William Walton, Symphony No. 2

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert This England, performed on Jan 31, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.

Walton born Mar 29, 1902 in Oldham, England; died Mar 8, 1983 in Ischia, Italy
Symphony No. 2 composed from 1957–60; premiered Sep 2, 1960 by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic under John Pritchard
Approximate performance time: 29 minutes
Instruments: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (1 doubling E-flat clarinet, 1 doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 4 French horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion, 1 piano, 1 celesta, 2 harps, and strings

Determined to escape the dreary confines of Oldham, his hometown, William Walton enjoyed a charmed career from 1922, when his scandalous Façade for narrator and small ensemble engendered both controversy and priceless publicity, through his brilliant film score for Olivier’s 1944 film of Shakespeare’s Henry V. Plucked from obscurity by the dazzling and wealthy Sitwells—Osbert, Edith, and Sacheverell—Walton quickly made a name for himself in British music and abroad: major artists such as Heifetz vied to perform his music and famous conductors such as Sir Malcolm Sargent championed his scores.

After the Second World War, however, drastic changes in musical fashion rendered his music “old-fashioned” in the eyes of many myopic critics. Walton’s style was pigeonholed and dismissed as “bittersweet” and “nostalgic”: the former enfant terrible was pilloried as an establishment figure. This view was far from accurate, for some of Walton’s most extraordinary achievements, such as the Second Symphony, came in the latter part of his long career. Walton’s early discovery of the elements of his idiom enabled him to assimilate successfully a wide range of disparate and seemingly contradictory influences such as jazz, Stravinsky, Sibelius, and Ravel. Walton’s ability to absorb new technical and orchestral resources never left him and informs the music of the 1950s and 60s.

Walton was a virtuoso composer whose complete technical command is in evidence throughout the Second Symphony, which was commissioned in 1956 by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Society. (The premiere, which took place on September 2, 1960 at the Edinburgh International Festival, was marred by faulty balances and an uncomprehending conductor.) While not as passionate as his more popular First Symphony, Walton’s second essay in the symphonic genre is a far more refined and completely realized work of art. The score is remarkable for its stylistic consistency, developmental ingenuity, and, above all, its coruscating orchestral brilliance. The music is scored with a precision, surety, and elegance that bear comparison to Ravel and Dukas. Walton’s interest in Schoenberg is proclaimed in the finale, a set of variations on a twelve-tone theme that employs an ingenious adaptation of serial procedures.

Byron Adams is Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.