Sir William Turner Walton (1902-1983) was one of the principal composers among the enlightened conservatives of 20th-century England.
William Walton received his first music lessons from his father, who was a singing teacher. At the age of 10 William was enrolled in the Cathedral Choir School at Oxford; at 16 he entered the university, where it appears that he received little systematic training in music. From an early age, however, he was composing, and this self-tutelage must have been effective, for at 20 he wrote a String Quartet that was accepted for performance at a Festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music. In the same year (1922) he collaborated rated with the poet Edith Sitwell on Facade, a clever "entertainment" for speaking voice and six instrumental players, which epitomizes certain aspects of the smart set in the era after World War I.
During the next decade Walton's reputation was solidly established with a lively overture about ships and sailors entitled Portsmouth Point (1925); a Sinfonia concertante for orchestra and piano (1927); a Concerto for viola (1929), which is one of the few important solo works for that instrument; and Belshazzar's Feast (1931), a vivid and very popular addition to the long line of English oratorios. From then on he continued to compose steadily in an unhurried fashion and usually on commission or with distinguished sponsorship which ensured performance. Although his catalog after Belshazzar was not long, the items are substantial. In addition to a few songs, marches and incidental and film music, there are the large works, including two Symphonies (1935, 1960), a Concerto for violin (1939), a ballet entitled The Quest (1943), a second String Quartet (1947), a Sonata for violin and piano (1949), the opera Troilus and Cressida (1954), a Concerto for cello (1956), a Partita for orchestra (1958), the orchestral Variations on a Theme by Hindemith (1963), a Missa brevis (1966), the one-act extravaganza The Bear (1967) and Capriccio burlesco for orchestra (1969).
Walton composed slowly and meticulously. Paul Hindemith complimented him on the "honest solidity of workmanship" in his scores; yet they do not give a labored effect, for a rhythmic vigor permeates everything Walton wrote. His style is also marked by a harmonic idiom that is tonal though modernized and a preference for melodic lines of considerable amplitude as against the highly condensed mode of the post-Anton Webern school. In Troilus, for example, Walton said that he wanted to write a bel canto, or "singing" opera, which in his case is more a statement of artistic independence than merely a look backward.
Walton's music shows that he knew what other composers were doing in the 20th century and profited from observation of such diverse men as Hindemith, Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, and Jean Sibelius. Nevertheless, Walton did not subscribe to any cult or try to be especially English in his work.
Knighted in 1951, he died March 8, 1983, at his home on Ischia, an island off the coast of Italy.
Walton's general position in the modern music world is sketched in Joseph Machlis, Introduction to Contemporary Music (1961), and his place among English composers is described in Frank Howes, The English Musical Renaissance (1966). For a detailed analysis of his music see Frank Howes, The Music of William Walton (1965).