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Partita for Orchestra

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Sir William Walton
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Gil Shaham, violin, performs Brahms Sep. 20 - 22, 2006
© Richard Freed

Walton composed this work under a commission from the Cleveland Orchestra in celebration of its fortieth anniversary; George Szell conducted the premiere in Severance Hall on January 30, 1958. The Partita enters the repertory of the National Symphony Orchestra in the present concerts.

The score calls for 3 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, military drum, bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, triangle, castanets, xylophone, vibraphone, glockenspiel, celesta, 2 harps, and strings. Duration, 16 minutes.


While the title of this work and the headings of its three movements might suggest a link with Bach and his contemporaries, what we have here is very much music of its own time, and written in such a way as to display the virtuosity of the modern orchestra most brilliantly. As already noted, the Partita was Walton's response to a commission in celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the Cleveland Orchestra, halfway through the 24-year tenure of the legendary George Szell.

Walton's idea of celebrating a great orchestra's anniversary in this case did not take the form of a solemn or ceremonial piece, but rather one that can serve as a showcase for performing skills and reflect the festive spirit of the occasion. In the Partita that approach yielded music of a robustly invigorating character, especially well suited to its opening position in the present concerts and in the subscription season which they begin.

The first movement is a TOCCATA that is more than merely jaunty in its rhythmic vivacity, its exultant themes (or thematic fragments) and bright colors; it concludes with a gesture that may have been intended as a good-natured burlesque of Walton's own grand manner in such earlier celebratory works as his two coronation marches--Crown Imperial, for George V, and Orb and Sceptre for Elizabeth II--and the still earlier oratorio Belshazzar's Feast.

The second movement, PASTORALE SICILIANA, begins innocently enough, almost as if it were a true gesture in the direction of Baroque music, with the initial tune assigned to the oboe, but this material soon gives way to a conspicuously more contemporary-flavored section whose wry, sardonic character and curious little pseudo-Orientalisms evoke recollections of yet another of Walton's early scores, the celebrated Façade.

By way of finale there is a GIGA BURLESCA whose marking, Allegro gioviale, seems a bit of an understatement. Out of the nervous rhythmic figure in the opening, the brasses develop a striking little fanfare theme, given to the trumpet and then, toward the end, as a sort of bemused comment on the rumbustiousness that has grown from so relatively restrained a beginning, to the trombone. The exuberant drive to the conclusion is nicely underscored by a percussion section from which few available instruments have been omitted but in which all are used with great subtlety in making their festive point.