'You'll be very surprised: I'm going to marry you'
The time: November 1948 The place: Buenos Aires The woman: Susana (now Lady) Walton; Revelations
Tuesday 04 March 1997
Anyhow, I persisted, I had my job; and we got a letter from London office, telling us to take care of this eminent composer, arriving as a guest of the Performing Rights Society. They were trying to get Peron to sign the international agreement, because in Argentina everything was done on the radio and in the theatre, and books were translated and nobody got a penny.
The first thing I did was organise a press conference for William Walton in the Music Centre - the British Council had a very beautiful music centre. And it was so amusing, this press conference, because the head of the Performing Rights Society was Leslie Boosey, head of the publishers of William's - let's say - rival, Benjamin Britten. But they got on frightfully well. And because he was the president of the society, Leslie thought he should be at the press conference.
He was shorter than William and stood in front of him, so the journalists had to talk through Leslie Boosey, who answered most of the questions. "Who is the most popular composer today in Britain today?" "Benjamin Britten". William was in stitches; he thought it was the funniest thing, a press conference taken from beneath his very nose by Leslie Boosey, and he had time to look around.
I was at the back of the hall. To my intense surprise, the press conference finishes, William comes towards me, and says "You'll be very surprised to hear I am going to marry you." And I said, "Oh, don't be ridiculous, Dr Walton." It was so unnerving. He didn't know who I was, he didn't know if I spoke his language, if I was already married, nothing. He didn't know anything. We had not met.
He was very, very clever. For the next two weeks, he came every morning and took me out to see museums and do shopping. And he said, "Have you thought about it? Are you going to marry me?" I always treated it as a huge joke, ha ha.
Then one day he didn't say a word. I got very worried, and said, "William, something's wrong today. You haven't asked me to marry you." And he said, "Oh, I'm not going to do that. I've done it for two weeks, you've taken it as the hugest joke in the world, and that's it, thank you very much." And I said, "Oh dear, that's not very good. Maybe if you tried once more, this time is the lucky one." And so then we were engaged.
In those two weeks I got accustomed to having William there, and I thought, this is awful, I can't lose this man. That's why he was so clever, because he must have planned it.
I thought he was terribly attractive. Of course he was much older: he was 49, I was 22. There must have been an element of the strangeness, somebody from another culture - William was entirely British and I had never come into contact with that side of the world.
He was very witty, enormously amusing. He has a famous work, Facade, that is like a glass of champagne, and William was like a glass of champagne: you never knew what the next bubble was going to produce.
We married within a month in Buenos Aires, and my whole family fell down in a faint, because "What does this man do for a living?", and "You can't marry an Englishman", and "This is ridiculous, you're leaving everything, your friends, your background, everything". And I couldn't care a hoot what I was leaving.
We came to England and the day before we landed he said: "By the way, we're not going to live in London and have a good time, we're going to live in the Bay of Naples."
At the age of 17 he had been taken by the Sitwells, who were his patrons, to Amalfi on that beautiful coast south of Naples, and the impression was so strong that he never forgot it. So coming back from Buenos Aires, safely married, he thought, now at last I can do what I want to do, that is, to write music, sit down and isolate myself. So that's where we went. And that's where we stayed.
The Bay of Naples I didn't think much of - at that time it was complete chaos. There was no food on the island, Ischia: they still couldn't fish because of sea mines, so one had to send a little man over to Naples to buy carrots and essentials.They'd never seen butter, they'd never seen parmigiano, because they had goats' cheese to grate.
I thought, God, where have we got to? But William thought it was great, because he worked for six months without seeing a single human being - wives don't count. I embroidered for hours, I cooked, I shopped. When he finished Troilus and Cressida, after five years, I thought we'd return to London.
Not a bit of it; he wanted to continue. I said: "Darling, I quite agree, marvellous idea, but I must have something of my own. I can't live like this." So we started buying the land to build a house and I started the garden. I was always a bit of a loony for plants.
We came to London twice a year. William was given the Order of Merit, and at that time, the others were Kenneth Clark, Henry Moore, Freddie Ashton, Larry Olivier. All his friends were OMs; it was like a private club.
I wasn't musical, but I joined a choir, because I thought I must do something. William said: "But I have only married you because you have one virtue, that is not to know anything about music. Please keep it like that." So then, you see I relaxed.
Years later, I said, "William, how did you dare put your life on a razor- blade? You didn't know what this young woman would do. She'd never been to Europe - you don't know how people react. How did you actually have the courage to ask me to get married?"
He said, "There was no problem attached. I had a vision. I saw my life, you were in it, so it had to happen." I said, "Well, all right, have you ever had that vision before?" And he said, "Yes, I had this vision before."
And 15 years before, he had met the most unsuitable person who was a very beautiful woman, immensely wealthy, married, at the top of society, called Alice. They had 15 years of the happiest, adorable relationship. She was married, but her family was delighted that Alice was happy - - and she took care of William for 15 years. And then she died of cancer, in May.
So he came to Buenos Aires and, for the first time he was free to get married, and he had enough money to do so. As a young man he couldn't take any responsibilities because he didn't know where the next crust of bread was coming from.
We were married for 35 years and we built this marvellous property in Italy that has a lovely garden full of exotic plants. William decided he wanted the property to survive, to help young people. So I opened it to the public, and built a recital hall where there is a little Walton museum and where we have the masterclass every year. It is now getting better known - in fact on Ischia it is a thing to see now: the archaeological site, the old castle and us. It's very thrilling first of all to have this life, and now have this property as a memorial for Williamn
The fifth Oldham Walton Festival is in Oldham, 21-23 March (tickets, 0161-911-4072).
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