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Sir William Turner Walton OM (29 March 1902 8 March 1983) was a Britishmarker composer and conductor.

His style was influenced by the works of Stravinsky and Prokofiev as well as jazz music, and is characterized by rhythmic vitality, bittersweet harmony, sweeping Romantic melody and brilliant orchestration. His output includes orchestral and choral works, chamber music and ceremonial music, as well as notable film scores. His earliest works, especially Edith Sitwell's Façade brought him notoriety as a modernist, but it was with orchestral symphonic works and the oratorio Belshazzar's Feast that he gained international recognition.


Early life and rise to fame

Walton was born into a musical family, in Oldham, Lancashiremarker, Englandmarker. At the age of ten, Walton was accepted as a chorister at Christ Church Cathedralmarker in Oxfordmarker, and he subsequently entered Christ Churchmarker of the University of Oxfordmarker as an undergraduate at the unusually early age of sixteen. He was largely self-taught as a composer (poring over new scores in the Ellis Librarymarker, notably those by Stravinsky, Debussy, Sibelius and Roussel), but received some tutelage from Hugh Allen, the cathedral organist. At Oxford Walton befriended two poets — Sacheverell Sitwell and Siegfried Sassoon — who would prove influential in publicizing his music. Little of Walton's juvenilia survives, but the choral anthem A Litany, written when he was just fifteen, exhibits striking harmonies and voice-leading which was more advanced than that of many older contemporary composers in Britain. Perhaps the most daring harmonic features of the work are the pungent augmented-chord inflections, notably in the striking final cadence.

Walton left Oxford without a degree in 1920 for failing Responsions, to lodge in Londonmarker with the literary Sitwell siblings — Sacheverell, Osbert and Edith — as an 'adopted, or elected, brother'. Through the Sitwells, Walton became familiar with many of the most important figures in British music between the World Wars, particularly his fellow composer, Constant Lambert, and also in the arts, notably Noel Coward, Lytton Strachey, Rex Whistler, Peter Quennell, Cecil Beaton and others. Walton's first reputation was one of notoriety, built on his ground-breaking musical adaptation of Edith Sitwell's Façade poems. The 1923 first public performance of the jazz-influenced Façade resulted in Walton being branded an avant-garde modernist (the critic Ernest Newman described him thus: 'as a musical joker he is a jewel of the first water'), though the first performances stimulated a considerable amount of controversy. An early string quartet gained only slight international recognition, including a performance at the 1923 festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music in Salzburgmarker, with a much appreciative Alban Berg in attendance.

During the 1920s Walton spent most of his time composing in the Sitwells' attic. The orchestral overture Portsmouth Pointmarker (which he dedicated to Sassoon) was the first work to point toward his eventual accomplishments, including a strong rhythmic drive, extensive syncopation and a dissonant but predominantly tonal harmonic language. It was the Viola Concerto of 1929, however, which catapulted him to the forefront of British classical music, its bittersweet melancholy proving quite popular; it remains a cornerstone of the solo viola repertoire. This success was followed by equally acclaimed works: the massive choral cantata Belshazzar's Feast (1931), the Symphony No. 1 (1935), the coronation march Crown Imperial (1937), and the Violin Concerto (1939). Each of these works remains firmly entrenched in the repertoire today. Though Belshazzar's Feast is a cornerstone of the repertoire of any up-and-coming choral society, the First Symphony remains a challenge even to professional orchestras without generous rehearsal time to devote to it.

After World War II

During World War II, Walton was granted leave from military service in order to compose music for propagandistic films, such as The First of the Few (1942), and Laurence Olivier's adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry V (1944), which Winston Churchill encouraged Olivier to adapt as if it were a piece of morale-boosting propaganda. By the mid-1940s, the rise to fame of younger composers such as Benjamin Britten substantially curtailed Walton's reception among music critics, though the public always received his music enthusiastically. After composing a second string quartet (1946), his strongest achievement in the world of chamber music, Walton dedicated the considerable period of seven years to his three-act tragic opera, Troilus and Cressida (1947-1954). The opera was not widely acclaimed, and it was from this point that Walton's reputation as an old-fashioned composer became confirmed.

Walton also composed the music for two more Shakespeare-Olivier films - the Academy Award-winning Hamlet, and Richard III. Walton, however, did not win Oscars for any of his Shakespeare-based scores.

After Troilus and Cressida, Walton returned to orchestral music, composing in rapid succession the Cello Concerto (1956), the Symphony No. 2 (1960), and his masterpiece of the post-war period, the Variations on a Theme by Hindemith (1963). His music from the 1960s shows a great reluctance to accept the post-war avant-garde trends espoused by Pierre Boulez and others, as Walton preferred to compose in the post-Romantic style which he had found most rewarding. Indeed, he was far from forgotten, having been knighted in 1951 and received the Order of Merit in 1967. His one-act comic opera, The Bear, was well received at the Aldeburgh Festivalmarker in 1967, and commissions came from as far afield as the New York Philharmonic (Capriccio burlesco, 1968), and the San Francisco Symphony (Improvisations on an Impromptu of Benjamin Britten, 1969). His song-cycles from this period were premiered by artists as illustrious as Peter Pears (Anon. in love, 1960) and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (A Song for the Lord Mayor's Table, 1962).

Walton was commissioned to write the score for the 1969 film Battle of Britain. The music was orchestrated and conducted by Walton's friend and collegue, Sir Malcolm Arnold, who also secretly helped Walton compose several sequences. However, the music department at United Artists objected that the score was too short. As a result, a further score was commissioned from Ron Goodwin. (Goodwin, when told he would replace a score by William Walton, reported replied, "Why?") Producer S. Benjamin Fisz and actor Laurence Olivier protested this decision, and Olivier threatened to take his name from the credits. In the end, one segment of the Walton score, titled The Battle in the Air, which framed the climactic air battles of 15 September 1940, was retained in the final cut. The Walton score was played with no sound effects of aircraft motors or gunfire, giving this sequence a transcendent, lyrical quality. Tapes of the Walton score were believed lost forever until being rediscovered in 1990. The score was been restored and released on compact disc with the Goodwin version. The Walton/Arnold score has since been remixed with the film and added as an alternative audio track on MGM DVD and Blu-Ray releases.

In his final decade, Walton found composition increasingly difficult. He repeatedly tried to compose a third symphony for André Previn, but later abandoned the work. His final works are mostly re-orchestrations or revisions of earlier music, and liturgical choral music. Since his death, Walton's music has gained a resurgence of attention, both in live performance and recordings. Indeed, as the history of post-war classical music continues to be re-evaluated, Walton is seen less as an old-fashioned representative of a lost era, and more as a strong individualist who wrote in an attractive, personal idiom.

In his only acting role, he played King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony in the 1983 miniseries Wagner.

He settled on the island of Ischiamarker in Italymarker in 1949 with his Argentinianmarker wife Susana Gil, and it was at his home there that he died on 8 March 1983.




Orchestral works

Concertante works

Choral music

Chamber music

Solo vocal music

Film scores

Note: Dates listed are of musical composition, not film release.

Incidental music

  • Christopher Columbus, music for the radio play by Louis MacNeice (1942)
  • various music for theater and television


  1. Kennedy, Michael Portrait of Walton Oxford University Press, 1989 ISBN 0-19-816705-9 p5
  2. Kennedy, p.6/7
  3. Kennedy, p.9/10
  4. Kennedy, p.14
  5. Kennedy, p.11
  6. Kennedy, p.16

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