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Cello Concerto

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Sir William Walton
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Vladimir Ashkenazy, conductor / Steven Isserlis, cello, plays Walton Jun. 16 - 18, 2011
© Aaron Grad

Cello Concerto

WILLIAM WALTON

Born March 29, 1902 in Oldham, England

Died March 8, 1983 in Ischia, Italy

After early successes with Façade and Portsmouth Point, Walton's fame grew steadily until the war years. He impressed the critical establishment with his concert music, including the Viola Concerto (1929), First Symphony (1935) and Violin Concerto (1939), and he confirmed his wider appeal through a series of popular film scores. In 1948 he married an Argentine woman half his age, and they settled on the picturesque island of Ischia, near Naples.

Walton's reputation declined in the postwar years, when his lush, lyrical style appeared old-fashioned in contrast to the incisive voice of Benjamin Britten and the strident atonality that dominated mainland Europe. Walton grappled with the opera Troilus and Cressida from 1947 to 1954, releasing almost no other music in that interval, and its mixed reception further undermined his confidence.

Walton regained his stride with the Cello Concerto, composed at Ischia in 1956. Gregor Piatigorsky, a Russian cellist based in the United States, commissioned the work, and both performed and recorded it in January 1957 with the Boston Symphony conducted by Charles Munch. The concerto repeats the same winning formula from Walton's two previous concertos, with slow outer movements surrounding a central fast movement, a reverse of the typical concerto pattern. The hushed ending, so contrary to the virtuoso tradition, gave Piatigorsky pause, and he eventually asked Walton for a new conclusion. Walton did revise the ending in 1975, but Piatigorsky died the next year, and that doctored finale has had few performances.

The concerto begins with a haunting tick-tock accompaniment, joined by a rising four-note motive from the cello. These ingredients set the nostalgic and melancholy tone of the work, and both elements return obsessively. The cello's broad, singing melodies retain a dash of Romantic style, surrounded by wandering harmonies and unsettled tension. After that subdued start, the middle movement is quick and lively, a scherzo in all but name. It also has a restless quality, and some of the same dreamy haze of the earlier music, especially during the lyrical interludes.

 

The finale, an extended set of variations, lasts nearly as long as the earlier movements combined. The cello outlines a veiled and spacious theme and then links directly to a wispy Con moto variation. The second variation is an extended cello cadenza, with performance indications of "resolute," "spirited" and "con bravura." In response, the orchestra takes a fast variation without the cello, bookended by another solo variation, this one marked "rhapsodically." The concerto closes with memories of the clockwork accompaniment and rising figures of the first movement, rounding out the work's formal plan while leaving its poignant emotional questions unanswered in the dying vibrations of the cello's lowest note.