unwell, but her doctor could find nothing wrong. That September she and Walton set out for a holiday in Italy, but they only got as far as Lucerne when her condition worsened. Cancer of the bronchus was diagnosed and she was admitted to hospital. In the immediate post-war years obtaining finances at a distance from home presented considerable difficulties and Walton was desperately worried about how the costs of her treatment would be paid. Recalling the situation in a letter to Angus Morrison in 1969, Walton wrote that by chance he met Diana Gould, who was shortly to become the wife of Yehudi Menuhin, and having explained his plight to her she promptly commissioned on Menuhin’s behalf a sonata for him and her brother-in-law, the pianist Louis Kentner.
Menuhin duly advanced him half of the commission fee and Walton set to work. Composition on the sonata though was interrupted by writing the film score for Olivier’s Hamlet and then by the final harrowing stage of Alice Wimborne’s illness. He resumed work on the sonata after her death on 19 April 1948. Although Walton made no outward reference to his feelings following his loss, it is hard not to hear, in at least the first movement of the sonata, a musical reaction. It was first performed in Zürich by Menuhin and Kentner on 30 September 1949, after which Walton made some revisions, and this definitive version was first heard at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, on 5 February 1950, played by the same artists.
Despite the sporadic nature of its composition, set against such a varied set of personal circumstances, the work is highly concentrated and stands as one of Walton’s finest achievements. Over a gentle lapping piano accompaniment, the violin plays a lyrical theme that is full of tenderness. A tiny semiquaver gruppetto heard at the beginning of the melody is important in the subsequent thematic development, not only in the first movement, but in the work as a whole, as is a second version of the gruppetto two bars later. The first paragraph ends with an emphatic phrase for piano, then violin, that thrusts upwards, before the pianist introduces the second principal idea. This is not so much of a contrast, however, and it seems to inhabit the same mood established at the outset, particularly as it ends with its own version of the gruppetto that is shot through with a heartrending poignancy. True contrast comes with an agitated appearance of the gruppetto beginning with an upward major seventh (a Walton hallmark) which initiates an assertive and dynamic passage with accents on and off the beat for violin and piano respectively.
In the ebb and flow of the development both instruments share the exploration of the musical material, with the violin making much of the gruppetto as it strives to soar ever higher. Walton caps the movement in inspired fashion, with an extended, contemplative coda in which the violin takes a final look at the main theme against the arpeggiated chords of the piano played with the soft pedal. Its outward tranquillity masks, nevertheless, an undeniable sense of loss lying beneath the surface.
The form of the second movement is a theme and variations. The eight-bar ‘Tema’ is self-contained in character, with none of the expansiveness that marked the first movement’s principal theme. The piano alone then concludes the main material with a chromatic melody that embraces first ten, then all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. Some commentators have alluded to this as a series, but Walton does not exploit them in any Schoenbergian sense.
In the first variation the theme is heard in the context of a different rhythm, 6/8, and is set in spare two-part counterpoint with the piano. The marking for Variation 2, a tempo quasi improvisando, gives the clue to its character, and it culminates in an impassioned outpouring from the violin. Variation 3 is a spiky march featuring double stopping on the violin and ending with a dissonant extension for piano alone. In Variation 4 the instruments tumble helter-skelter in unison and octaves, whilst Variation 5 has the violin playing steady pizzicato quavers against the piano’s florid arabesques. It ends with a short unaccompanied cadenza for the violin. The sixth variation, Scherzando, is appropriately swift and charged with rhythmic energy. Variation 7 is the longest: set to alternating 6/8 and 9/8 rhythms, it has a lilting barcarolle-like quality. The piano begins the coda with what seems like a twelve-note fugal subject; the violin however, does not take up the challenge with an answering subject, merely repeating it cheekily before launching both itself and the piano in a pyrotechnical display of bravura panache.
Andrew Burn © 2002