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Walton's Viola and Violin Concertos

Of Writings by Lady Walton, Michael Kennedy and Christopher Palmer With an Extract from an Interview with Tasmin Little

Walton wrote three concertos for string instruments: the Viola Concerto (1929), the Violin Concerto (1939) and the Cello Concerto (1957). Of them Christopher Palmer has written, "Walton knew little or nothing of strings as a performer. Yet his three string concertos are amongst the finest written this century."

The Viola Concerto It was Sir Thomas Beecham who suggested, in 1928, that Walton should write a Viola Concerto for Lionel Tertis. According to Susana Walton, writing in her book, William Walton: Behind the Façade, Walton was somewhat perplexed and wondered why Sir Thomas thought he should be able to write such a work. At the time Walton confessed that he knew little about the viola except that it made a rather awful sound! "The only piece of viola music he admired and knew was Berlioz's Harold in Italy, which he thought quite beautiful, although it was not highly thought of in those days." Nevertheless, Walton rose to the challenge and proceeded with the task, finishing his Viola Concerto at Amalfi. Alas, when he sent it to Tertis, the viola virtuoso sent it back by the next post declaring it too modern. Understandably, Walton was deeply hurt. He thought of transposing it so that it would become a violin concerto but Edward Clark at the BBC sent it to Hindemith in Germany. To Walton's delight, Hindemith accepted to play the Concerto. Musical politics then raised its ugly head. Hindemith's publisher, Willy Strecker, the London manager of Schott, wanted to launch Hindemith as a viola soloist (he was a marvellous player) at a Courtauld–Sargent concert. These concerts were extremely fashionable and very successful (each performance had to be given twice). When Strecker heard that Hindemith had instead agreed to play Walton's Concerto at a Henry Wood promenade concert at the Queen's Hall, he was furious. He wrote to Gertrude, Hindemith's wife: "Your husband should make himself harder to get. An appearance with Wood to play a concerto by a moderately gifted English composer—and that is what Walton is—is not a fitting debut. Wood's Promenade Concerts are like their conductor, himself, a worthy institution at which the playing is so-so and never a sensation of the sort I am hoping for." Thankfully, Hindemith did play the Walton Viola Concerto, which he liked, and again quoting Lady Walton, "Playing William's Concerto endeared Hindemith to the British public more than any number of Courtauld–Sargent concerts could have done." Walton later admitted that he had been much influenced by Hindemith's own Viola Concerto even 'borrowing' several bars. The first performance at that Promenade Concert was not without its difficulties. Walton "offered to conduct himself, although he soon realised that this was a mistake. The orchestral parts were all wrong…and there was practically no rehearsal time allowed for the Promenade Concerts in those days. The first rehearsal was a shambles…he had to stay up all night to redo the parts, so he was not feeling his best next day (3rd October 1929). Anyhow, it delighted him to see how well the work went down. "William used to say that Paul's technique was marvellous, but that his playing was brusque; he was a rough, no-nonsense player. He just stood up and played." Tertis was at this performance and later he sent a letter to Walton apologising for having turned the work down and that he would play it later. Tertis did so in Liège and then at Worcester where Walton met Elgar (in a lavatory as Lady Walton recalls). "Tertis didn't care much for William's work [nor did Elgar], and was heard to mutter that William had murdered the poor unfortunate instrument!" Of the Viola Concerto, Christopher Palmer commented, "It was a work of such obvious mastery that it probably did even more than Façade, Portsmouth Point and the Sinfonia Concertante—all already behind him—to establish his place in the vanguard of contemporary English music. The concerto exceeded all these in emotional depth, richness and profusion of ideas and technical assurance. The viola is not an easy instrument for which to write an effective concerto. The violin is a multi-faceted personality; and it can always ride on top of the orchestra. The luscious cantabile and expressive power of the cello can command attention at all times. But the viola is more introvert, a poet-philosopher, conspicuously lacking in brilliance of tone and ever liable to be blotted out by an unheeding orchestra. Yet in Walton's Concerto we are never aware of any of these limitations…. "…[For] the original version of the Viola Concerto [which can be heard in the recording made under the composer by William Primrose in 1946]…the orchestra is literally that of Brahms: no harp, no percussion except timpani, no exotica of any kind. In 1962 Walton gave the orchestration a major overhaul, using double (rather than triple) woodwind, eliminating one trumpet and the tuba, and adding a harp." Michael Kennedy has written that "the unobtrusive dramatic presence which Tovey discerned may well be attributed to the existence of an undisclosed emotional programme. The concerto is dedicated 'to Christabel' and probably records feelings engendered by Walton's unrequited passion for Christabel, Lady Aberconway (who remained a lifelong friend). But there is no need to know this to appreciate the lyrical melancholy and poetic longing at the heart of the music." Kennedy goes on to describe the work thus: "Although Elgar himself disliked the work when he heard it at a Three Choirs Festival, it is nonetheless Elgar's Cello Concerto which is constantly recalled by the ways in which the solo instrument is allowed to achieve prominence. Walton, like Elgar, begins with a ruminative slow movement. The hallmarks of the composer's style can be identified: wide intervals, looping arabesques, and added-note minor-major diatonic harmony together with irregular and syncopated rhythmic patterns. The progress of the first movement is twice interrupted by faster dramatic outbursts. The scherzo flashes by, witty and epigrammatic, leaving the finale as the most substantial movement. Developing from the bassoons' hesitant initial theme, it builds to a fugal climax for the orchestra after which the soloist recapitulates the first movement's amorous principal subject with the finale's main theme as accompaniment. It is one of the most beautiful passages in all Walton's music."  

The Violin Concerto In 1936 Jasha Heifetz took Walton out to lunch in London and commissioned him to write a Violin Concerto for 300 pounds, a great honour from the greatest virtuoso of the day. Walton had actually been thinking of writing a piece for clarinet and violin that Benny Goodman and Joseph Szigetti had asked him to do when Spike Hughes, an old friend, introduced him to Heifetz. Lady Walton recalls, "William was delighted and accepted [Heifetz's commission]. It had been William Primrose, the viola player whom William had met at one of Alice's [Alice Wimborne] parties, who had suggested to Heifetz to contact William. The viola concerto was by now thought successful, and Heifetz was keen on having a work written especially for him." "…As usual writing it gave him a lot of trouble [he had refused a lucrative offer to write music for a film of Shaw's Pygmalian to concentrate on the concerto—Honegger picked the commission up]. He said he did not know how to make the violin part elaborate enough, and therefore worthy of Heifetz. In a panic, he thought he had better give it instead to Fritz Kreisler to play. Eventually he was satisfied that he had exhausted the possibilities of what one could do on a violin. Yet he always thought of it as a rather intimate piece, a bit like the Elgar concerto; as a matter of fact it is in the same key." The concerto was originally intended for premiere at a British Council sponsored concert at the 1939 New York World Fair (along with other works requested from Bax, Bliss and Vaughan Williams) but when it was found that Heifetz could not play there, it was decided to postpone the first performance since Heifetz wanted exclusive playing rights of the work for two years. When Walton arrived in America he took the concerto to Heifetz, who seemed more interested in planting in his garden. "He didn't even play the piece through," Walton told Lady Walton later, "although he did later jazz up the last movement a bit." "William tried to play it to him, but he couldn't get his fingers in the right places." Walton and Heifetz worked further on the concerto, especially the third movement. When the task was completed Walton said, "I seriously advise all sensitive composers to die at the age of 37. I know I have gone through the first halcyon period, and I am just about ripe for my critical damnation." He need not have worried. The work's premiere was variously hailed as a "stirring performance of a work of character and quality…personal, intense, direct, straightforward…. The use of the violin is felicitous, from soaring cantilena to brilliance." Susana Walton goes on to relate: "William wasn't at the first performance, which took place in Cleveland, Ohio [on 7th December 1939 under Rodzinsky with, of course, Heifetz]. War had been declared by then and the house in South Eaton Place was bombed flat. There had earlier been a bomb scare, in the middle of which the score of the Violin Concerto had actually got lost. 'A Pity it was ever found, really,' was William's wry comment. Heifetz's own copy of the score, complete with his bowing marks, was later lost in the Atlantic, sank during a convoy crossing." Walton conducted the first British performance in London on November 1st, 1941, when Henry Holst was the soloist. Substantial revisions to the orchestration were made in 1943. The concerto has a more substantial element of technical virtuosity than the earlier Viola Concerto. Michael Kennedy comments: "Like the Viola Concerto, the Violin Concerto is a declaration of love, but this time without frustration. The 'dreaming' (sognando) opening theme sets the mood of a great work in which the pyrotechnical demands on the soloist are reconciled with music of ultimate poetical expressiveness. As in the earlier concerto, the first movement theme returns in the finale and the whole work has an Italianate warmth and languor, with the rowdier side of Italy surfacing in the tarantella scherzo." The lady with whom Walton was in love was, of course, Alice Wimborne. Walton said, "Women have always been important to me…and I've been very lucky. Alice Wimborne—very beautiful, intelligent, kind, very rich, a grand hostess, very musical…she had all the virtues. A marvellous woman" Christopher Palmer writes, "Walton was blissfully in love as he worked on the concerto through the late 1930s and it is tempting to relate the solo violin's expression of radiant happiness to its unrivalled capacity for free-ranging lyricism for what someone once called instrumental bel canto. We like singing when we are happy." Christopher Palmer picks up Michael Kennedy's point of Italianate writing: "It was the marvellous light he found overwhelming, the brilliant sunshine and vivid colours of the Mediterranean scene. This quality of light suffuses all Walton's later music—for example, the opera Troilus and Cressida and the Cello Concerto—written when he made his home in Ischia off the coast of Naples. Odd intimations of this 'Mediterraneanism' do occur in earlier Walton: in the Spanish stylisations of Façade, in the small-orchestra idyll called Siesta. But the first full-scale manifestation is surely to be found in the Violin Concerto, specifically in the orchestral textures of the finale's second subject, which shimmer like the blue of the summer sea; nor would the marvellously dreamy (sognando is a favourite Walton term) accompanied cadenza towards the end of the movement, with its succulently seductive consecutive 3rds in the solo instrument, be out of place in one of the sea- or sky-scapes in Troilus and Cressida. We might remark too in this connection the second movement's marking of Presto capriccioso alla napolitana, and its 'Canzonetta' trio. Both napolitana and canzonetta bear connotations of light Italian song, there are hints of tarantella, and Frank Howes, in his book on Walton, informs us that this movement was actually composed in Italy." Heifetz recorded the concerto shortly after its premiere and then re-recorded it in 1950, when he was touring in England. For this recording, the composer was invited to conduct. Before the sessions commenced, he made substantial changes in the orchestration but did not alter either the violin part or the thematic material.  

Tasmin Little on the Concertos One performer's view of Walton's Violin Concerto was expressed to me, in a wide ranging interview on British Music, by Tasmin Little. She said: "The Walton Concerto dazzles. You can identify the parts that were influenced by Heifetz. With Walton's natural feel for the virtuosity of all instruments, he would have been tending towards that kind of writing in the Scherzo anyway but there are two passages in that movement where you really feel that Heifetz would have said, 'Now come on, Willy, let's really go to town here!' There's some fiendishly difficult passages in the Scherzo but interestingly, these are for the orchestra, it's not so difficult for the soloist. The difficulty lies in the dramatic rhythmic changes: I'm thinking particularly of those two passages near the end of the Scherzo where the music changes into 3/8 then 4/8 - it is a very tricky passage for the wind section. Walton was not scared of writing difficult music. I believe he wrote very slowly, but whatever he wrote was very well thought out. On the other hand, I do not think the Walton Concerto is nearly as difficult to shape as the Delius Violin Concerto or the Delius Double Concerto because the line of the Walton Concerto is much more obvious. "I would love to play the Walton Viola Concerto but I fear it is not possible. I enjoyed playing the viola at school but my hands are very small and I have a hard enough time getting my fingers around some stretches in the violin repertoire let alone that of the viola where you've really got that much more to contend with. I can play the viola but because I feel that I could not perform to the proficiency I would want to attain, I shall stick to the violin—in any case it's not as if I were in any danger of running out of violin repertoire…! "Returning to the Walton Violin Concerto, it has suffered less neglect than say the Delius concertos. I'm not quite sure why—except, perhaps that Walton's music sparkles more overtly and most of his orchestral works are quite showy so that people can get excited by their colour, vitality and virtuosity. Even so, playing the Walton Concerto abroad can be a worry because of the question of how, and with what, to place it in programmes."  

Christopher Palmer's Orchestration of the Violin Sonata This article would not be complete, I feel, without some tribute to the late and much missed Christopher Palmer who did so much to champion the music of so many British composers including Walton. His orchestration of Walton's Violin Sonata has, in this writer's opinion, given us a second Walton Violin Concerto. Palmer wrote: "The Violin Sonata was also—at least—initially connected with Lady Wimborne though in different and tragic circumstances. In September 1947 she became ill in Switzerland en route with Walton for a holiday in Capri. To pay for her emergency treatment Walton received money from Yehudi Menuhin's wife Diana—whom he met by chance in a train—in return for a violin sonata for Yehudi and her sister Griselda's husband, Louis Kentner. By the time the work was finished (1948; revised 1949–50) Alice had died and Walton had married Señorita Susana Gil Passo in Buenos Aires." I remember reviewing the Chandos recording of Palmer's transcription in BBC Music Magazine in 1992: "This orchestrated version of the Sonata for Violin and Orchestra is a masterly transcription…. He has not tampered with the original text but has 'dressed up' the work in the bright colours of Walton's orchestral palette while observing all the felicities of his style."  

Recommended Recordings  

Viola Concerto Frederick Riddle with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by William Walton (recorded 1937) (in concert of other items)       Dutton Laboratories CDAX8003
Violin Concerto Jascha Heifetz with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by William Walton (recorded July 1950) (coupled with Heifetz playing the Elgar Concerto with the LSO conducted by Sargent)       RCA Victor Gold Seal GD87966
Violin and Viola Concertos Yehudi Menuhin with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by William Walton (part of EMI's Walton Edition)       EMI CHS5 65003-2
Violin and Viola Concertos Nigel Kennedy with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by André Previn EMI CDC 7 49628 2
Sonata for Violin and Orchestra (orch. Palmer)       Lydia Mordkovitch with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jan Latham-Koenig (with the Violin Concerto and Two Pieces for Violin and Orchestra)       Chandos CHAN 9073



  • William Walton: Behind the Façade, by Lady Susana Walton. Oxford University Press (1988). By permission of Oxford University Press.        
  • Recordings booklet notes from recordings released by EMI and Chandos.