23 FEBRUARY 2002, Page 42

Falling out of love with music

Fiona Maddocks

SELECTED LETTERS OF WILLIAM WALTON edited by Malcolm Hayes Faber, .130 pp. 526, ISBN 0571201059 WILLIAM WALTON: THE ROMANTIC LONER by Humphrey Burton and Maureen Murray OUP, 125, pp. 182, ISBN 0198162359

hat kind of composer would William Walton have been had he not fallen in with the Sitwells? Facade, his celebrated setting of poems by Edith, would not exist. After Oxford, where he failed to take his degree, he might have retreated to Oldham and written anthems. Instead he turned his back on the industrial Lancashire of his childhood (details of which remain a mystery) and transformed himself into a young blade about town, taking a room in the Sitwells' Carlyle Square house and learning about life, Judging by comments made by the Sitwells about their long-term lodger, they taught him how to handle his knife as well as how to cut through high society. He embarked on a string of hopeless affairs with grand women, the bigger the title the better. In his memoir Laughter in the Next Room, Osbert wrote, a jot patronisingly:

We were able to keep [Walton] in touch with the vital works of the age, with the music, for example, of Stravinsky.. . . Moreover by travelling in our company in Italy, Spain and Germany, he soon acquired a knowledge of the arts.

We should all be glad of such friends.

In a year relatively quiet for composer anniversaries. Walton is enjoying an extravagant splash of interest. Numerous concerts are planned. Every work, major and minor (more exist of the latter), is on offer. Choral societies love Belshazzar's Feast. All are singing it. His film-score for Henry V (Olivier was a close friend) is on every British orchestra's schedule. Of greatest value, however, is Faber's new collection of letters, wisely edited by Malcolm Hayes, thoroughly annotated and with brief, linking biography. About a quarter of the existing correspondence has been chosen. For the specialist, the painful exchanges with the poet Christopher Hassall, his librettist for Troilus and Cressida, have been reproduced at length. Walton spent seven years agonising over this lush, romantic and lopsided opera, only to have it disappointingly performed (under Malcolm Sargent) and damply received. That the work is now creeping back into the repertoire says more about changing taste than for Walton's failure: tunes were not in vogue in 1954.

Fortunately for posterity, he lived for the second half of his life on an Italian island with limited access to a telephone. His dozens of letters from Ischia form the bulk of this selection. The London years, more exciting biographically, are less plentifully represented. His writing style — unlike his lyrically inclined music — is terse, crisp, often vicious. What he says to one person is not always what he thinks, as other letters reveal. The success of Britten, his younger and more gifted colleague, clearly rankled, even though he writes to the composer in terms of friendship and admiration. Aldeburgh, Britten's festival, becomes `Aldebugger'. and Walton makes several sharp asides about Britten's success corn pared with his own.

The early scribbles home to his mother in Oldham have schoolboy charm, but by the time he has settled into a new 'family' this correspondence dwindles. In December 1929, writing from Carlyle Square, he apologises to his mother for the long delay in replying to hers but the truth is, there has not been anything of interest to tell you'. A year later he makes the same excuse from Amalfi: 'Really I have had nothing much to tell you, as life is very quiet here.' (Can life with the Sitwells, with whom he was again staying, ever have been less than vivid?) He pleads the opposite in his next letter: 'As you may have realised, I have been most frightfully busy.' Idle or occupied, his family is out of the picture.

The chief question asked about Walton is whether he fulfilled the promise of those gilded early years. The Sitwells and their crowd had certainly acted as a muse. Siegfried Sassoon relieved him of financial worries (the begging letters to him are shameless). Despite the endless cocktail parties and gambols with the likes of Constant Lambert, the Morrells, Philip Heseltine (better known as the composer Peter Warlock) he was never more productive. His finest works date from this period or soon after: the Viola Concerto came in 1929 with Belshazzar's Feast, to a text by Osbert Sitwell, two years later. By 1934, when Walton struggled to complete his First Symphony, he was beginning to find the business of living too much of a distraction. Here the problem was his latest girlfriend. Baroness Imma von Doernberg. (Soon he was to take another — married — lover, Alice, Viscountess Wimborne. She was 22 years his senior.)

In the second half of his long life (he died in 1983 at the age of 80), living relatively calmly in Ischia with his Argentinian wife Susana, he was still short of money. His letters quibble over tobacco bills, the exchange rate, taxation. Health is a preoccupation. He also battled against every kind of composer's block. To Malcolm Arnold he writes, 'No sign of a tune. Every time I think of one I find I've written it before', and later, with anger:

I've let myself in for this fucking piece for the RFH [Royal Festival Hall] . . . Ideas are sparse, bare and ugly so 'per forza' I think I shall have to give it up.

If he took pleasure in what he wrote, he rarely admitted it. These bristly, fascinating letters reveal a man driven by ambition but apparently out of love with his muse.

In William Walton: The Romantic Loner, Humphrey Burton and Maureen Murray have compiled a generous assortment of pictures, press-cuttings and memorabilia which put Walton in context. If the layout is at times effortful, it at least achieves the desired scrap-book effect. The racy narrative tends to get lost amid the pictures. but long captions tell their own story. The bibliography and list of works are a bonus

which make the lack of an index puzzling. An image from 1927 of the soigné, almost effete young man lazing with Stephen Tennant. Georgia Sitwell, Cecil Beaton and others, all got up as shepherds, places Walton at the centre of an intriguing circle of Bright Young Things. Beaton's 'Jazz Age' portrait of Walton, face half in shadow, captures the mood. The first reviews of Façade (1922) make acid reading:

Poetry through a megaphone — Miss Edith Sitwell monotones her own lines with musical accompaniment. Foghorn effect. Usual audience. Long-haired men, short-haired women.

Those who attend modern music concerts may recognise the picture.