WALTON: Quest / The Wise Virgins

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William Walton (1902-1983)

The Quest • Siesta • The Wise Virgins

Walton’s characterful and highly theatrical score for his only original ballet, The Quest, is the most enigmatic of his entire œuvre. At forty minutes duration it constitutes one of his half-dozen most substantial works, yet since the limited run of the original production in 1943 it has received only two further performances, a first recording in 1990 and the present one. Part of the explanation lies in the fact that, in the confusion of wartime, Walton and the ballet company lost track of its whereabouts; only in 1958 was the score rediscovered in a warehouse in North London.

In 1943 the Sadler’s Wells Ballet was in a very low state of morale because its chief choreographer, Frederick Ashton, had for two years been serving as an intelligence officer in the RAF. Thanks to the efforts of Kenneth Clark, the distinguished art historian, later author of the television series Civilization, he was suddenly given six week’s leave to create a new ballet for the company. Ashton decided that Walton was the obvious choice of composer for a major new score, and to inspire and assist him, made a detailed timed synopsis of what was required, which Walton was to follow remarkably closely.

Less obvious was the subject matter that Ashton chose for his new ballet. This was a scenario prepared by his friend the writer Doris Langley Moore that was derived from the allegorical poem The Faerie Queene by Shakespeare’s contemporary Edmund Spenser. Intractable material for a ballet, it might be thought, but as it featured St George and presented in graphic form the conflict between good and evil, it provided a good opportunity to present a morale-boosting patriotic spectacle at a low point in the war.

The conditions under which the ballet was created were far from ideal, quite apart from the very tight schedule imposed by the limitations of Ashton’s leave. The company was on tour, while Walton was living in rural Northamptonshire. Getting the piano score of each hurriedly composed section to Ashton and the company was fraught with difficulty, and the composer frequently had to resort to bribing guards on trains to act as couriers.

Eventually choreography, orchestration and design came together, and the ballet received its première on 6th April 1943 at the New Theatre, London. Ninette de Valois’ Sadler’s Wells Company danced, scenery and costumes were by John Piper, Constant Lambert conducted and the cast included Margot Fonteyn, Beryl Grey, Moira Shearer and Robert Helpmann. Sadly the production failed to impress and did not stay long in the repertory, although both Ashton and Walton found an opportunity to tighten its structure.

A brief outline of the complex plot is as follows:

Scene I. 1 Lost in a storm, St George, personifying Holiness [1:32] and Una (Truth) fall under the spell of the magician Archimago (Hypocrisy). Una dances a weary Siciliana [2:07], and she and St George fall asleep. Archimago transforms his female servant into an evil semblance of Una [4:29], but after her dance of seduction with St George [5:29] he rejects her. The angry Archimago makes his male servant lie with the false Una and summons St George to observe them; he leaves in disgust [7:05]. Una enters [7:32] vainly searching for St George, then leaves. Furious at finding her gone, Archimago disguises himself in armour like that of St George [8:14].

Scene II. 2 The three knights Sansloy (Lawless), Sansjoy (Joyless) and Sansfoy (Faithless) dance to compete for the hand of Duessa (Falsehood). St George enters [3:19], fights and kills Sansfoy. He leaves with Duessa. Una enters, still searching for St George, then falls asleep. Archimago, as the false St George [5:40], wakes Una and leaves with her.

Scene III. 3 Pride is discovered on her throne, surrounded by the other deadly sins. 4 Each sin then dances. 5 St George enters with Duessa; they dance. Sansloy enters and St George fights and kills him. St George is repelled and disillusioned by what he has observed.

Scene IV. 6 Sansjoy mourns the death of his two brothers. Archimago enters, still disguised as St George [1:25]. Sansjoy kills him and then performs an impassioned dance of seduction with Una [1:47]. St George enters [2:23], kills Sansjoy and is reunited with Una.

Scene V. 7 Faith, Hope and Charity dance with attendant virtues. St George and Una enter and dance together [1:20]. St George is reminded of his duties; after putting on his armour again and pledging himself to England, he bids farewell to Una [3:53] and, in an imposing apotheosis, departs on his quest.

Siesta, for small orchestra, was composed in 1926 shortly after Walton’s first orchestral work, the overture Portsmouth Point. Very little is known about its origins, but it clearly derives in some measure from the young Walton’s already established devotion to Southern Italy. It could well be that the piece has a hidden programme; otherwise the sudden loud interjections and frequent false relations hardly suggest the average siesta. Walton revised it in 1962 and retained a soft spot for it to the end of his life. Ashton twice used the score as the basis for an occasional pas de deux, once in 1936 and again, for a celebration of Walton’s seventieth birthday, in 1972.

Walton’s orchestrations of J.S. Bach for The Wise Virgins were commissioned by the Vic-Wells Ballet, as it was then called, in 1940. Frederick Ashton had set himself the wartime task of reading the entire Bible, and conceived the idea of choreographing the parable of the wise and foolish virgins from Matthew XXV. Constant Lambert selected eight appropriate numbers from Bach’s Cantatas and Chorale Preludes, most of which were available in existing piano transcriptions, and Walton was invited to orchestrate them. The ballet was first performed under Lambert at Sadler’s Wells Theatre on 24th April 1940 with impressive designs by Rex Whistler, and with Margot Fonteyn as the Bride and Michael Somes as the Bridegroom; it achieved a solid success. Although Walton uses a full symphony orchestra, his arrangements are notable for their imagination and avoidance of vulgarity. He made and recorded the six-movement suite from the ballet in the same year. It is interesting to note that the celebrated ‘Sheep may safely graze where a good shepherd watches’, which conveys such an atmosphere of piety, in fact comes from a secular cantata written in praise of a local Duke, who is likened to the shepherd.

Hugh Priory



Conductor’s Note

For the 1990 première recording of The Quest, the late Christopher Palmer prepared an edition which considerably expanded Walton’s orchestration, written for slightly reduced wartime forces, especially in the matter of added brass, percussion and piano; it also introduced a number of additional dynamic effects. The present recording presents Walton’s original orchestration, though with reference to the modest augmentations that he made when the short Suite from the ballet was published in 1962. The other important difference is that it incorporates the cuts, mainly in Scenes 1 and 4 and amounting to some sixty bars, that Walton subsequently insisted on introducing to his hurriedly composed score, while at the same time restoring some bars missing from the Palmer edition. This hitherto unknown list of cuts is preserved in the Walton Museum, Ischia.


Chairman Dame Beryl Grey DBE

The Royal Ba
Item number 8555868
Barcode 747313586820
Release date 05/01/2002
Category 20th Century
Label Naxos Classics
Media type CD
Number of units 1
Composers Walton, William
Walton, William
Conductors Lloyd-Jones, David
Lloyd-Jones, David
Orchestras English Northern Philharmonia
English Northern Philharmonia
Disc: 1
The Wise Virgins (Ballet Suite after J.S. Bach)
1 Scene 1: Outside the house of Archimago
2 Scene 2: Near the Palace of Pride
3 Scene 3: The Palace of Pride - opening scene
4 Scene 3: The Seven Deadly Sins: Variations 1 - 7
5 Scene 3: The Palace of Pride - concluding scene
6 Scene 4: Near the Palace of Pride
7 Scene 5: The House of Holiness
8 Siesta
9 What God hath done is rightly done (Cantata 199)
10 Lord, hear my longing (Chorale Prelude, 'Herzlich
11 See what His love can do (Cantata 85)
12 Ah! How ephemeral (Cantata 26)
13 Sheep may safely graze (Cantata 208)
14 Praise be to God (Cantata 129)
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