First among equals

Walton's Symphony No 1 shows signs of its tortuous birth and a variety of influences. For all that, says Bayan Northcott, it remains a unique work
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It is just about 70 years since William Walton completed his Unfinished Symphony. It was not meant to be unfinished, of course, any more than Schubert's Eighth, Bruckner's Ninth or the symphony that the ailing Holst was shortly to leave incomplete, save for its scherzo, on his death in May 1934. But for the time being, the perplexed and exhausted young composer had ground to a halt.

By then, the tortuous evolution of the Symphony in B flat minor had long been notorious among Walton's colleagues and friends; soon it would be public knowledge - the more puzzling in that he was widely regarded as the great white hope of British music. In fact, he had suffered periodic bouts of composer's block virtually from the start of his career. In later years, he was inclined to attribute them to his lack of fully professional training; and, apart from the practical experience of being a Christ Church, Oxford, choirboy, a bit of academic counterpoint and the odd consultation with Busoni, he does seem to have been largely self-taught.

But that only heightens the mystery of Walton's early emergence, the youthful insouciance with which he rattled off all those sophisticated vignettes for Edith Sitwell's entertainment, Façade (1921). Still more remarkable was his "advanced" String Quartet No 1, completed when he was 21, which impressed Berg at the Salzburg Festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music in 1923 and led to a meeting with Schoenberg. Yet the experience seems only to have convinced Walton that he did not want to become an "advanced" composer after all.

For the next year or so, he knocked about at a loss, attempting jazz arrangements for the Savoy Orpheans, and re-emerging in 1925 with his populist comedy overture Portsmouth Point, like some English cousin of Les Six. Nor was the composition of his first masterpiece, the Viola Concerto (1929), or of its vastly successful follow-up, the oratorio Belshazzar's Feast (1931), without hitches: progress on the latter got stuck for eight months at the praising of the God of Gold. But there seem to be at least three further reasons why the symphony he then embarked on proved by far the worst.

The first was the ominous politico-economic situation of the early 1930s, exacerbated by Walton's chronic financial insecurity - at least until 1934, when he got into film music. Then there was his turbulent private life, as his first long-standing relationship, with the Prussian-born Baroness Imma Doernberg, progressively fell apart. But not least, one suspects, it was the challenge of attempting so prestigious a genre itself that intimidated. At a time when fashion tended to denigrate Elgar as an Edwardian has-been, Walton remained well aware of what he would be up against should the old master deliver the Third Symphony that the BBC commissioned in 1933. And his excitement at the premiere of Vaughan Williams's furious Fourth in April 1935 must also have been tinged with apprehension.

It was back in January 1932 that the conductor Sir Hamilton Harty had asked Walton for the symphony, but by the autumn of that year, he confessed he had managed only about 40 bars, and, when he struggled to the end of the tumultuous first movement the following spring, he seriously considered leaving it at that: a 14-minute symphony in one movement. By the time he had also got the ensuing scherzo and slow movement into full score early in 1934, two first performance dates had been cancelled, his liaison with the baroness had finally foundered and he was still stymied about the finale.

That summer, Harty, the LSO and Walton's publishers decided that yet another cancellation would be fatal, and Walton was persuaded to allow an incomplete premiere, sans finale, in December, when the torso already made a striking impact. By then, Walton had found a new girlfriend - the older, but still beautiful (and vastly wealthy), Lady Alice Wimbourne - and sketched at least the start and finish of the finale. But its middle eluded him until his friend Constant Lambert suggested a fugue. Not till the end of August 1935 was Walton able to assure his vastly relieved circle that the whole thing was finally finished.

Yet neither the work's spasmodic generation, nor the odd cavil that the finale sounded a bit tacked on, could qualify the total triumph of the first complete performance, which Harty, this time with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, gave on 6 November 1935. Only the initial impact of Elgar's own First Symphony back in 1909 was comparable, and that had been a primarily English affair, whereas Walton's First was immediately taken up internationally - even Mengelberg and Furtwängler sent for scores. Nor was its reception remotely to be matched by any subsequent native symphony - none of Tippett's four or Maxwell Davies's eight, let alone Walton's own eventual Second, which underwhelmed so many when it first appeared in 1960. For another such furore in British music, one can look only to the 1945 premiere of Peter Grimes by Walton's great rival, Benjamin Britten.

So, does it still stand up as arguably the great British symphony? Actually, its provenance was far from exclusively British in the first place. Early listeners immediately recognised what the long pedal points, nervous ostinati and climactic hammer-blows of the first movement owed to Sibelius. The varied meters and grotesque gestures of the scherzo equally derive from Stravinsky and Prokofiev. And the plaintive modal melody of the slow movement begins like some Ravelian pavane, while the finale fugue subject is an almost direct crib from Hindemith. Only the more grandiose sections of the finale sound "English" - out of Parry and Bliss as much as Elgar.

The real wonder, of course, is how almost every bar of this eclectic mix sounds unmistakably like Walton. The boldness of shape of the opening movement - essentially two gigantic galloping crescendos, linked by a slower respite - remains impressive; no less, the tart playfulness and malice of the scherzo. Yet in some ways, the slow movement is most remarkable of all: an almost unbroken line of melody, unfolding through varied moods of lament, nostalgia and anguish over a span of 12 minutes. And if Walton himself wondered whether the finale quite resolved the spiritual turmoil of the previous movements, its ebullient sweep certainly complements in musical character all that has gone before - and with many a not-so-surreptitious thematic link.

True, it remains a tricky 44 minutes to bring off. Although it is orchestrated for forces only a little larger than required in a Brahms symphony, the clotted chromaticism and cumulative density of scoring toward the end of the first movement can easily go blowsily over the top unless articulation and feeling are kept on the tightest rein - likewise the jubilant apotheosis of the finale. Yet, a mite too fast a tempo in the scherzo, and its stinging exactitude will lapse into a scramble, while the heaving romantic climax of the slow movement can sound all too prophetic of the 1940s film scores actually ripped off from it (by Walton himself, among others) unless handled with a saving restraint. And none of those sins has altogether been resisted in the past by Leonard Slatkin, who conducts the work with the BBC SO in the Barbican this Friday (though it is never too late for musical repentance).

And yet, for this listener, first excited by the work as a 14-year-old back in the 1950s, neither the occasional feeling that parts of it protest too much or now sound of their period nor half a century of highly variable performances has ever quite extinguished the unique, visceral charge of Walton's First Symphony.

BBC SO/Slatkin play Walton's First Symphony at the Barbican London EC2 (0845 120 7500; www.barbican.org.uk) on Friday at 7.30pm

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