The first version of William Walton’s great march ‘Crown Imperial’ that I owned was Sir Adrian Boult’s 1977 recording on HMV (ASD 3388). I had heard the piece on the radio a number of times, presumably in one of the many recordings of this piece that have been made over the years. A school friend owned an album, with a garish cover, of Andrew Davis conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a number of ‘regal’ pieces. (Classics for Pleasure CFP198, 1972, CDCFP 5014, 1996)
The Boult recording was special to me as it filled a number of gaps. Here for the first time on LP was Edward Elgar’s 'Empire March', composed for the 1924 Wembley Festival: not one of his best, but certainly a desirable commodity. Other works on this album include all five of Elgar’s 'Pomp and Circumstance' Marches, the 'Imperial March' as well as Walton’s ‘Orb and Sceptre’ March.
The history of ‘Crown Imperial’ is relatively well-known. It was written between February and April, 1937, ostensibly for Edward VII’s Coronation, however, after he abdicated it was recycled by Walton for George VI.
The March was first recorded at the Kingsway Hall on 16 April 1937, with Boult conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra. This was released on HMV DB 3164 and subsequently reissued on CD (BEULAH 2PD12,1996). The March was later broadcast on 9 May by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Clarence Raybould.
‘Crown Imperial’ was first heard publicly at Westminster Abbey at the Coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth on the 12 May 1937. The Coronation Orchestra was conducted by Boult with Sir Edward Bullock on the organ. It was played at the entrance of the dowager Queen Mary and Queen Maud of Norway. It was surely a special event for the conductor in more ways than one: The Coronation honours list included Adrian Boult’s knighthood.
The score of Crown Imperial is prefaced by a quotation from William Dunbar’s (?1460-c.1520) poem ‘In Honour of the City of London’: ‘In beawtie berying the crone imperiall.’ Spelling was not quite as fixed in those days as it is now. It is interesting that around this time Walton was making a setting of the poem for the 1937 Leeds Festival. On the other hand, the composer suggested that it derived its title (and that of the 1953 ‘Orb and Sceptre’ March) from William Shakespeare’s Henry V: ‘Tis not the balm, the sceptre and the ball, The sword, the mace, the crown imperial, The intertissued robe of gold and pearl…’
The liner notes for the LP by Michael Kennedy state that ‘if the outward manner [of the march] is Elgarian, the style is unmistakable Waltonian in its combination of jauntiness and majesty.’ This is especially clear in the massive chords in the work’s coda.
The reviewer (T.H.) in The Gramophone (October 1977) felt that ‘nine marches on end being several too many…’. He recognises that they do not have to be listened end to end (I agree!) and he is impressed that HMV have managed to get the ‘complete Pomp and Circumstance set on to one side.’ Considering the Walton marches, although he ‘admires them greatly…they are perhaps overlong just to listen to.’ He concludes by stating that the ‘recording has both depth and vividness.’
The 1977 recording was made at the Kingsway Hall, London on 10 January.