Sir William Walton’s Symphony No. 1 in B-flat minor begins with a magical coalescing of elements. Voices awaken, and the Symphony springs to life with a sense of suddenness and inevitability. There is a hushed B-flat timpani roll, the warm sonic blur of three successive horn tones (B-flat, F, and G), a pulsating heartbeat in the violins, the plaintive song of the oboe, a response in the bassoon, and darting, descending lines in the basses. This vibrant instrumental conversation arises in mere seconds. We are reminded that the original meaning of the word, symphony, is “sounding together.”
The first movement (Allegro assai) unleashes an unrelenting torrent of raw emotional energy. Sensuous, searing, and bold, it is music which demands that we listen. Timeless and rugged vistas unfold which are reminiscent of the music of Sibelius, yet Walton’s distinct voice prevails. John Williams seems to have drawn on this music for some of his most soaring film scores.
The second movement is a biting scherzo marked, Presto, con malizia (“with malice”). At times, its prevailing 3/4 meter is interrupted by the irregularity of 5/4. Vicious and snarling, it is a tense and harrowing ride.
The third movement (Andante) is intimate and melancholy. It begins with a lamenting statement in the solo flute. In earlier drafts of the Symphony, this theme appeared in the first movement. Following an anguished climax, the music falls back into haunting desolation.
Although he had sketched the Symphony’s climactic final bars, Walton struggled to complete the final movement. He wrote to a friend, “I’ve burnt about three finales…and it is only comparatively lately that I’ve managed to get going on what I hope is the last attempt.” Walton had begun the Symphony in 1931 at the request of Sir Hamilton Harty, the conductor of the Hallé Orchestra. Its composition coincided with the composer’s turbulent breakup with the Baroness Imma Doernberg, to whom the work was dedicated. Walton allowed Harty to perform the first three movements of the unfinished work in 1934. During the summer of 1934, Walton set the Symphony aside to fulfill a lucrative film score contract (for Paul Czinner’s Escape Me Never).
With the final movement (Maestoso–Brioso ed ardentemente), completed in 1935, the Symphony’s searing energy finds release. Majestic and celebratory, the music anticipates Crown Imperial, the march that Walton would write for the 1937 coronation of King George VI. Following a lively fugue, “a grandiloquent coda” brings the Symphony to a conclusion which is filled with both pomp and ferocity.
I. Allegro assai:
II. Presto, con malizia:
IV. Maestoso – Brioso ed ardentemente:
Five Great Recordings
- Walton: Symphony No. 1, Andrew Litton, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra Amazon
- André Previn and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
- Bryden Thomson and the London Philharmonic Orchestra
- Sir Alexander Gibson and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra
- Sir William Walton and the Philharmonia Orchestra
Featured Image: Thames River fog, photograph by PhotonPhillips