Hyperion Records

Symphony No 1 in B flat minor
composer
begun in 1932, completed by 31 August 1935; commissioned by Sir Hamilton Harty; dedicated to Baroness Imma von Doernberg; first complete performance given by Harty and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Queen's Hall, London, on 6 November 1935

Recordings
'Walton: Symphonies' (CDA67794)
Walton: Symphonies
Details
Movement 1: Allegro assai
Movement 2: Presto con malizia
Movement 3: Andante con malinconia
Movement 4: Maestoso – Allegro, brioso e ardentemente – Vivacissimo – Maestoso

Symphony No 1 in B flat minor
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Walton began to compose his Symphony No 1 in B flat minor in the early part of 1932 at the request of Sir Hamilton Harty, conductor of the Hallé Orchestra. Conveying this news to his friend Siegfried Sassoon, Walton wrote: ‘I may be able to knock Bax off the map.’ Having written two concertos and a big choral work (Belshazzar’s Feast), he wanted to compose a large-scale piece of ‘absolute’ music, with the Beethovenian symphony as his ideal. Work on it progressed slowly, chiefly at Ascona, Switzerland, where he was living with a young widow, Baroness Imma von Doernberg, and in October 1932 he told Dora Foss, wife of his publisher Hubert Foss, that ‘it shows definite signs of being on the move, a little spasmodic perhaps, but I have managed to get down about forty bars which for me is really saying something’. The symphony originally began with an Allegro version of what is now the first subject of the slow movement. In its place Walton began the work with the haunting rhythmic figure we now know so well. But by December he was ‘stuck’ at ‘an octave on A’. It was at this point that he told Harty there was no chance of the symphony being ready by April, the date for which the conductor had planned the premiere. Harty had just left the Hallé to become conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and was especially anxious for the publicity and prestige associated with giving the first performance of a major work by a young composer regarded as foremost in his generation.

Another year passed during which three movements were completed. Walton told Christabel Aberconway, one of his close friends, that he thought he had ‘brought off something a bit A1 extra’. But the last movement gave him immense trouble, not least because he had spent much of the summer of 1934 writing his first film score (Escape Me Never) for an irresistible fee. Harty, whose plans for the premiere had again been disrupted, announced in November 1934 that the symphony would be performed on 3 December without a finale. He wrote to Foss: ‘Why don’t you go over to Switzerland and wrest poor W.W.’s Baroness away from him so that he can stop making overtures to her and do a symphony for me instead!’ The three-movement version was a success but it was only a stop-gap. Walton wrote to his friend Patrick Hadley that he was determined that the finale should be up to the standard of the rest. ‘I’ve burnt about three finales … and it is only comparatively lately that I’ve managed to get going on what I hope is the last attempt.’

Unfortunately the impression persisted at the time of the three-movement performance that Walton could not think of a finale, a misconception he inadvertently fostered by admitting that he ‘had to wait for the right mood and could not think of the right thing to do’. In fact while working on the slow movement he had already begun the finale. Its beginning and magnificent coda were composed by December 1934. He was dissatisfied with the middle section until Constant Lambert suggested a fugal episode. The symphony was finished by 31 August. It was played in full on 6 November 1935 when Harty conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the Queen’s Hall, London. None of the above would matter much if it had not led to a critical litany that the finale was ‘tacked on’ and did not fit the rest of the work. On the contrary, it seems to be the only right and proper end to the symphony, the inevitable resolution of all that has gone before and Walton himself thought it was the best movement.

The opening of the symphony, with the drum roll on B flat, the harmony on the horns, the rhythmic and throbbing crescendo in the strings and the oboe’s repeated-note melody, is among the most exciting starts to a symphony ever written. It precipitates a passionate, frenzied drama, in which there is little lyrical respite and in which strings and brass tear the heart out of the themes, worrying at them as if they had caused some harm. One could analyse this movement in terms of intervals, pedal points and ostinati, but a personal drama was clearly at the root of this score. A friend remarked: ‘The trouble was that William changed girlfriends between movements.’ Some time in 1934 Imma left him for another man and he fell in love with Alice, Viscountess Wimborne, with whom he lived happily until her death in 1948. In spite of the break-up, Walton retained the dedication of the symphony to Imma.

In the scherzo, marked Presto con malizia, the ‘malicious’ designation is no illusion. Walton’s sharply accented rhythms convey good humour in Portsmouth Point and Façade. Here there is spite, stinging and lashing. It gives way, in the slow movement, to the solo flute’s desolate melancholy which, in an Allegro version, was the first part of the work to be composed. A second important theme is played by solo clarinet over pizzicato strings. The climax of the movement is a passage of full orchestral fury which dies down to leave the flute alone with its lament in C sharp minor. The finale’s B flat wrenches us back to reality and confidence. The majestic introduction is succeeded by a busy Allegro, but phrases from the ‘crown imperial’ opening recur and it comes as no surprise, after the fugue, when the majestic music returns. A distant poignant trumpet call is but a momentary interruption in the salvoes of strings, brass and drums which bring the symphony to its dramatic close.

The symphony enjoyed an ecstatic reception from musicians, critics and public. It was recorded a month after the first performance. Walton was now established as the ‘white hope’ of English music and he was an obvious choice to be asked to compose a march for the Coronation of King George VI in 1937. But he was under no illusions and said prophetically in 1939: ‘Today’s white hope is tomorrow’s black sheep.’ Six years later, when the Second World War was over, he found himself out of favour with the new generation of critics, for whom Schoenberg’s atonality was the flavour of the decade, and superseded by Benjamin Britten, eleven years his junior, whose opera Peter Grimes had swept all before it in 1945.

from notes by Michael Kennedy © 2011

Track-specific metadata
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Details for CDA67794 track 4
Maestoso – Allegro, brioso e ardentemente – Vivacissimo – Maestoso
Artists
ISRC
GB-AJY-11-79404
Duration
12'34
Recording date
21 November 2010
Recording venue
City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, Scotland
Recording producer
Andrew Keener
Recording engineer
Simon Eadon
Hyperion usage
  1. Walton: Symphonies (CDA67794)
    Disc 1 Track 4
    Release date: July 2011
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