William Walton’s The Twelve
is one of the relatively few works intended for liturgical use for which both music and text were commissioned together. In this case, the idea arose in 1964 when the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, Cuthbert Simpson, invited two of the college’s most celebrated alumni to collaborate on a new anthem. The substantial, eleven-minute work that resulted was first performed in Christ Church Cathedral in May 1965 under the direction of Sydney Watson. The composer had earlier expressed the opinion that W H Auden’s text was ‘obscure and difficult to set’, but in truth Walton frequently had similar problems with texts and often found that inspiration came slowly. Happily in this case he successfully overcame the difficulties, producing a work of exceptional musical and emotional scope and variety that seems to raise its sights rather beyond the world of the church anthem and towards the cantata. Walton also surely does justice to what is generally thought to be a highly imaginative and resourceful poetic text. Among the highpoints are the beautiful central duet (‘O Lord, my God, Though I forsake Thee Forsake me not’), and the exuberant fugal finale (‘Twelve as the winds and the months’). The striking opening passage for solo baritone is typical of Walton’s imaginative writing for solo voices throughout. It also features a notably virtuosic organ part. The composer subsequently orchestrated the anthem for use in the 900th anniversary celebrations of Westminster Abbey in January 1966.
from notes by James O'Donnell © 2010