Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes

Sir William Walton (1902–1983)

String Quartet in A minor (1947)

William Walton was by no means a prolific composer. And the number of his chamber music compositions can be counted on the fingers of one hand, even if you were missing a digit or two. Yet it is by a work of chamber music, albeit an unusual one at that, that he is best known: Façade an entertainment for reciter and six players (flute-piccolo, clarinet-bass clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, cello & percussion) with poems by Dame Edith Sitwell. The Sierra Chamber Society presented a performance of this work, with Scott Beach the virtuosic narrator, in a season before such things were kept track of in a database.

Walton was of the generation of British musicians between Vaughan Williams and Holst on the one hand, and Benjamin Britten on the other. His music has more of a bite to it than the folkloric style of RVW, yet it is more "listener-friendly" than some of Britten’s works. Other important works of Walton’s are the Viola Concerto (1929), Belshazzar’s Feast (1931), Symphony No. 1 (1935), the Violin Concerto (1939) as well as the scores to Sir Lawrence Olivier’s film version of Shakespeare’s Henry V and Hamlet.

When his A minor string quartet appeared in 1947, more than twenty years had elapsed since his last chamber work. Walton had composed a String Quartet in 1923, which was performed at the Salzburg Festival of Contemporary Music, and in London. Walton described the work as "bits of undigested Bartok and Schoenberg", withdrew the work, and forbade its publication. Walton worked on the A minor quartet from 1945–47. And now, with the help of some further pilferings from Grove’s in Walton biographer Kenneth Avery’s article, we learn that the announced date of the first performance had to be postponed. "it finally took place on May 4, 1947, when the Blech Quartet (the Yecch Quartet was unavailable) played it on the BBC’s Third program. A second performance took place in London the following day. The event was regarded as of great importance, for the Quartet was Walton’s first large work since the Violin Concerto. The frank romanticism of that work (where even the fiery scherzo had a languid trio) was not repeated in the new Quartet. Walton had progressed from the harsh music of the 1920’s (when he was known as the "English Hindemith"), through the glory of the three works of 1928-35 cited above (when he was then called "the white hope of English music") to the unashamed romanticism of the 1939 Concerto (when he was already accepted as a very important composer.) In the new Quartet we heard the mellowest music he had yet composed. The first and third movements are long and as sincere as the viola concerto; the second and fourth are very short and light-hearted. It was in these short movements that Walton’s development was most noticeably marked. The first of them immediately called for comparison with the scherzo of the Symphony, and it was found to express a more musical mood then that of malice. The movement is virile and alert, but not harsh; and so it was found with the other movements: the harshness which, even in the scherzo of 1939, had been an accepted feature of his style had almost disappeared (it does appear for a time in the first movement of the Quartet)."

Technology Note

Some time it would be interesting to accept all the suggestions offered by the computer’s spell checking feature, like its insistence on Hoyden for Haydn, Albino for Albeniz, Phalli or Veal for Falla (wasn’t Falla the name of FDR’s dog?), and how about these popular Spanish dances, the mania, the Schlitz, the jot, and the Solaris? Her Royal Highness the Infanta becomes Dona Isabel de Boron or Bon Bon. Joaquin Turina becomes Joaquin Tureen, Sir William Walton becomes Sir William Walloon, Bela Bartok – Partook. And the Blech Quartet becomes the Belch Quartet.

Program Notes by Joseph Whey

1998-1999 Season, Program III, Sunday February 7, 1999

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All original text on this page copyright 1997 by Joseph Way