Sir William Walton: Symphony no. 1 in B flat minor

performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under André Previn, or below by the London Philharmonic under Bryden Thomson

…Walton’s Symphony No 1 is a free, strong, individual utterance, as far beyond mere imitation as, say, the Brahms First is in its relationship to Beethoven. Not many would wish to call Walton one of the great twentieth-century composers, but the claim that his First Symphony is one of the great twentieth-century symphonies is not excessive.

Michael Steinberg, The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide

If you are/were anything like me, having not been familiar with this work, or really anything of Walton’s pen, buckle up, because out of nowhere (for me) comes one of the most astoundingly powerful symphonies of the 20th (or any) century.

Sir William Turner Walton was born on 29 March, 1902 in Oldham, Lancashire, one of four children to Charles Alexander Walton, who was himself a musician and trained at the Royal Manchester College of Music under Charles Hallé, and was a church organist. His mother was a singer.

The young Walton took both piano and violin lessons, but actually had more success or talent as a singer. HIs father saw an ad for probationer choristers at Christ Church Cathedral School (whatever that is) at Oxford, and applied on his son’s behalf. That was a nice gesture and all, but papa went and spent the train fair “in a public house”, so Mama Walton had to go borrow the fare from a local store owner. As a result, they missed their original train, arrived late, but convinced the judges or whoever to listen to the young boy, and he was accepted.

Dr. Thomas Strong, the dean there, noticed the boy’s talent, as did Sir Hubert Parry. Walton stayed for six years, and became an udnergraduate at Oxford at only sixteen, (often said to be the youngest but probably just) one of the youngest ever. Hugh Allen then introduced him to the music of people like Sibelius, Roussel, Debussy and others, and this made a large impression on him. He excelled in music, so much so that he apparently neglected his studies elsewhere, failing Greek and algebra. Wiki says he was “sent down from Oxford in 1920 without a degree or any firm plans,” citing Michael Kennedy’s Portrait of Walton.

The Sitwell family took him up in London, where he had “a stimulating cultural education”, taking music lessons with people like Busoni and Ansermet, and had a chance to meet Gershwin, Stravinsky, and even wrote a Second Viennese School-esque “experimental quartet” that convinced Alban Berg that Walton should meet Schoenberg himself. After some of his early successes, like Belshazzar’s Feast and the viola concerto came the first symphony, a work that appeared amid love affairs, writer’s block (related, likely) and composing film music for Escape Me Never, Paul Czinner’s 1935 film, not to be confused with Peter Godfrey’s 1947 film of the same name, starring Errol Flynn, scored by Korngold.

Anyway, the first symphony was begun in 1931 and finished in 1935. A premiere of the incomplete work, without the finale, was given in 1934 and the first performance of the entire symphony was given the following year. It’s in four movements, with a playing time of about 45 minutes.

Martyn Becker, in an article about a few Havergal Brian symphonies, says:

Walton, with his perhaps more orthodox tonality, builds a grim, forbidding edifice which dissolves via heartrending melancholy into grand triumph…

And we can well follow that one-sentence summary of the piece through its four movements. The first movement is the longest of the four and lays down an elemental pulse, like roots going out into the ground, the same kind of pure, clean power that we hear from Sibelius, and the propulsive and organic nature of the work, with the sounds and textures of the orchestra do give more than a nod to the Finnish master. Everything from the timpani roll in the beginning, the horns, oboe, cello, it all sounds like a dark, cold winter landscape, but as the piece continues, we hear much more.

I want to emphasize here that it’s hard for me to convey the kind of chest-pounding intensity this piece conveys. It’s not a piece that I’ve been familiar with for long, definitely a more recent discovery, but it’s kind of like when you meet a friend of a friend. Let’s say you’re going out to a bar or to dinner and your friend brings one of their friends unexpectedly, and you have the most amazing conversation: they are interesting and humorous and intelligent, quick-witted, engaging, a great listener, and you’ve gotten to know them well in the short time you’ve known them, and have a mutual friend, but you don’t KNOW them. That being said, you can’t wait to spend some more time in that person’s company.

That’s how I feel about this work. There’s much more to appreciate about it, but I am already blown away by what it offers up, especially as a first symphony, as if Walton had simply inherited generations’ worth of composing tradition and at a stroke, seemingly (although obviously not) effortlessly crafted a monumental, superb first symphony. But I can, of course, try to give an overview of my understanding of the work, although Becker has summarized it perfectly above.

The first movement contains an unstoppable source of energy, like the bow of a ship plowing through the ocean, Becker’s “grim, forbidding edifice.” In notes to a Chandos release, Anthony Burton mentions “urgently repeated ostinato figures, blazing dissonances, and sonorous scoring.” This is a good example, to me, and we shall see others, of how ‘dissonance’ doesn’t always mean avant-garde or super-contemporary music. There’s no mistaking Walton’s sound here as a 20th century work, no question, but there should be very little difficulty for anyone who has an ear for (maybe very) late Romantic works, especially big, crunchy, epic symphonies.

I think anyone who’s made it through the first movement and ‘gotten it’, been blown away by its intensity, would have no choice but to continue listening. It’s a breathtaking first movement, one of rare urgency and power, but as we see, in that one-sentence summary from Becker, it ‘dissolves’ into ‘grand triumph’.

The second movement doesn’t quite let up yet, though. While it’s a scherzo, triple meter and all, it’s marked “Presto Con Malizia”, ‘with malice’! There are some brief pauses, but overall there’s a more frenetic drive than a playful bounce in this scherzo, and it brings to mind the same kind of dark, imposing sound that the scherzo of Mahler’s seventh does, even if they don’t actually have any exact similar sounds. Wikipedia points out, and you may notice, that this 3/4 rhythm is disrupted here and there by bars of 5/4 time, with bursts, explosions even, of percussion to punctuate this busy, at times off-kilter movement, like a sea being stirred into a frenzy. Powerful stuff.

The third movement, then, is where we have that ‘dissolving’, but I’d rather describe it as melting, or softening. The second movement was ‘with malice’ and the third now ‘with melancholy’, and it suits the change in mood that we hear. Anthony Burton refers to the movement’s “characteristically bitter-sweet lyricism,” which is a nice change of pace by this point, and Walton handles the new emotional territory with the same skill as in previous movements, showing us that the blistering energy of the first two movements wasn’t without purpose, and we’re getting slightly closer to understanding the work as a whole.

In this movement, actually, I hear glimpses, tinges of Shostakovich, in something like the somber melancholy of the slow movement of the fifth symphony, even if they don’t  actually have much (of anything) in common. But more on that later. Edwin Evans, in an article “Modern British Composers (New Series): I. William Walton (Concluded)”, from The Musical Times, says:

The slow movement is in my opinion the nodal section of the work. Its structure is melodic, its character idyllic and contemplative, but in an intimately personal way, with a feeling of melancholy and of craving expectancy which is wholly removed from the “yearning” of the Romantics. It is in some ways the most significant piece of music Walton has written.

And in what contrast to the tumult and even despair of the first half of the work. Apparently

Citing Evans and David Cox, Wikipedia says in the “Orchestral Music” section of the article on Walton himself that “Critics have always differed on whether the finale lives up to the rest of the work.” Well, critics will be critics, won’t they? I only have two things to say about the finale. Maybe three.

For one, it can only be disappointing if you have specific expectations or assumptions of how the work will end. Part of the reason I’m not discussing it in much detail is because I think it’s a superb, fantastic, inspiring ending to such a powerful symphony, and I never once had a thought that it was unsatisfactory.

Secondly, for all you John Williams lovers out there, yes, his music is fantastic and iconic and now part of American and cinematic history, but listeners of classical music can point to certain parts of Mahler’s Eighth or to the finale of this work and say, “See, there was very much that sounded like this long before Raiders or Star Wars. That’s not a criticism, necessarily, but listen and tell me you don’t see a resemblance. And remember when this work was written.

Lastly, and I cannot find now where I read this quote, but I have it scribbled on a piece of paper somewhere I’m sure, is Walton’s response to inquiries about the finale and why it’s suddenly so celebratory and triumphant. Put simply, as I recall, Walton said, “A new woman.” Relationship troubles plagued the years he was working on this symphony, so it was maybe some relief to be out of a certain situation and onto another.

In any case, programmatic or historical notes aside, this symphony’s trajectory is a compelling one. Whether you hear Sibelius or not, whether you’re a long-time listener to the symphony as a form or not, this is a magnificent work, one that reminds me that there’s still so much more music to listen to.

Getting back to my ‘fascinating friend of a friend’ illustration above, I think the main point of that is that we can hear so much familiar stuff in Walton’s first symphony, slivers of Sibelius or Shostakovich, suggestions of Mahler, Bruckner, maybe even Tchaikovsky,  whatever, but those similarities are not plagiarism. We’re not hearing a tune or an idea entirely lifted from some other work somewhere, no. Rather, it’s a wholly individual, new work, but one to which we can relate as a result. And that, perhaps, is one of the greatest, most fulfilling surprises of this work, that after centuries of history with the symphony, having heard so much music, even more modern than this, that there’s still something this new, this impressive, and of such immediacy, that I hadn’t yet discovered. I haven’t yet gotten to his second (and apparently very different) second symphony, or really anything else from him yet, but after some research and enjoying this fine work, I am certainly interested to see what else he has to offer.

That’s it for this week, but stay tuned because we have yet another week of three posts next week, and one chamber work this weekend. I told you we’d be busy. In fact, just about every other week left in this series (up through mid/late May) has three featured works besides weekend posts, so… phew. But it’s a testament to the phenomenal output of English composers, and even then the list of apologies to those not included will be long. Thanks for listening, and for reading. See you soon.


2 thoughts on “Sir William Walton: Symphony no. 1 in B flat minor

  1. Excellent appraisal of one of the greatest symphonies of the 20th century. Great writing, my congratulations

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