William Walton

Picture of William Walton

When I presented myself at the Reid Music School, Park Place, Edinburgh, one cold spring morning in 1934, I felt none of the usual feelings of excitement which was my wont when attending one of Sir Donald Tovey's inspiring lectures on some aspect or other of musical history: quite the contrary, in fact, and for a very good reason. I was about to face a final oral examination for my D.Mus. Degree. I had been warned by a successful D.Mus. candidate, Dr March, that it could be, and generally was a really gruelling affair; "They keep pummelling question after question at you, all morning, after lunch and maybe right into the evening. There is no telling what they may ask you: like as not quizzing you about Guillaume de Machaut for a couple of hours: or finding out what you know about the Haydn String Quartets” : this sort of thing: "Mr Chisholm, will you please tell the dis-honourable Board of Examiners the essential, aesthetic, technical, basic, structural, emotional, physical and historical differences - if any - between the Bagpipe Minuet Op. 3 No.3 and the Bagpipe Minuet, Op. 20, No.2. Do you consider these basic differences - if any - larger or smaller, or not at all, as the case may be, between...., well, let us say …. the Hornpipe Op.64 No.5 and the Hexen Minuet Op. 76 No.2., or don't you? You know what Tovey is; he thinks everyone a fool who doesn't know as much as he does, and well, you know, Tovey knows everything!" This put the wind up me all right, and for the past year I had been all but living among the dust, webs, advanced mouldiness, dodecaphonic decay of the Glasgow University prison, misnamed "a library"; mopping up, memorising, swallowing whole, swotting - swotting - swotting - everything I could lay my greedy eyes on. And here I was now, knees a tremble, heart in boots, about to enter the Portals of Hell, with Haydn Quartets sprouting from my ears, Masses of Palestrina Motets dripping from my nostrils, a clutch of Bach cantatas, a gross of concerti grosse; syphilitic symphonies, Confucian concertos, quarrelsome quartets, tiresome trios, dubious duos and soggy sonatas jogging and twisting one another in my hair, and I had a modicum of hair, if nothing else in my upper storey that morning. Well, I plucks up courage and in I goes, and there in the torture Chamber is the Infernal Examiner, (Sir Hugh P. Allen, professor of Music at Oxford University and principal of the Royal College of Music) and the Dean, with all his faculties (one assumes). I am offered a cigarette; I shakily light the cigarette: I brace myself for the worst! The "worst" wasn't really so bad, for I quickly twigged that the examiners had already agreed to pass me out as "Herr Doctor" and the oral examination was little more than a formality. One of the questions Sir Hugh Allen asked was: "What is your opinion of the music of the present English School: Bax, Ireland, Delius, and Walton to go on with?" At this time, I was particularly interested in the music of William Walton, as I had conducted his entertainment "Façade" and performed other works of his at Active Society concerts; so after giving the examiners un-profound views on the composers mentioned, I said: "Sir Hugh, I believe that in 1918, Walton was an undergraduate in your department. I have often wondered how you handled him, what you taught him, and how a young genius reacted to the basic University disciplines – harmony, counterpoint, and so on". "A very interesting question, Chisholm." When Walton was ten, his father sent him from Oldham (where he was born) to Oxford, and enrolled him as a choir boy and pupil at Christ Church Cathedral and School; the organist was my good friend, Dr. Henry Ley, and finding Walton busily scribbling away on music paper big motets for double choir and that sort of thing, he soon recognised that this new boy had outstanding talent.

The Dean of Christ Church, Thomas Strong - who happens to be a Doctor of Music as well as a Doctor of Divinity - brought Walton along to me. We tested his ear, gave him a theme to extemporise on, made him jump through the usual hoops, all of which tests he came through with flying colours. When he was 16, he matriculated at Christ Church, and I got the Faculty Board to agree to let him enter my department as an undergraduate". "Thank you, Sir Hugh; now will you please tell me what you taught him?" "I did the only thing I possibly could do with such a talented student - I left him alone; I let him go his own way, giving him some guidance when necessary. Of course, like the other students, he had tutorials in harmony and counterpoint for the B.Mus. examination, but I never attempted to give him any lessons in composition. I used to play some modern scores for him on the organ, and he spent much time in the Ellis Library in the Radcliffe Camera, which had the newest scores of Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy and others; but as for composition lessons - no. I felt, and still do that the only way to treat a budding genius is to let him find his own feet, and not to attempt to mould him or burden him with outdated ideas of my own."

Although this conversation with Sir Hugh occurred 30 years age, as you see, I still remember it vividly. Since then, Oxford University has conferred an honorary D.Mus. degree on Walton and King George VI, nine years later, was pleased to dub him knight. Walton occupies an honoured, if reserved place in 20th century British music, standing just under our leading English composer, Benjamin Britten. He now lives on the Island of Ischia, off the Gulfe di Napoli, married to a young and beautiful and very wealthy wife. Sir Thomas Armstrong told me, when he was here a few weeks ago, that Walton is disappointed that his Chaucer opera, "Troilus & Cressida" has made so little headway in the world's opera houses.

Walton retains a great liking for such unfashionable composers as Brahms and Sibelius, considers Shostakovich as perhaps the greatest living composer performed, and equally deplores the unholy, destructive powers of many European music critics; considers that composers who earn their bread and butter by writing diatonic film music, so that they may have leisure to write ultramodern serialistic music they like, are above and beyond, He himself composed a glorious viola concerto, two exuberant symphonies which have enjoyed great (if now a waning) success. It is however, of none of these works that I am going to speak about to-day. Instead, I want to tell you something of that piquant, amusing, delightful and unusual entertainment known as "Façade", written when the composer was, and bound up with his Oxford days. While he was at Oxford, Walton became friendly with Sacheverell Sitwell, the youngest of that English literary trio, the Sitwell's, and author of three volumes on European art and history, and of poetry more technically intellectual and more traditional than that of his famous sister, Edith. On leaving Oxford, Walton took up his residence with the Sitwell's. Edith Sitwell is described in A.C. Ward's book "The Nineteen Twenties" as being strikingly different from the average, poet;

  • (a) in seeking to communicate sensation, more than to describe it;
  • (b) in avoidance of worn out traditional imagery and metaphor;
  • (c) in adapting poetry to modern musical (mainly dance) rhythms, and
  • (d), in her own words "studying the effect that texture has on rhythm, and the effect that varying and elaborate patterns of rhythm and of assonances and dissonances have upon rhythm."
Picture of the Sitwells
Osbert, Edith and Sachavare Sitwell

I remember Tovey's opinion of the Sitwell's:
"Three Don Quixotes, fighting imaginary literary battles, and tilting at meta-physical windmills”; possibly the trio were too flamboyant, too intellectually self conscious for Tovey’s liking. So living in the house as one of the family of this much discussed literary trio, William Walton and Edith Sitwell worked in close literary – musical co-operation, the outcome of which was "Facade". I quote from an article I wrote on "Façade" in the Glasgow Evening News of 25th September, 1930.

You might be interested in hearing their voices:

Edith Sitwell

  1. A few sentences from Sacheverell Sitwell, from his book on Spain (Awaiting audio)
  2. Sir Osbert Sitwell reading from his autobiography "Left hand, right hand" (Awaiting audio)

Sir Osbert inherited the title on the death of his father, and Edith is a Dame in her own right.


After some private performances in 1922/3 it was given a public performance in London' s Aeolian Hall, June 1923. The result was sensational; behind a curtain drawn across the stage were placed the six instruments (flute, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, cello and percussion) and the narrator; in the centre of the curtain was painted a mask by Gino Severini to which was fixed to megaphone through which the reciter spoke. Walton says that originally there were close to 40 numbers in "Façade" with the music being scored for a quartet (clarinet, trumpet, cello and percussion) and the number of items has varied from performance to performance. The writer in Grove speaks of 16 pieces in the original "Façade", later increased to 26 for the 1926 production in the new Chenil Galleries. On this point, let me read you some letters Walton sent to me in 1930.

2, Carlisle Square,
London SW3
Oct.14, 1930.

Dear Mr. Chisholm,

"I shall be delighted to come down and direct "Façade" - that is, if I can rake up enough money for the fare, though how certain that is I hardly like to commit myself. But if I can come, and I will let you know as soon as possible. I shall be delighted to become an honorary member of such a progressive society."

Later, he writes:

"I shall be able to come to Glasgow and should arrive on Saturday, and shall be staying with C.B. Cochrane at 15, Woodlands Terrace." (C.B. Cochrane, was the biggest name in British Show Business for 25 years). "The programme should really consist of 18 poems, but I see in your programme magazine that there are 24. The last six I should like cut out, as they aren't particularly good specimens, and are only there to lengthen the programme if it is being done alone - the 18 last about 45 minutes, which is more than enough."

Another brilliantly gifted young English musician of that period was Constant Lambert. Lambert who was founder conductor of the Sadlers-Wells Ballet, himself a gifted composer and writer, was an exceptionally big, warm-hearted, generous young man, who did much to advance the interests of Walton and other struggling young composers. It was over "Façade" that Walton met Constant Lambert, who told him that he could recite the poems better than anyone else, and, - says Walton, in an interview with Murray Schaffer - "he was right". The two narrators in the early performances of "Façade" were Edith Sitwell and Constant Lambert, and you will shortly hear both of them. Constant Lambert also conducted the first performances of a number of my own works in London and Amsterdam, and on one of these occasions, I asked him why Walton wished to suppress so many of the original 40 items in "Façade". Lambert replied, very shortly and to the point - "Because it was I and not Walton who wrote most of these".

"Façade" in its original form is a gorgeous burlesque. I hope you all have the sheets with 5 Sitwell poems on them: if you will look at them now I will play you six numbers from "Façade."

Constant Lambert narrates the Polka, Foxtrot and Tango, and Edith Sitwell - Black Mrs Behemouth, and Yodelling Song. Edith Sitwell's Poems are best regarded as refined, very intellectualised, nonsense poems; what the Belgian poet Emile Cammaerts calls "poetry run mad, poetry on the verge of becoming music"

For the two Glasgow performances, we hired the special curtain from Oxford University Press. (I will presently show you a slide of it). On this were two clowns - one on each side of the centre piece - a Façade-y looking building: one clown is holding a guitar and reciting, the other holding a pipe and playing on it, representing the two elements in "Façade", speech and music. Our first performance was on Tuesday 28th October, 1930. Walton arrived in Glasgow on the previous Saturday, but had stated he had to be in London by Thursday, October 30, and could not wait for the repeat in Edinburgh. To be on the safe side, I myself had taken several rehearsals with the six musicians, and Parry Gunn, the narrator. Mr. Gunn was a very experienced reciter and producer, but no musician, and found it extremely hard to fit the Sitwell words to Walton's rhythms, and harder still to know when to come in after rests. Walton had little practical experience of conducting, and indeed, even now has never been an integrated performing musician as Britten, Hindemith and Bartok, and the other composer-performers we brought to Glasgow.

Walton was tentative, quiet and shy, and even at the final rehearsal made practically no comments to the players: he seemed quite happy at the way they played his music, and although obviously he could hear that Parry Gunn was rather shaky in his entries, was invariably polite, friendly and appreciative. Before the performance, however, he seemed a little nervous. The synchronisation of the orchestra and narrator was on the whole satisfactory, until we came to the fourth group - three rather elusive pieces - "By the Lake" "A man from a far Countree” and "Country Dance" when Mr. Gunn seemed to backfire on himself and got hopelessly out in the rhythms. Walton turned a little pale, looked faint, and made a feeble gesture in my direction which I interpreted as a wish that I should take over the stick from him. We were, of course, all hidden behind the screen so no one in the audience was aware that conductors had changed mid-stream. Oddly enough, in a letter from Walton which I received only last November, he refers to this incident "I well recall the "Façade" performance, but how or why it ended with the baton in your hand, I cannot remember."

The Active Society concert which followed "Façade" six week later was to be the first appearance in Scotland of the German composer and viola virtuoso, Paul Hindemith.

A year earlier, Hindemith had played the solo part in the first performance of Walton's viola concerto, 3rd October, 1929. Just before coming north, Walton had heard Hindemith playing his own new Viola Concerto: after the "Façade" performance (which in spite of what I have said about conductors changing mid-stream was a great public success) Walton thanked me for the performance, etc., adding "When you see, Paul, do give him my very best regards. I enjoyed his new viola concerto but tell him he should cut it - it's far too long!"

I met Walton again in 1933, when his exciting "Balshazzar's Feast" for mixed choir, baritone and orchestra was performed by the Concergebouw Orchestra at the Amsterdam I.S.C.M. Festival. I was at the festival playing the piano part in my own Dance Suite, and both works were conducted by our mutual friend, Constant Lambert.

Sir John Barbirolli, another musician in my life told us that it was he who suggested to Walton that he should group some of the more extended numbers of "Façade" into a suite and score them for symphony orchestra. Walton took his advice, and the first "Façade" suite appeared in 1926. This proved highly successful, and 12 years later, the composer assembled a second suite. Using music from both suites, Frederick Ashton constructed a ballet round them, its gaiety, wit and satire, making it one of the most popular items in the Sadlers Wells repertoire. Before our own U.C.T. Ballet restricted itself to performing big, commercial successes, and was creatively active, Dulcie Howes made an amusing ballet "La Famille" from the Façade music. Walton even turned three of the numbers into songs.


This is Walton as he is - more or less-to-day
This is Walton as he is - more or less to-day
Here is the interior of Christ Church Cathedral where Walton sang as a boy. The tower arches are 12th century, the vaulting 16th century, while the building of  the east end of the Cathedral is late 19th century
Here is the interior of Christ Church Cathedral where Walton sang as a boy. The tower arches are 12th century, the vaulting 16th century, while the building of the east end of the Cathedral is late 19th century
A photograph of the famous Sitwell family. Standing at the left behind his father is Sacheverell Sitwell: Edith Sitwell is in the middle in a brocaded dress: and on the right is the eldest of the trio, Sir Osbert Sitwell
A photograph of the famous Sitwell family. Standing at the left behind his father is Sacheverell Sitwell: Edith Sitwell is in the middle in a brocaded dress: and on the right is the eldest of the trio, Sir Osbert Sitwell
A sample of Walton's writing
A sample of Walton's writing - I read you this letter
Another letter from Walton, interesting because of his comments on the supposed number of items in Façade 16? 18? 24? 40?
I have inserted this letter from Walton here to allow you to compare 
        his writing – separated from the two previous letters by 33 years
I have inserted this letter from Walton here to allow you to compare his writing – separated from the two previous letters by 33 years. You will note now that it is smaller and neater, and that the down no longer have the youthful dash of former times. Apparently, for all his alleged wealth, Walton prefers to answer his own letters
Here is the curtain we used for our performances. The slide was made
        from a newspaper illustration and is not very clear: the original curtain was painted in bright colours
Here is the curtain we used for our performances. The slide was made from a newspaper illustration and is not very clear: the original curtain was painted in bright colours
The cover of the general programme of the I.S.C.M. Amsterdam Music Festival in 1933
The cover of the general programme of the I.S.C.M. Amsterdam Music Festival in 1933
The pages in the same I.S.C.M. brochure, dealing with Walton's
The pages in the same I.S.C.M. brochure, dealing with Walton's "Belshazzar's Feast": the handsome, aesthetic looking young man in the right hand corner is Walton at the age of 30
And lastly, the note dealing with my Dance Suite, performed at the same Festival