The centenary bashes that we have come to expect for the departed great and good in whatever field, but especially the arts, offer opportunities for re-evaluation as well as celebration. This year's centenary of the birth of the composer Sir William Walton is a case in point, but Walton – born 100 years ago on 29 March – remains an elusive figure. No less than three major books about his life have appeared recently, yet the enigma of Walton has barely been touched.
Indeed, his curious mixture of musical genius and personal irascibility is very hard to fathom, even in his own letters. What are we to make of a composer who, in an after-dinner speech to members of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, following their performance of Belshazzar's Feast in Tel Aviv in 1963, thanked them by saying: "I have something here that no one else has: a foreskin!"? As Walton's widow says in her book, Behind the Façade, "I alone found this outrageous statement funny."
Walton – A Celebration 2002, the current festival at the South Bank, in London, began on 24 February with Richard Hickox and the Philharmonia Orchestra presenting Portsmouth Point, the Viola Concerto and Belshazzar's Feast (see the review on page 12). It offers an opportunity to hear most of the major works (as well as many of the minor), but any radical reinterpretation of the canon looks unlikely. It's as if Walton has come down to us pre-digested, his place in British music taken for granted, even if what that music represents is far from clear. In contrast, the life – while hardly less recalcitrant – at least offers some clues for our understanding.
The recently published Selected Letters reveals (inasmuch as it reveals anything at all) Walton as chippy to the last, bridling at the achievements of his great rival Benjamin Britten and habitually referring to Aldeburgh as "Aldebugger". In his late fastness on the island of Ischia, where he was tormented by a kind of composer's block, Walton regarded his contemporaries with either envy or bemusement. In a letter to his publisher, announcing the imminent visit of Michael Tippett, Walton confessed: "It will be fun having him here as I'm very fond of him, though I'm more often than not completely baffled by his music... I persevere, but have little hope of catching up with any of them. All rather depressing." In the same letter he refers to a new book on Elgar, writing: "I was so pleased to discover that he hated music almost as much, if not more, than I do."
While allowances must be made for the famous Walton sense of humour and an estrangement from British culture that his voluntary exile in Italy inevitably accentuated, the picture remains of a composer who thought his greatest achievements were behind him, even while he was still relatively young. In later life, things became worse. On the occasion of his 80th birthday, Walton remarked: "I'm a disappointed man. I could have done much better. Rather sad, really." Michael Berkeley, whose father, Sir Lennox Berkeley, was a friend of Walton's, has commented on this perceived insecurity, saying that "he didn't realise in what respect he was held."
Walter Legge, the husband of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, recalled sitting in a box with Walton at Covent Garden on the first night of Troilus and Cressida in 1954, where the composer kept up a constant four-letter-word commentary on the performance, with one six-letter word repeated incessantly in the direction of the conductor, Sir Malcolm Sargent.
"He always denigrated his works," Lady Walton told me at La Mortella, the home that she and her husband built together on Ischia. "He was very humble, but if anyone attacked, then he went up like a dragon and bit you. Like Peter Heyworth [music critic for The Observer] – he hit him with his walking-stick."
When it came, the approval of the Establishment was received with reverence; on the morning Walton heard of his Order of Merit, he cried. "I was very lucky," he told an interviewer at the time. "I was so damned stupid, all I could do was write music."
It's the contrasts in Walton's life and art that make him such an interesting figure, if a difficult one to love. A modernist whose early reputation was established at the International Society of Contemporary Music festivals in Europe (where Paul Hindemith became an important friend and supporter) and by the peculiarly English avant-garde represented by Façade and his association with the Sitwells, he ended up as a right-wing Tory and ardent royalist who wrote some of the most stridently patriotic music of the century. It's rather as if Mark-Anthony Turnage had turned into Andrew Lloyd Webber.
In his youth, Walton flirted with jazz (which he later disparaged) and even wrote some arrangements of dance-band tunes for a popular band, the Savoy Orpheans. In 1941, he anticipated the tastes of today by starting – and then abandoning – an opera on the life of the 16th-century Italian composer Carlo Gesualdo. He also did brilliant (but also disparaged) work for film and for radio, not just the celebrated collaboration with Olivier on Henry V. But the older Walton grew, the harder composition became.
According to Lady Walton, that her husband's letters exist at all is cause for surprise. "He couldn't read or write, practically," she says. "He did actually read, and he did actually write, but it was an effort. His brain didn't go into that sort of activity as much as into music, and I suppose that's why mathematics and architecture were the two things – apart from music – that he saw beautifully and clearly."
Walton's lack of a conventional education – he never received an Oxford degree, despite being the youngest undergraduate there since Henry VIII – irked him to the last. Despite eccentricities of spelling and grammar, however, the letters do show his enviable ability to coax others to do as he wished: he's forever getting correspondents to blag him manuscripts or records, and the notes to his mother back home in Oldham are a model of evasion and subterfuge that any guilty son would do well to study.
For Susana – whom Walton met and married during a Performing Right Society trip to Argentina in 1948 – the centenary is nothing less than an opportunity to re-establish her husband's primacy in British music. "When I hear that they are educating people to be professional musicians in England who have never heard the First Symphony, I just collapse," she says. "If we can't help William in this way, what are we here for? It's not only keeping the flame alive, but trying to reverse this trend. Because if they're not going to teach Walton in the schools, naturally it's out of sight and out of mind."
Despite Lady Walton's understandable concern, one can't help feeling that if the music of Sir William Walton is really to chime with the present as well as the past, perhaps what we need is not a worthy retrospective celebration, but a kind of posthumous Meltdown, with the works given a hefty modern spin – if only to separate the Turnage from the Lloyd Webber.
Walton – A Celebration 2002, South Bank Centre, London SE1 (020-7960 4242, www.sbc.org). BBC Radio 3 is hosting a Walton Day on 31 Mar, and Walton will be Composer of the Week 25-29 Mar (full details on www.bbc.co.uk/radio3). 'The Selected Letters of William Walton', edited by Malcolm Hayes, is published by Faber at £30Reuse content