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2002 marks the year of three great occasions: Firstly, the music world celebrates the centenary of the birth of Sir William Walton. Secondly our Commonwealth celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Coronation of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. In January of this year to mark these events, Stephen Layton directed Polyphony and The Wallace Collection through three days of what can only be described (from personal experience) as spellbinding recording sessions of a disc of Walton choral music. The third great occasion of this year is its release.
In 2001 Polyphony won the Gramophone Award for Best Choral Recording for which Gramophone remarked ‘This has to be one of the strongest winners of the choral award in recent years’. And yet Stephen Layton has followed that accolade with a disc that comprises such breathtaking singing, the listener will be left staggered by such a mighty force of combined musicianship and talent.
Patrons will have heard the repertoire, and now they have the opportunity to purchase the definitive version, complete with brass, the wonderfully sonorous organ of Hereford Cathedral, and the acoustics that such a majestic building has to offer.
This disc, quite simply, is British choral music at its best, and Stephen Layton and Polyphony at theirs.
Much has been written about William Walton’s ‘long journey south’; a series of calculated escapes from one world to another, from Lancashire, via Oxford and London, to Ischia. His first, from the mill town of Oldham to the dreaming spires of Oxford, was the result of his parents’ response to a press advertisement for probationer chorister trials at Christ Church Cathedral. We can thank the local greengrocer, back in 1912, for lending Mrs Walton the money for the train fares; Mr Walton had drunk away what was set aside for the tickets the night before. Nowadays, the Waltons would have been on advance purchase Apex tickets; then, because of the impromptu dash-for-cash, they missed the train they needed to get, and arrived in Oxford after the choral trials had finished. But the ten-year-old William was allowed to audition by the organist, Henry Ley (presumably after the never-fail words ‘but we’ve come all this way’ from Mrs Walton) and, with a decent training already under his belt from his choirmaster father, was accepted into the choir.
Walton’s determination to ‘make myself interesting’ – a revealing phrase which he came up with many years later – focused not on sport (he enjoyed cricket and football and later coxed the Christ Church rowing eight) or on performance (he was only a moderate violinist, pianist and organist), but on composition. Henry Ley was his first tutor, to the extent that Walton wrote to his mother in October 1916 that ‘I expect to be able to do Florid Composition in four parts before half term’. He later recalled that after a couple of false starts with some partsongs ‘I fairly went in for it and produced about thirty very bad works of various species, songs, motets, magnificats etc.’.
Almost all of this early work went the way of many creative artists’ juvenilia – the proverbial shredder or fire-grate – but one piece which survived was a remarkable setting of Drop, drop slow tears by the seventeenth-century poet and priest, Phineas Fletcher. The version that has become widely performed since is actually a revision from 1930 (track cl), when Walton was engaged on his large-scale choral masterpiece Belshazzar’s Feast. The composer’s first thoughts came in Easter 1916, when he was still very much just a boy – though soon to turn fifteen he informed his mother on January 23 that ‘my weight is 5st. 12lbs. My height 5 ft ¼ ins.’. There is no surviving manuscript score of this first Litany, but individual voice parts show it was originally for four treble voices and a minor third higher than the published version (track 3, see also page 19 of this booklet). A second version in 1917 introduced an SATB texture and was at an intermediate pitch (track bq). Walton’s refinements in succeeding versions provide fascinating insights into his developing craftsmanship; above all, Litany’s harmonic piquancy and effect grows through metrical adjustments, and ever subtler phrase-structures and voice-leading.
Of a stream of composers closely associated with Britain’s church-music tradition, only a few such as Thomas Tomkins (St David’s Cathedral), Orlando Gibbons (King’s College, Cambridge), Henry Purcell and Samuel Sebastian Wesley (both Chapel Royal) started their musical lives as choristers. A range of British composers – from the church music specialists Charles Wood, Charles Villiers Stanford, Hubert Parry and Edward Bairstow to Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Britten, Tippett and Howells – did not. (In another sense, looking over to continental Europe, Walton the ex-chorister was in distinguished company, joining Bach, Haydn and Schubert.)
Letters to his mother from Christ Church give a picture, week by week, of the breadth of repertoire Walton was singing: Bach, Handel, Mendelssohn, Schubert and Schumann; Wesley, Parry, Bairstow and Stanford; and at the more obscurely Anglican end, Atkins, Arnold, Greene, Garret and Goss. Many decades later, Wesley’s The Wilderness cropped up in Walton’s second selection for BBC Radio’s ‘Desert Island Discs’ in April 1982. His previous appearance on this programme, in July 1965, contained no such music from the Anglican choral canon; in fact, but for the choice of his own second symphony, his selection that time was entirely non-British – Stravinsky, Mozart, Beethoven, Henze, Bellini, Debussy and Schoenberg.
Such a cosmopolitan outlook was developed early on by another Oxford tutor, Hugh Allen, then organist of New College before becoming Professor of Music in 1918. It was from him, Walton recalled, that he ‘obtained some insight into the mysteries of the orchestra, as he could bring scores vividly to life by playing them on the organ’. And he encouraged Walton to spend many hours in the Radcliffe Camera Ellis Library, poring over white-hot Stravinsky scores such as Le Sacre du Printemps and Petrushka, and those of Prokofiev, Bartók, Debussy and Ravel.
For the next ten years the world that Walton circulated in as a young man and white hope of British music drew him far away from anthems, psalms and partsongs. This was the time of the Sitwells and Façade, of his first orchestral works Portsmouth Point and the Viola Concerto, of serious partying in ’20s London. After his youthful Litany, Walton didn’t return to writing for voices until the mighty, drawn-out effort of composing Belshazzar’s Feast a full fifteen years later in 1930/31.
At the end of 1931, when Walton was both basking in the success of the first performances of this oratorio and working up to writing his first symphony, he found himself tight up against a deadline for a lightweight choral commission. ‘I’ve now to write an Xmas carol by tomorrow morning for the Daily Despatch’, he wrote to Dora Foss, the wife of his new publisher at Oxford University Press. Make we joy now in this fest, a setting of a medieval English/Latin text, was duly published on Christmas Eve 1931 in this now defunct Manchester newspaper.
It is hard to imagine The Guardian or The Independent publishing brand-new carols nowadays by Thomas Adès; but seven decades ago it doesn’t seem to have been unusual. On Christmas Eve 1927, Peter Warlock’s exquisite Bethlehem Down had been published in The Daily Telegraph, having been conceived with poet Bruce Blunt on a moonlit pub-crawl. Walton was another of Warlock’s drinking cronies, as Osbert Sitwell poetically recalled in his memoirs, and he became the first president of the Peter Warlock Society many years later, in 1963. Make we joy is undoubtedly influenced by Warlock’s small-but-perfectly-formed carol output – most of all, perhaps, his lively, similarly macaronic Benedicamus Domino. What Walton doesn’t emulate, however, is Warlock’s tendency to infuse each succeeding verse with delightful chromatic variants. As we know from his letter to Dora Foss, he’d left writing it a bit late; might a greater harmonic sophistication have appeared with more time spent on it?
Walton wrote three more carols. The first, What cheer?, was commissioned by Oxford University Press in 1961 for their collection Carols for Choirs, edited by David Willcocks and Reginald Jacques – an enterprise which has continued in various follow-ups and revamps to become the sine qua non of choirs around the caroling world. The other two carols, All this time (1970) and King Herod and the Cock (1977), appeared in Carols for Choirs 2 and 3 respectively. Whereas What cheer? And All this time are confident works, full of rhythmic and harmonic bite, King Herod seems bland by comparison. From the mid-’70s Walton’s health was in decline, and correspondence shows that he made heavy weather with this last carol, due to be premiered at the 1977 Christmas Eve Service of Nine Lessons and Carols in King’s College, Cambridge. First he struggled to find a text, and then he wrote three versions which John Rutter was invited to conflate into one. Oxford University Press eventually received what Walton described as ‘this blasted Carol. I’m having no more to do with it. Publish at your peril!’.
When Walton wrote his first carol he was in the midst of an intense relationship with the difficult, beautiful Baroness Imma von Doernberg. His next small-scale choral work was written when he was two years into his thirteen-year relationship with another aristocratic lady, Alice Wimborne – wife of Viscount Wimborne, a wealthy steel magnate, former Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, and cousin of Winston Churchill. It must have been just a little strange for one of the Wimborne children, Ivor Guest, to have his mother’s lover – approximately his own age – write an anthem for his wedding on St Cecilia’s Day, 22 November 1938, in St Mary Abbots Church, Kensington. But the Wimborne marriage seemed to be accommodating, and the Viscount and Viscountess led contentedly separate lives.
Walton set a few lines, not quite adjacent, from Chapter 8 of Solomon’s Song of Songs, and moved them around cleverly within the motet to suit his musical purposes (John Ireland used the last two lines also in his equally accomplished anthem Greater love hath no man). The result, with its beautifully judged part-writing, gently registering dissonance and a final melismatic cadence as exquisite as any extended Amen from Renaissance times, must be one of the most perfect wedding presents any couple ever received.
Today’s white hope is tomorrow’s black sheep. These days it is very sad for a composer to grow old – unless, that is, he grows old enough to witness a revival of his work. I seriously advise all sensitive composers to die at the age of 37. I know: I’ve gone through the first halcyon periods, and am just about ripe for my critical damnation.
(New York Times, June 1939.)
The Second World War was a watershed period for Walton. He switched tack from serious, substantial works to writing a number of outstanding film scores – and came out the other side no longer the white hope of English music. Britten was back from America, and attention was turned to him instead. Walton’s 1939 words to the New York Times were prophetic indeed.
The conductor Henry Wood died during the 1944 Proms season, on 19 August – a season that had been moved from The Royal Albert Hall to Bedford, of all places, because it was the time of V2 rockets terrorising London. Walton wrote a fanfare for the Wood Memorial Concert on 4 March 1945, and in September of that year he was asked to write another memorial piece for the great British conductor. This was an anthem to be sung at a service for the unveiling of a stained-glass window in memory of Wood in the church where he had played the organ in his youth, and where his ashes were buried, St Sepulchre’s, Holborn Viaduct. The text was to be by the Poet Laureate, John Masefield, who submitted six different options to Walton. By January 1946, Walton had made two separate attempts but felt, according to a letter he wrote to Wood’s widow, that neither could become a ‘worthy work’. He proposed writing a string piece instead – this post-war period was the time when his string quartet was gradually emerging – but eventually produced the anthem once Masefield had submitted a new poem called, simply, Sir Henry Wood. Walton was more drawn to the poem’s first line as the title, Where does the uttered music go?, and the anthem he created eloquently reflects the text’s ruminative, almost mystic character. In a work of great control and harmonic interest, the closing twenty bars have a particular composure – achieved by celestial, divisi upper voices above a marked bass ostinato. There is an economy of means here that points perhaps to Britten – and particularly to moments in his Hymn to St Cecilia, written three years earlier.
Walton’s ability to come up with the right piece for the right occasion was shown not just with this Wood memorial anthem, but a decade earlier with his post-Elgarian coronation march, Crown Imperial. And although he never was appointed Master of the King’s or Queen’s Music, he achieved an unofficial status as such with two new pieces for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953.
For a while in late 1943, Walton had been engaged on setting the Te Deum for the first night of the Proms in 1944. But delays in working on Lawrence Olivier’s film of Henry V caused him to jettison the commission. He returned to this text in November 1952, following a detailed meeting at Westminster Abbey on 16 September with Sir William McKie, the Abbey’s Organist and Music Director for the coronation. On 28 November, he wrote to his librettist for Troilus and Cressida, Christopher Hassall:
I’ve got cracking on the Te Deum. You will like it, I think, and I hope he will too [‘he’ presumably being God]. Lots of counter-tenors and little boys Holy-holying, not to mention all the Queen’s Trumpeters and sidedrum.
In December he wrote to McKie: ‘Though I hesitate to hazard an opinion when I am so near to a work, I think it is going to be rather splendid. I have made use of the extra brass, but arranged it so that it can be dispensed with, if unpractical for any reason. There is quite an important and indispensable organ part!’.
And right at the end of 1952, on 29 December, another of Walton’s detailed exchanges with Hassall about the Troilus libretto digressed briefly again about his two coronation commissions: ‘After a spot of bother with the “Virgin’s Womb” (the kind of trouble I always seem to get into – don’t tell the Archbishop!) the Te Deum is complete and both full and piano scores dispatched. Quite a lot of work. It is not too bad for an occasional piece and should be right for the ceremony. The March [Orb and Sceptre] is under way but not too bright as yet’.
The Te Deum is indeed ‘rather splendid’; unlike Walton’s other small-scale choral works to date, it has a boldness and grandeur that borrows easily from Belshazzar’s Feast (Adrian Boult was shocked by its ‘pagan’ quality). It is a choral incarnation of Walton in ‘pomp and circumstance’ mode, and with its episodic sections of contrasting tuttis and semi-choruses, it set the pattern that the composer would follow in his subsequent choral settings, such as The Twelve, the Jubilate and the Magnificat.
At the coronation in Westminster Abbey on 2 June 1953, an expanded mixed choir was accompanied by orchestra, added brass and organ. This recording features just organ and brass accompaniment, as well as an added preceding fanfare that Walton wrote for the Queen’s entrance to the NATO Parliamentary Conference in June 1959. Polyphony’s director Stephen Layton felt this link-up would work, having experienced a similar one as chorister in Winchester Cathedral in 1977, when choir director Martin Neary ran the NATO fanfare into the start of Parry’s I was glad for a Silver Jubilee service.
I must admit to have been suffering from a prolonged bout of depression and for months have hardly put down a bar worth keeping. All my later works always receive such a drubbing from the critics, especially my last one, which incidentally I consider one of my best, the Variations on a Theme of Hindemith.
(Letter to Britten, January 1964.)
In February 1965, Walton wrote to another fellow composer and friend, Malcolm Arnold: ‘Sorry to have been so dilatory in answering your letter, but believe it or not I’ve been having a bout of work after a very long interval – an Anthem with words by Auden for our Alma Mater Ch. Ch. Oxford. Also a Missa Brevis (very brevis) for Coventry. But don’t think I’ve got religious mania!’.
Dr Cuthbert Simpson, Dean of Christ Church Cathedral from 1959 to 1969, had commissioned Auden and Walton to create The Twelve, both to address the shortage of good anthems for the Feast of the Apostle, and to provide for the first time dual patronage from the college for two of its most distinguished alumni.
Despite Walton’s apparent problems with Auden’s text (he reckoned it was ‘obscure and difficult to set’), and despite (or as a result of?) his post-Hindemith Variations depression, The Twelve turned out to be Walton’s most substantial and musically adventurous choral work without orchestra. In fact, taken amidst all the relatively insignificant work that he produced in the last two decades of his life (what he called ‘fritteries’ – fanfares, TV title music, adaptations of earlier material), this twelve-minute piece breaks the pattern that had previously been established – that of the choral works being light relief to the symphonies, operas and concertos – and stands out as one of his most important and arresting later works, alongside The Bear. It is no coincidence that Walton orchestrated the demanding organ part for a performance marking the 900th anniversary of Westminster Abbey on 2 January 1966; he recognised the piece’s potential as more than mere evensong material.
The Twelve feels like a miniature, compressed cantata. Walton-the-choirboy would have come across such extended anthems as Mendelssohn’s Hear my prayer (featuring the famous out-take O for the wings of a dove) or Wesley’s The Wilderness (which, as mentioned above, he chose as one of his Desert Island Discs in 1982). He would also have surely been aware subsequently not only of Britten’s earlier masterpieces in this genre, Rejoice in the Lamb and Hymn to St Cecilia, but of Finzi’s generously proportioned anthem Lo, the full final sacrifice (1946, orchestrated 1947) and Howells’s Take him, earth, for cherishing. This was a fairly new work when The Twelve came into being – Howells had composed it for a John F Kennedy memorial service in Washington DC in 1964.
Even when heard in its un-orchestrated form, The Twelve’s closest relation is clearly Walton’s early triumph Belshazzar’s Feast: the stern authority of the baritone recitative that opens the work, the astringency and edge of ‘his will to kill … tortured, and slain’, the unbuttoned festivity of the close. Here, Walton’s fugal writing links itself not with Belshazzar’s Feast but with the next work in his youthful blaze of masterful creations, the First Symphony. Famously, Walton struggled for months with the final movement until his friendly rival Constant Lambert suggested he move through the creative block by writing a fugue. At that stage the largely self-taught Walton claimed he couldn’t write fugues; so Lambert pointed him to the entry on fugue in Grove’s Dictionary, and from there the symphony’s close came jubilantly into sight. Whether Walton used the metrically intriguing fugue in The Twelve as a means to unblock himself we don’t know. But the anthem did arrive at Christ Church Cathedral in instalments, the last just in time for its evensong premiere on 16 May 1965, conducted by Dr Sydney Watson.
Much of the outer sections of The Twelve is familiar territory – the jazzy swung rhythms, harmonies based on compound or major-minor switchback thirds, high- and low-voice groupings providing textural contrast. But the central section is unique in Walton’s smaller choral works, taking us as it does into an intimate world of impassioned entreaty. First with a single high voice, and then with another joining it in loose counterpoint, Walton takes Auden’s extraordinarily purple, psalm-like text and creates a tender miniature of great pathos. The sinuous lines and prevalence of diminished intervals hark back to Bach in Passiontide mode. And it is tempting to view this short passage as a tantalising glimpse of how a Walton-Auden opera might have turned out. (As it was, the closest they got was a period in late 1952 when Auden, staying on Ischia, had a go at sorting out what Walton saw as Troilus and Cressida ‘libretto trouble’ – a piece of back-seat driving which the opera’s librettist Christopher Hassall didn’t appreciate in the slightest.)
Concurrent with the composition of this Christ Church work, Walton wrote the short mass setting for the choir of Coventry Cathedral. Writing to his publisher at Boosey & Hawkes, Alan Frank, he anticipated in March 1965 that ‘I doubt if there will be more than 8 to 10 mins. Of it. Remembering the boredom I suffered as a dear little choirboy, I’ve made it or am making it as brevissima as possible. It should be v. Popular among Communion takers. But how uninspiring are the words!’.
In mid-1971, Walton agreed to set the 100th Psalm, Jubilate Deo, for Lina Lalandi’s English Bach Festival. But in September he was writing to Alan Frank, wishing to ‘slide out’ of the commission. The Jubilate was – here we go again – ‘not the most inspiring bit of nonsense – in fact the only thing to be said for it is its brevity’.
And three years later again, Frank received yet another letter from Walton complaining of text trouble: ‘How I dislike the words of Mag. & Nunc. – most uninspiring. But as the queer dean has been very generous, I feel I must try to do something at least respectably good.’
The ‘queer dean’ in question was Walter Hussey, then Dean of Chichester Cathedral, but who thirty-one years previously had asked Walton, as Vicar of St Matthew’s Northampton, for an anthem to mark the church’s golden jubilee. He had been turned down, so he asked Britten instead, and got Rejoice in the Lamb. When Dean Hussey asked Walton in 1974 for a Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis to celebrate Chichester Cathedral’s 900th anniversary, the composer agreed partially as a way of making amends for turning him down in 1943. But the commission fee of £500 was, as Walton acknowledged, ‘generous’, and perhaps because of his lowly Lancastrian start in life, he was a man who was always attracted to what he more than once referred to as ‘the filthy lucre’. (John Ireland was of the opinion that Walton was ‘the most mercenary-minded composer’ he ever met.)
So, though it is rather unkind to telescope a decade into three quotes from correspondence, we have Walton dismissing the larger part of Anglican church music’s stock texts – the propers of the Mass, the evening canticles and the Jubilate. (The other major canticle, the Te Deum he had already confidently set, with no apparent reservations!) But despite this lack of ‘inspiration’, Walton’s craftsmanship addresses each text head on. The Mass may be ‘brevissima’ and the Jubilate too, but each piece works well – they all serve their purpose.
The Mass for Coventry – not eventually premiered there because of illness among the trebles leading up to the scheduled performance on Easter Sunday 1966 – is unaccompanied until the Gloria. The Kyrie is austere and contrapuntal, but features a delightful harmonic turn to close. The conclusion of the thirds-based Sanctus/Benedictus, with its quietly hanging major seventh, similarly takes us by surprise; and the end of the Agnus Dei is beautifully judged too. Just four years before, Walton had set the Gloria on a much larger scale – for three soloists, orchestra and the Huddersfield Choral Society celebrating its 125th anniversary. Perhaps also because energy was being spent concurrently on writing the upbeat conclusion of The Twelve, this short Gloria is not consistently successful. But the central section for treble solo and semi-chorus, including celestially triadic upper voices, is charming and deftly dispatches the text.
With the same fluent exchange of bold tuttis, short solos and semi-chorus interjections, the Jubilate and Magnificat share a wonderful confidence and majestic swagger. They also share an almost identical conclusion to the Gloria – a B flat triad with a raised fourth falling to A major. Walton was well aware of this tendency to repeat himself, to recycle. ‘If one’s not careful’ he confessed to Alan Blyth in an interview for The Times in November 1976, ‘one tends to become repetitious; an idea comes into your head and you find it’s the same one you had ten years ago’. There are harmonic turns and scraps of melody from Belshazzar’s Feast that one hears coming back time and time again in his later choral writing. And it is a contentious, subjective matter as to when Walton crosses the boundary from maintaining or staying true to his ‘voice’, to a place where his music is merely a formulaic rehash.
Listening to the Cantico del Sole and Antiphon, written respectively in 1973/4 and 1977, one wonders whether that threshold has indeed been partly crossed. With the first of these, the problem perhaps lies in the sheer mass of text in this Prayer of St Francis of Assisi. What seems initially like fresh, lively writing in the central Vivo section, where paired upper and lower voices exchange phrases in strict rotation, ultimately seems to settle as routine dispersal of the text. As by far the largest text that Walton set, relative to the time taken to perform it, perhaps it is a case of ‘more is less’. And although we invariably need to recalibrate the composer’s own downbeat assessments of his work, perhaps his view expressed to Malcolm Arnold in a letter that it had turned out ‘deplorably dull and unexciting’ wasn’t too far off.
Antiphon, a commission to celebrate the 150th anniversary of a church in Rochester, New York, sets the same George Herbert text that Vaughan Williams had set in his Five Mystical Songs. Awash with trademark melodic and harmonic turns, it is a festive piece that fulfils the brief – but possibly little more. Walton’s creative powers had, by then, weakened to the point that he relied, one suspects, on composition’s equivalent of muscle-memory. In the last months of his life, he took a great interest in Palestrina’s music, and just weeks before his death held out a hope that he could write ‘something even 100th part as good’ as this Renaissance master. Ma fin est mon commencement – to quote the name of a motet by another, earlier master, Guillaume de Machaut. Walton’s end was spent admiring music from his beginning, even though he might not have enjoyed it much then, as that little choirboy from Oldham on the start of his ‘long journey south’.
Meurig Bowen © 2002