The Kennedy Center

Portsmouth Point Overture

About the Work

Sir William Walton Composer: Sir William Walton
© Aaron Grad

Portsmouth Point Overture



Born March 29, 1902 in Oldham, England

Died March 8, 1983 in Ischia, Italy

William Walton grew up singing in a local choir directed by his father. At ten, his voice earned him a scholarship to study at the Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, and he entered Oxford University at the unusually young age of 16. His musical studies soon crowded out other subjects, and two years later Walton left Oxford after repeatedly failing a required examination. At the invitation of fellow student Sacheverell Sitwell, one of three sibling poets from a well-to-do family, Walton moved to London. He spent more than a decade living with the Sitwells, and their financial and creative support fueled Walton's growth as a composer. Walton earned his first real notoriety for his musical setting of Façade, a series of poems by Edith Sitwell; the memorable 1923 debut featured the poet declaiming her texts through a megaphone over a lively ensemble conducted by the composer.

The concert overture Portsmouth Point was a breakthrough piece for Walton. Composed in 1925, it had a successful premiere in Zurich in 1926, and in 1928 it became his first published score. Walton dedicated the work to Siegfried Sassoon, another poet who supported him during those journeyman years.

Walton's inspiration for Portsmouth Point was a 19th-century etching of the same name by Thomas Rowlandson. The vibrant image depicts the rowdy port on the southern coast of England with a dense jumble of ships, sailors, taverns, drunken carousers, women of ill repute, and a peg-legged fiddler entertaining a dancing couple. The same hectic energy suffuses Walton's score: shifting meters and cascading phrases pile upon each other in a robust tempo, sustaining the kinetic motion throughout the six-minute romp. The melodies have the swarthy complexion of sailor's tunes, and there is even a flash of Spanish dance music (perhaps a relic of Walton's trip to Spain with the Sitwells that year). It is also evident that the time Walton spent poring over scores in the Oxford library instead of studying paid off; his young voice draws effectively from the successes of established composers, especially Stravinsky. The overture's booming orchestration, rich with brass and percussion, adds further muscle to the stout material.