Tuesday 6 February 2024

William Walton’s Overture: Portsmouth Point

The overture Portsmouth Point was composed between spring and November 1925 and dedicated to the poet Siegfried Sassoon. The immediate inspiration for the Overture was a print made by the English artist, caricaturist and printmaker, Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827), published by T. Tegg in 1814. The etching presents a bustling view of Portsmouth Harbour with a clothes shop on the left-hand side, with a pawnbroker, above. To the right of the image is the Ship Tavern. The fleet in the background is arriving and departing into the port. Ships are being victualled, a busker plays the fiddle, lovers caress and carouse. But note the elderly gentleman in the upstairs window of the inn. He views the scene with equanimity.

David Drew, in the liner note for the 1955 London Philharmonic Orchestra/Adrian Boult recording, (London, LL 1165) explains that formally, “[Portsmouth Point] follows the broad outlines of sonata-form, having a clear-cut exposition (whose thematic material falls into two groups), a short development (the exposition was already developmental - this music has no time for leisure) and a compressed recapitulation. However, the tonal scheme is anything but academic.”

Alan Frank has suggested that “Walton’s Overture is not to be taken realistically in its detail, but it is from beginning to end music of extraordinary liveliness and vigour, often deliberately shrill in scoring: there is no moment of repose. It abounds in cross-rhythms and syncopations: indeed, from a rhythmic point of view it is the most complex piece of music Walton has ever written. We need not be worried by that, nor is technical analysis needed to enjoy the Overture’s stimulating high spirits. Walton has interpreted Rowlandson’s roistering scene in the most vivid musical terms.” (Angel Records ANG.35639)

Constant Lambert stated that “…melodically speaking, the work derives to a certain extent from traditional nautical tunes and from the more breezy English 18th century composers… another melodic influence was the sardanas [communal dances] of Catalonia. The folk dances have nothing in common with the rest of Spanish music, under distinguished by their clear-cut form and vigorous melodic line; the tunes are often curiously English in atmosphere, and therefore their influence has in no way caused an inconsistency of style. From the harmonic point of view the work raises no problems. The style is broadly diatonic, with free use of diatonic discords but with nothing approaching atonality or polytonality, we are presented with neither cliches nor innovations.” (Cited in Ewen, David, The Encyclopaedia of Musical Masterpieces, Grosset and Dunlap, New York, 1949)

Here and there Walton pokes fun at academicism. He uses chords and rhythmical variety that would have raised eyebrows in the 1920s, both at home and abroad. Yet, it is clear that Walton is in full command of his orchestral forces.

The Overture was premiered on 22 June 1926 during the Zurich International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) Festival. The Tonhalle Orchestra was conducted by Volkmar Andreae. Other works heard at that concert included Paul Hindemith's Concerto for orchestra, op. 38, Alfredo Casella's Partita for piano and orchestra, Ernst Levy's Fifth Symphony for violin, trumpet and orchestra, Pierre-Octave Ferroud's Foules for orchestra Alexandre Tansman's Danse de la Sorcière for chamber ensemble.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra/Adrian Boult recording of Walton’s Portsmouth Point can he heard on YouTube, here. A more modern recording with the same orchestra can be found in Leonard Slatkin’s 1988 on the Virgin Classics label (VC7 90715-1). The LP front cover features Thomas Rowlandson’s etching.


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