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Symphony No. 1 in B-flat minor [1968 version]

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Sir William Walton
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Lang Lang, piano Dec. 1 - 3, 2005
© Richard Freed

Symphony No. 1 Walton began work on his First Symphony in 1932. Three of the four movements were performed by the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Hamilton Harty in the Queen's Hall, London, on December 3, 1934, and the same forces introduced the complete work on November 6, 1935. The American premiere, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, was also conducted by Harty, on January 23, 1936. James DePreist conducted the National Symphony Orchestra's first performances of this work, on January 7-9, 1975, in this hall, and January 12 at Carnegie Hall in New York; Hugh Wolff conducted the only others prior to the present ones, on January 21 and 22, 1994. The score, dedicated to Baroness Irma Doernberg, calls for 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, 2 sets of timpani, snare drum, cymbal, tam-tam, and strings. Duration, 44 minutes.
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Like both Schubert and Chopin, Walton was still a young man when he composed the work by which he is represented in the present concerts. He made his first big impact on the musical public with his witty and imaginative music for Façade , settings of verses by Dame Edith Sitwell (for recitation, not singing), when he was 20 years old, the same age at which Chopin introduced his E-minor Concerto. By the time he was 29 he had produced his oratorio Belshazzar's Feast (text by Osbert Sitwell), recognized at once as one of the masterworks of the choral repertory, as well as the Sinfonia concertante for piano and orchestra (which he dedicated to all three of the literary Sitwell siblings, who had taken him into their home), the overture Portsmouth Point , and the masterly Viola Concerto (whose premiere was given by his fellow composer Paul Hindemith, a respected violist for much of his life). As Walton rounded out his third decade with the very solid reputation these works had earned for him, it was more or less expected that he would turn his attention to the creation of a symphony, and that is in fact just what he did next.

There had been few notable symphonies from British composers at that time. Elgar's two, composed as recently as 1908 and 1911, stood as mighty pillars of what was after all a new English symphonic tradition. The first three of Ralph Vaughan Williams's nine symphonies (the First being the choral work called A Sea Symphony , with texts from our own Walt Whitman) were making their way into the repertory, but the first five of Arnold Bax's seven, which had also been completed by then, were not to reach listeners outside the UK, even by way of recordings, until nearly four decades later, and the symphonies by such earlier composers as Sir Hubert Parry and Sir Charles Villiers Stanford had been for the most part forgotten. Walton was surely aware of the expectations riding on his effort, and he did not approach it lightly.

Not that he ever did, of course. One assumes that composers who are so outstandingly productive so early in life work quickly, but this was not so in Walton's case. Like Ravel, he was fastidious, unhurried, and extremely self-critical, and this is knowhere more pointedly illustrated than in the birth of his First Symphony. As already noted, he began work on it in 1932, shortly after his 30th birthday; two years later it was still unfinished because of problems he was having with the final movement, but interest in the work was so great by then that, after the originally scheduled premiere had to be postponed, Walton was persuaded to permit a performance of the three completed movements. When Sir Hamilton Harty conducted that performance, toward the end of 1934, the slow movement preceded the scherzo; when the same conductor introduced the completed Symphony less than a year later, the order of those two sections had been reversed. (The full premiere, incidentally, followed that of Vaughan Williams's powerful Symphony No. 4 by seven months and preceded of Bax's Sixth by just two weeks: 1935 was a banner year for the English symphony.)

For the most part, Walton's music does not reflect obvious influences. Like Elgar, Bax, Vaughan Williams, Holst and Britten in their different ways, he in his own way helped to shape and define a recognizably English character in his orchestral works, and in this case this was accomplished without reference to folk material or any conscious attempt at "nationalism." The one conspicuous influence that does show itself in the First Symphony is not an English one, but is the imposing and unmistakable figure of Jean Sibelius.

Sibelius's identity with his own country was, and remains, so strong that Finland is the only country personified to the world by a musician. It must be remembered, though, that his music has nowhere been better or more consistently received than in Britain, and at the time Walton composed this work British admiration for the great Finn was at its peak. Sibelius had laid down his pen by then, but he was still alive (he died in 1957, nearly 92), and all his most celebrated champtions were conspicuously active in England. The same London Symphony Orchestra that introduced the Walton Symphony had just made the premier recordings of several of the Sibelius symphonies, under the Finnish master's close associate Robert Kajanus. Georg Schneevoigt followed him from Helsinki, and Serge Koussevitzky came from Boston to make the first recording of the Seventh Symphony with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Sir Thomas Beecham began the famous "Sibelius Society" recordings for HMV, in which Sir Adrian Boult and Schneevoigt took part as well. In 1934, as Walton was finishing his Symphony, the young English composer and conductor Constant Lambert published his book Music Ho!, in which he devoted three big chapters to the importance of Sibelius. Nine years later, in the middle of World War II, Vaughan Williams phrased the dedication of his Fifth Symphony, "Without permission, and with sincerest flattery, to Jean Sibelius, whose example is worthy of imitation."

While Vaughan Williams never actually "imitated" Sibelius in the sense of copying his personal style (what he imitated was the Finn's successful determination to forge an unmistakable style of his own), Arnold Bax actually quoted passages from Sibelius's works in his own symphonies and tone poems, and took pains to see that listeners did not overlook such citings. Walton also produced a very clear form of “flattery” in the present work. His Symphony is filled with Sibelian gestures, indicating that he must have felt that the “great example” was “worthy of imitation” in a more direct sense. At the age of 30, and in the midst of the profound British admiration for Sibelius, such a response was probably inevitable. What is most remarkable, though, is the striking level of originality and individuality that characterizes the work.

While Sibelius's influence is inescapably felt (and indeed portions of the two outer movements approximate actual echoes of his music), the overall impression given here is nonetheless one of genuine individuality, expressed in terms of great urgency and great integrity—partly in a language made familiar and effective by the very popular senior composer. Closer to home, we may observe a similar phenomenon in respect to Sibelius in the music of Stephen Albert, the commissioning, introduction and recording of whose Symphony RiverRun was one of the highlights of the NSO's years under Mstislav Rostropovich. Albert's own voice, like Walton's, is never in question in his happy and productive acknowledgement of the Finn's influence, which was being felt in our country with renewed strength in the 1980s.

Apart from its near-echoes of Sibelius, the Walton Symphony is a pervasively serious work, in large part even tragic, but by no means altogether grim. It is sometimes billed “in B-flat minor,” but, as in so many modern works, the tonality is really too to be so specifically identified in the title. In the opening movement ( Allegro assai ) a tragic mood is established at once, and the Sibelian image is reflected particularly in the writing for the woodwinds and brass, in the slurred pedal-points in the strings, and the dramatic and exhortative use of the drums.

The scherzo is not so labeled, but is marked simply—and probably uniquely— Presto, con malizia . It is often stated that there is neither lightness nor humor in this demoniacal episode, but, for all its angularity and brute force, there are flickerings of warmth; their brevity and eventual disappearance serve to heighten, in terms of contrast, the juggernaut effect that prevails at the movement's end.

The slow movement ( Adagio con malinconia ) is the most highly individual portion of the Symphony, and the most intense. Its character is that of a vast lament, reminiscent in part of the opening section of Belshzzar's Feast (Walton's own, not Sibelius's). There is no big, sweeping theme-only various thematic fragments that built to a poignant and insistent outcry, subsiding at length to permit the movement to end more or less as it opened.

The problem Walton created for himself in his finale ( Maestoso ) lay in his having composed its concluding section first and then finding himself faced with having to construct a credible transition to that affirmative epilogue from the pervasively tragic content of the three preceding movements. The main portion of the finale is made up of scenes of turbulence and struggle, separated by brief fugato episodes; at length the storms subside, and a brief pastoral interlude leads into the coda, which is proclamatively triumphal though still informed with the spirit of tragedy, the widely spaced final chords as full of questions as those at the end of the Sibelius Fifth.