Friday, 6 January 2012

Neville Cardus on William Walton & British Music

I recently found the following comments about William Walton in the ‘Autobiography’ of Neville Cardus. They are worth posting. In his day, Cardus was regarded as being equally important on the worlds of Music and Cricket. (See the extract from Wikipedia below). His thoughts concern the Symphony in B flat minor completed by Walton in 1935 and the lack of ‘passion’ in contemporary (1946) British music.  

‘As proof that I was not, as Manchester Guardian [1] men in bulk are said to be, a friend of every country but his own I must record here that I welcomed with arms not less open than those of my colleagues the advent of an English composition not debilitated and merely ‘cultured.’ Already in 1931 I had praised Belshazzar's Feast [2] in enthusiastic language: ‘It is certain,’ I wrote, after the first stupendous performance at Leeds under Malcolm Sargent, ‘that nowhere on the Continent of Europe at the present time would one be likely to hear a composition of more convincing power than Walton's Belshazzar's Feast.’
To my sorrow and no doubt to my loss, the Walton Symphony has not retained for me its power; the vitality I feel has too quickly hardened into a formula of insistent rhythm and harmonic emphasis, with an obvious disinclination to be easeful, quiet and simple. But at least Walton composes like a man with something to say, even if he is in labour while saying it. [3]
The output of his contemporaries is destined before we are much older to go the way of the mightily conceived tone-poems and choral odes and music dramas of Holbrooke, Bantock, Holst [4] and the rest. If only our Brittens and Tippets and Berkeleys [5] could think of a single melody that would take possession of the memory, one chord that would once and for all pierce the musical consciousness. If only they could hurl us, whether we were ready to be hurled or not, into a new work-as Strauss hurled his contemporaries into Rosenkavalier at one swift attack of the horns, or as Elgar hurled us into the Violin Concerto. Even the admirers of our present-day ‘protégés’ don't pretend they are ever ‘hurled’ rather, they are persuaded by taste and fashion to give their cultured ears to the various ‘Diversions’ and ‘Sinfonias’ and ‘Sinfoniettas’ and the rest. By the side of Kodaly's Psalmus Hunqaricus even the Belshazzar of Walton is the Old Testament in musical Technicolor. I can think of few examples of convincing English music composed in the last dozen years or so.
Neville Cardus Autobiography (1947) p.262 (with minor edits)

Sir John Frederick Neville Cardus CBE (3 April 1888 – 28 February 1975) was an English writer and critic, best known for his writing on music and cricket. For many years, he wrote for The Manchester Guardian. He was untrained in music, and his style of criticism was subjective, romantic and personal, in contrast with his critical contemporary Ernest Newman. Before becoming a cricket writer, he had been a cricket coach at a boys' school. His writing about the game was innovative; turning what had previously been in general a purely factual form into vivid description and criticism.  Wikipedia

[1] Manchester Guardian was founded in 1821. In 1959 the title was changed to The Guardian to reflect ‘its national distribution and news coverage.’ The offices were relocated in London.
[2] As noted, the Belshazzar's Feast was first given at the Leeds Festival on October 8 1931. The work has remained one of Walton's best loved works and is one of the most popular works in the English choral repertoire.
[3] Interestingly, there are some 30 recordings of Walton’s First Symphony in the catalogues. This compares to 12 recordings for the Second Symphony.  William Hedley writing in the pages of MusicWeb International sums up the current critical acceptance that Walton’s First is a masterpiece:-
'The earliest performance is that of the First Symphony, set down in 1951 with Walter Legge as producer. What a work it is! Walton reportedly had trouble finding a way of ending it, and the first performance was given without the finale. In spite of its somewhat episodic structure, and even a bit of note-spinning, I have never subscribed to the view that the finale is an anti-climax. The slow, triple-time opening is wonderfully majestic, and the close, with its cruelly taxing trumpet solo, is as impressive a symphonic peroration as one will hear anywhere. The third, slow movement is marked to be played “with melancholy”, and the second movement scherzo “with malice”! This is all wonderful music, but the first movement is the most impressive of all. A quarter hour of constant development of two short motifs, it seems to have been conceived in, as it were, a single breath.'
[4] Bantock and Holbrooke have been reappraised in our day, and are not found wanting. The ‘mightily conceived tone-poems and choral odes and music dramas’ are beginning to establish themselves in the repertoire – at least amongst British music enthusiasts.  I wonder which works he is referring to in regard to Gustav Holst?
[5] Nowadays we would not criticise these composers for not ‘hurling’ the listener. However we can possibly see where Cardus was coming from. 

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