WALTON: The Twelve / Coronation Te Deum / Missa Brevis

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William Walton (1902-1983)

The Twelve • Coronation Te Deum • Missa Brevis

William Walton spanned a compositional divide in twentieth-century British composition. Before the Second World War, as audiences looked forward from the era of Elgar and Holst, he was regarded as the great new hope of British music, with his jazzy rhythms, his bravura orchestration and astringent harmonies. After the war, the rise of European modernism made Walton look like a conservative force and he consequently fell from critical favour. Thankfully, history tends to be a less partisan judge of composers than contemporary music criticism, and his reputation is now much restored.

In the sphere of Walton’s sacred choral music, the facts speak plainly. Working over a span of some sixty years, he created a relatively small corpus which includes some of the finest works in the Anglican canon, writing anthems and canticles which are still performed and admired in churches and cathedrals throughout the English-speaking world.

William Walton as musician and composer first sprang to life through the music of the Anglican Church. His father was the choirmaster at the local church in Oldham, where William served an early apprenticeship as a young chorister. His voice and musicianship proved sufficient to secure him admission to the choir at Christ Church, Oxford. We cannot know if the experience of total immersion in the world of the Anglican Church left him a deeply religious man. It would appear that Walton, in common with Vaughan Williams, Britten and Tippett, who all wrote glorious choral music, had little "belief" in the conventional sense, although a deep sense of spirituality gives his work its force and memorability.

Choristership at Christ Church, Oxford revealed Walton’s promise as a musician and was followed by unusually early entrance to the college as an undergraduate at the age of just sixteen. The heady experience of college life in one so young may have served to blunt his academic edge (he never did secure a degree from Oxford), but it did seal a friendship with the influential Sitwell family, which was to have lasting benefits for his development as a composer.

Given this background, there can be little surprise that choral music became a natural first mode of expression for the developing composer as an adolescent and that he returned to the genre at intervals throughout his long career. It is nonetheless astonishing that a deeply expressive work of chiselled perfection such as A Litany (Drop, drop slow tears) could be penned by a schoolboy of a mere fifteen years of age.

Almost sixty years later, this elder statesman of English composition, honoured now with an Order of Merit, was still able to respond afresh to those mainstays of Anglican Evensong, the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis. This commission sprang from Walter Hussey, Dean at Chichester Cathedral, to whom twentieth-century choral music owes a deep debt; everything from Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb to Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms owes its provenance to his commitment and tenacity. The Magnificat combines a fresh insight on familiar texts with a natural sense of pace and drama; the Nunc Dimittis deploys the bass voice to offer up Simeon’s quiet intercession to the Almighty.

Three of the works on this recording, The Twelve, A Litany and Jubilate Deo, were either written for or first performed at Christ Church, and it is true to say that his choral music bears the hallmarks of the sound world that formed him there, in one of Britain’s smallest cathedrals: a sound which is punchy and immediate, altogether distinct from the distant halo of sounds usually associated with cathedral music. For example, the miniature epic The Twelve would be out of place in a larger acoustic, but in a college chapel such as St John’s in Cambridge, acoustically similar to Christ Church, it is shown off to best advantage, its climax as innovative as it is ecstatic, with words and music combining to dazzling effect. The work had been a collaboration with his friend, the poet W.H.Auden.

The sharply-etched musical response to language which Walton displayed in The Twelve runs as a common thread throughout the English musical renaissance, from Warlock to Britten and from Finzi to Howells. Perhaps with this thought in mind, the Trustees of the Henry Wood Memorial Fund commissioned a poem from John Masefield for Walton to set to music. The resulting 1946 anthem, Where does the uttered music go?, celebrates the life of Henry Wood, founder of the London Promenade Concerts. Masefield’s thought-provoking poem inspired Walton to forge one of his most searching works, touching on the ephemeral nature of music itself.

Walton, however, did not require his texts to be English to fire his musical imagination. For the 1974 Cork International Choral Festival, he alighted upon a prayer in Italian by Saint Francis of Assisi, resulting in the anthem Cantico del Sole. It should be added that Walton and his Argentinian-born wife Susana had long been resident on the beautiful Italian island of Ischia.

The Coronation Te Deum, which opens the present recording, signals in its very title alone the establishment status that mid-career Walton had achieved in British musical life, commissioned here to write a choral paean to celebrate the start of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign in 1952. Here it is performed in the frequently-heard arrangement by Simon Preston with organ reduction by Mark Blatchly. The original featured orchestra, organ and large choruses of voices split into groups for antiphonal effect. Even in its more modest form, the work retains its innate sense of grandeur and occasion, and a festive feeling it shares with works such as Belshazzar’s Feast.

An accompanying Jubilate Deo actually came almost twenty years later in 1972, when it was first performed at Christ Church in Oxford. A descending scale on the organ, sounding like a peal of bells after a Sunday cathedral service, opens the work. This powerful musical idea is taken over by the choir at "Serve the Lord with gladness", where they ring out this descending scale in antiphonal effect, each entry taking over from the last. This is a powerful example of Walton at his jubilant best.

The 1938 anthem Set me as a seal shows another side to Walton. This perfectly-honed jewel was the kind of piece he might have laboured to perfect over weeks and months, for all its two-minute duration. The resulting wedding-anthem is a still moment of peace and invocation.

Antiphon, a setting of George Herbert’s poem, is the most recent work to be composed in this collection. It has tended to be overshadowed in the English choral canon by Vaughan Williams’ setting of the same words. Dating from 1977, Walton’s piece celebrated the 150th Anniversary of St Paul’s Church, Rochester, New York.

The Missa Brevis was written in 1966 for the Friends of the new Coventry Cathedral. At seven minutes duration, this is indeed a "short Mass", but highly effective in liturgical context, with its memorably angular melodies, acerbic harmonies and taut structure. It shows a typical Walton flair, the composing voice so secure that it might have been written at any stage between 1917 and 1977. Without parading its innovation, the music has an unforced harmonic and melodic originality. It manages to carve out space to create a still centre. Moreover, at its razor-sharp best, it is powerful and arresting, fusing words and music in a way which is unrivalled in English choral repertoire.

Barry Holden

Disc: 1
Missa Brevis
1 Coronation Te Deum (arr. S. Preston and M. Blatchl
2 A Litany: Drop, drop slow tears
3 Magnificat
4 Nunc Dimittis
5 Where does the uttered music go?
6 Jubilate Deo
7 Henry V: Touch her soft lips and part (arr. I. Far
8 Cantico del Sole
9 Henry V: Passacaglia "Death of Falstaff" (arr. I.
10 The Twelve
11 Set me as a seal upon thine heart
12 Antiphon
13 Kyrie
14 Sanctus and Benedictus
15 Agnus Dei
16 Gloria
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