Gareth Walters: Welsh composer of fastidious craftsmanship who became an inspirational teacher


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The Independent Online

It sometimes seems that the smaller countries have to be under external threat before they realise what their composers have to offer. Finland took up Sibelius as a symbol of national identity when menaced by the Russians; the Norwegians found Grieg useful in similar circumstances. Perhaps Wales would have paid Gareth Walters in better coin if the English had still been massed along the borders with halberds and pikes.

But Walters would probably have objected to any status he hadn't earned. In autumn 2008, just ahead of his 80th birthday, I was working with him on a CD of his music, to be released on my label, Toccata Classics, at almost exactly the time of his birthday itself – an obvious hook on which to hang the promotion. I was surprised to discover that he wouldn't hear of it; in an age obsessed with youth, his music, he felt, should stand or fall on its own merits, and – with unfashionable integrity and restraint – he didn't want anyone waving flags on his behalf.

Walters was what the Germans call a Kleinmeister – a master of the smaller form. His output contains no oratorios wrestling with the meaning of life nor monumental symphonies inspired by turning-points in history (his only symphony, for example, is a Sinfonia breve, written in 1964); instead, he produced beautifully crafted shorter works, usually informed with considerable lyrical appeal. His best-known piece was the Divertimento for String Orchestra of 1960: ten years later, David Atherton conducted the English Chamber Orchestra in what was to be the first of no fewer than four recordings. The Sinfonia breve was also recorded, as were A Gwent Suite (1959), the ebulliently Waltonian Primavera Overture (1962), his Elegy, a "poem" for string orchestra (1969), and a number of smaller-scale instrumental and chamber works.

Music was part of Walters' life from the beginning. He began to compose as a schoolboy in his native Swansea, receiving early encouragement from Benjamin Britten, a family friend. Three years after entering the Royal Academy of Music in 1949, his horizons were broadened when he won a scholarship to the Conservatoire National in Paris. There he studied with Jean Rivier, "whose kind, avuncular manner disguised a keen sense of musical criticism", as he later recalled, and, in 1953, with Olivier Messiaen, then professor of musical aesthetics – a rather superior term for musical analysis that some might consider a formal and not very absorbing topic; but his quiet enthusiasm for the subject, particularly in relation to the piano music of Ravel and Debussy, and the then – to most of his students – unknown world of plainchant, was a revelation to us all.

In July of the following year he travelled from Paris to Siena, to study at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana, and it was there that he received an offer from London: a teaching post in the Junior Exhibitioner section of the Royal Academy of Music. It was in that capacity that, in the late 1960s and early 70s, he was the first composition teacher of Malcolm Singer, then in his mid-teens, now director of music at the specialist Yehudi Menuhin School for musically gifted children:

He looked at my first attempts at a string quartet, and told me immediately that I was a composer – how encouraging and supportive he was! His approach was gentle, but not uncritical; I remember a fierce but profound argument over word-setting in my first piece for a cappella choir – which syllables one should stress, and why. The issues we debated remain at the core of the tricky matter, and I use this example frequently when I am teaching my students. The unemphatic manner of Walters' music was reflected in his teaching style.

We also had interesting sessions trying to find as many interesting ways as possible to harmonise a scale. His approach was always from a tonal point of view, and I must have seemed an arrogant and unruly pupil. However, his gentle, firm manner was very persuasive and I owe him a great deal for my initial grounding as a composer.

Walters was also concerned with the practicalities of life as a musician, taking Singer to experience his first recording session, with the BBC Concert Orchestra at Golders Green Hippodrome. In spring this year, four decades later, Singer was able to return the compliment, inviting Walters to the Menuhin School to hear him conduct a live broadcast with the same orchestra.

In 1956 he joined the BBC as a producer – the third principal strand of his professional life. Though he retired from the BBC at the mandatory 60, his involvement with music education continued, principally as an examiner for the Associated Board. He was also involved in concert administration, not least for the Gower Festival in south Wales, which allowed him to offer a platform to the young musicians of the Menuhin School on several occasions.

Walters might have written more if he had been more selfish with his time; the works that did escape the demands of his other two professions show an astute judgement of instrumental colour, an ability to evoke atmosphere with often limited resources, and a Britten-like response to the texts he set, some in Welsh, others in French. As with many other Celtic composers, his music often suggests autumnal landscapes – although it always retained the Gallic clarity underlined by his years in Paris.

Walters also extended his hand to the composition of "stock" music for background use in radio, TV and films, writing pastiche dances for harpsichord: minuets, rigaudons, sarabandes, gavottes and the like. He and his wife enjoyed devising colourful names for them: "Lord Watkyn's Daunce" and "Dr Butts his Gigge" were two such.

The personality I discovered as we worked on that CD of instrumental and chamber music and songs – the first ever all-Walters release – was consistent with the music it produced: quietly individual, informed with a gentle humour and just a hint of inner strength. Malcolm Singer put him in a nutshell: "His ear was acute, and his judgement always measured and wise".

Martin Anderson

Gareth Walters, composer, radio producer and teacher; born Swansea 27 December 1928; married 1969 Glenys Jones; died Kingston, Surrey 31 May 2012.