The South African city of Johannesburg, whose seventieth anniversary Walton celebrated in 1956 with this spritely overture, is a radically different city today. It was a painfully divided city then, with racial oppression the law of the land. Yet a common thread links the city's past and present. Like many California towns, it grew spectacularly during the nineteenth-century gold rush.
It remains the wealthiest city on the entire continent. As a recent travel brochure states, "Johannesburg is high voltage nouveau riche territory -- fast-paced, fun, a modern cosmopolitan metropolis packed with vitality and verve." Much of that travel bureau prose aptly describes Walton's overture which was written in a complex rondo form (the main section recurs between subsidiary episodes, and concludes the piece.) It opens with strings and woodwinds making a nimble, carefree, flamboyant rhythm. The opening theme is breezy, even a tad jazzy, suggestive of a captivating soundtrack fitting a fast-aced film travelogue.
This is a portrait of an African city in English guise, fit music for an English Commonwealth nation. But it is to Walton's credit that, halfway through the overture, he introduces percussion parts adding a most un-English flavor. Although he never actually visited Africa, for inspiration, he requested recordings of traditional African music from the African Music Society.
The impact of these recordings can be clearly heard. The score calls for three percussionists performing upon eleven instruments, and these percussionists bring complex African rhythms (some traditionally Zulu) to the foreground, reminding listeners, then and now, of the multi-racial richness at the heart of Johannesburg.
by Norman Weinstein [Thanks to Richard Cook of The National Symphony Orchestra of Johannesburg and Gary Cannon of the University of California at Davis for their research assistance.]
The above program note is reprinted with the author's permission from the 1998–1999 concert guide for the Boise Philharmonic.