English Composer Sir William Walton was Born in 1902
Across his six-decade career, Walton wrote notable film scores and concertos premiered by Jascha Heifetz and Paul Hindemith
Sir William Walton was born in a Lancashire mill town in northwestern England to parents who were both singers. Additionally, his father worked as a choirmaster and singing teacher.
As reported in the New York Times, Walton relieved his family's financial struggles with his talent for singing. Winning a scholarship to the Cathedral Choir School at Christ Church in Oxford, he also began composing pieces in his early teens. Encouraged by organist and educator Sir Hugh Allen, he completed a piano quartet to great success at age 16.
He was later accepted to Christ Church as an undergraduate student — becoming the youngest since former English King Henry VIII — but did not graduate due to missing the deadline for the required composition. Being largely self-taught, Walter received advice and mentorship from Ernest Ansermet and Eugene Goossens in conducting, according to Boosey and Hawkes.
During his time in Oxford, his friendship with writer Sacheverell Sitwell was foundational in developing and securing his music career. When Sitwell left Oxford, Walton was taken in by his siblings at their Chelsea home, where he remained for 15 years as an unofficial composer-in-residence with the highly-celebrated literary family.
Written in 1923 to pair with a set of satirical poems by Edith Sitwell, Walton’s Facade became his most famous work and propelled his career. Other works include his String Quartet, Toccata for Violin and Piano, his First Symphony, and the cantata Belshazzar’s Feast for chorus, orchestra, and two brass bands. In 1938, a commission for a violin concerto was made by Jascha Heifetz, who gave the premiere the following year.
At the urging of conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, Walton wrote a viola concerto. Published in 1939, its premiere was given by German composer Paul Hindemith. Walton had initially sent the work to virtuoso Lionel Tertis, who later stated it was one of his favorites.
SIR WILLIAM WALTON | BELSHAZZAR’S FEAST | LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA | SIR SIMON RATTLE | BBC PROMS| 2019
Knighted in 1951, Walton also composed music for two coronations — King George VI in 1937 titled Crown Imperial March, and Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 titled Orb and Sceptre. Additionally, he composed the overture to Scapino in 1941 for the 50th anniversary of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
During the war years, Walton dedicated his time to writing for dance and film, including the ballets The Wise Virgins and The Quest, as well as Shakespearean films starring Laurence Olivier, including Henry V, Hamlet, and Richard III.
From 1947 onwards, he composed another String Quartet and finished a trilogy of string concertos in 1956. Alongside these projects, he wrote music for cellists Gregor Piatigorsky and Mstislav Rostropovich.
In 1968, he received the Order of Merit, and 10 years later, was elected an honorary member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He died from a lung hemorrhage in 1983 in Ischia, Italy, aged 80.