Why Walton?

As a musician who likes to explore the rare and odd byways of the repertoire as well as play the hits, I’m often asked what has drawn me to program and perform this or that unusual piece.

Depending on the venue and the listener, threshold at which “a piece” becomes  an “unusual piece” might be anything from anything less well known than Beethoven 5 (like, er, Beethoven 4) to the 2nd version of an unpublished juvenile ballet suite by Schnittke’s next-door neighbour’s dog sitter.

Next week I am conducting a piece that I think we can all agree is a rarity for most concert goers, if not all music nerds- William Walton’s Variations on a Theme of Paul Hindemith. So, I thought I would answer the question- why this piece?

The reason is profound and compelling

In about 1994 or 95 I was on a break between rehearsals of the excellent Columbus Symphony and wandered over to the local sheet music store. They had a bin of orchestral scores on sale for 50% off the last marked price. I picked up a few things, including this work. The original price had been marked in pounds (not often you see a £ sign in Ohio shops). At one point it had been going for $35 bucks, a medium price for a study-sized score. There where then about 4 sale stickers, gradually reducing the price to $5.25, so I got it for $2.12.

Although I’d always loved Walton, ever since I got to know the Cello Concerto (still my favourite piece of his), I’d never encountered this work, so as I plunked down 6 quarters, five dimes and 3 nickels and got my 3 cents change, I vowed to program the piece someday in honor of this random occasion.

There wasn’t a recording in CCM’s vast library at the time, but I was finally able to order one through a record store. It was a good piece! My resolve was strengthened!

16 years later, here we are.

In all those years, I kept an ear out for the piece- I finally heard it live last spring here in my adopted home town of Cardiff, when my friend James Judd conducted it with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. It was a great piece of programming- pairing this masterpiece of Walton with the wonderful and rarely heard Cello Concerto by Paul Hindemith, the very work from which the theme of the Walton is taken. The orchestra and soloist were on brilliant form that afternoon, although there were only a few waifs and strays in the audience. Why is it that the better the program, the smaller the crowd? Not to complain- my joy at hearing the piece live was tempered only by my very slight disappointment that James and the band beat me to the Walton.

It’s a pretty tough piece- Walton’s orchestra writing is always extremely demanding,  but this piece seems conceived almost like a concerto for orchestra. Although they were good friends (Hindemith had been the soloist in the premiere of the Walton Viola Concerto), I never really thought their music sounded similar, but it’s fascinating how Walton can blur the line between “Waltonian” and “Hindemithian” styles.

Anyway, I’m doing the piece because I bought it for 2 bucks, and that’s a damn fine reason in my book.

You can buy the critical edition of the Variations and the Partita for Orchestra in a single volume for £160 pounds if you like.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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12 comments on “Why Walton?”

  1. Kenneth Woods

    The upshot of the 16 year wait is that I can no longer read the print at conducting distance and will probably have to enlarge the score. Life…

  2. Sebastian

    After reading your post I discovered that I actually had this piece lying hidden in my iTunes library (it was on the same CD as Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphoses, and I forgot about it!). I’m now enjoying it very much. The best of luck with your performance next week!!

  3. Kenneth Woods

    Over at An Overgrown Path, Pliable has some more reasoned thoughts about Walton and the relative neglect of his music.

    http://www.overgrownpath.com/2010/08/walton-for-record.html

    I’ve been living the UK for some time now, but I don’t hear or get to do a lot of Walton. I’ve heard the Viola Concerto 3 times and conducted it once. I’ve conducted Facade but not heard it live. I’ve heard several performances of the 1st Symphony, and one of the 2nd.

    However, in all my years here, how many times have I heard the Cello Concerto?

    NONE!

    Every time I get a chance to play a concerto as a cellist, I always suggest it (if I think the orchestra has the horses for it). So far, everyone just smiles sweetly and suggests Dvorak. I’d love to conduct it too. Hell, I would love to hear it!

    Same with the Violin Concerto. None

    Never heard the Partita live either.

    Britain’s 3rd greatest ever composer deserves better.

  4. Kenneth Woods

    Sebastian-

    Thank you for the comment. It’s a little scary how these wonderful pieces can sit ignored on the shelf for us all. There is so much more great music out there than anyone realizes.

  5. Danielle

    I LOVE finding scores at discount book stores, rummage sales, and the like. People have no clue what to do with them, and you find them in the oddest places. I found a “Suite of Old American Dances” score in Tennessee for .10 cents. One man’s trash… 🙂

  6. Chris P

    Chris wrote:
    “I take your point and to a certain extent I agree although every composer will have neglected pieces. It is true that “unusual” will largely depend upon the venue and listener – I recall my better half performing the Faure violin sonata a few years back and being told by a member of the audience “that was lovely dear but next time could you play something less modern.” (!!!!!!) They were subsequently treated to Bach and Mozart and harmony was restored.

    I think it is more important to programme works by lesser known composers – let’s be fair, Walton gets more than his fair share of “air time” – in addition to making them known to a wider audience, their work can also put repertoire works into context. For example, a few months back I heard Hans Rott’s Symphony for the first time and it was a revelation as it opened a new door for me onto Mahler’s work.

    This is not in any way to argue against performing works like the “Hindemith Variaitons” but simply to attempt to make a case for considering composers rather than individual works when programming “unusual” pieces – works such as the Walton will work their ways into programmes because they are good works whilst lesser known composers will not get that chance if their music is not heard.”

  7. Chris P

    Whoops, got it wrong again – it was the Franck sonata that was “too modern.”

    Yes, Walton 1 is a fine piece – one of the finest pieces of British orchestral writing in the twentieth century.

  8. Greg A

    I don’t think a single Walton work has been programmed around here in the 17 years I’ve lived in this area. I would love to play the Henry V suite some day.

  9. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Chris!

    Thanks for the interesting comment. I take your point about the urgent need to get the work of new composers heard, be they of today or earlier times, but I think that imperative need not stop us from also continuing to better understand the breadth of work of composers who already have a foothold in the repertoire. As Greg points out, Walton is not getting played regularly in America. The First Symphony is a masterpiece, but it’s long and exceptionally difficult- if more of the short and medium sized works were known, maybe his music would be more widely understood and appreciated.

  10. Mark Lansom

    Let’s do the violin or viola concerto in Wrexham whenever the chance emerges! Hope you think we “have the horses” – great expression Ken

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