2016-01-31 Notes from the Bench

“Jubilate Deo” by William Walton

A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James T. Gerber, Music Associate


Sir William Turner Walton (March 29, 1902 – March 8, 1983) was a twentieth century English composer who wrote music of various styles and genres over a sixty-year career, writing symphonies, concertos, chamber music, a choral works, and music for films.

“Jubliate Deo” was written between 1971 and 1972 for the English Bach Festival and was premiered on April 22, 1972 in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford as part of a series of events to celebrate his 70th birthday.



Walton was born in Oldham, Lancashire, England into a family of musicians; his father was a singing teacher and church organist, his mother was a singer. As a child, Walton was a gifted singer and was a chorister at Christ Church Cathedral School in Oxford where he received his formal music training and education. He studied piano and violin, but never mastered either instrument. While Walton was in Oxford, his talents as a composer emerged. Early manuscripts of Walton’s compositions caught the attention of the Dean of Christ Church, Dr. Thomas Strong, who shared them with Sir Charles H. H. Parry (the composer of “Prevent us O Lord” also sung by our choir this Sunday) who noted Walton’s musical potential. Walton befriended several poets while at Oxford, most importantly, Sacheverell Sitwell. After Walton was sent away from Oxford upon failing the examinations for Greek and algebra that were required for graduation, Sitwell looked after him materially and provided him a stimulating cultural education that included music lessons and opportunities to attend music performances.

It was while Walton was at Oxford that Hugh Allen, a professor of music at Oxford who influenced British musical life during the first half of the twentieth century, introduced Walton to modern music and the capabilities of the orchestra. “Modern music” during the early twentieth century was written by composers who were influenced by a philosophical and aesthetic stance that challenged and reinterpreted older music, and lead to various innovations of the period, including a new approach to writing melodies, harmonies, rhythms, and the organization of works. Walton’s exposure to modern music influenced his compositions and he became labeled a “modernist.” His early works were often severely criticized by musicians and listeners alike. It was the advocacy of other well-respected composers who recognized Walton’s genius that helped bring him to the forefront of British classical music by the end of the 1920s. As his career progressed, Walton composed with fewer modernist tendencies and he later ceased to be regarded as such, later being criticized as “old fashioned”. During World War II, Walton was exempted from military service and recruited to compose music for British propaganda films. Following the war, the BBC invited Walton to compose his first opera: Troilus and Cressida, based on a story by Chaucer. The production was plagued with problems and failed to make a positive impression on audiences. Walton was commissioned to compose two marches in the Elgarian tradition: “Crown Imperial” for the coronation of George VI in 1927, and “Orb and Sceptre” for Elizabeth II in 1953, both works greatly admired today. In 1956, Walton took-up full-time residence on Ischia, an island in the Tyrrhenian Sea near the northern end of the Gulf of Naples. He continued to compose and remained an influential figure in Britain until his death.



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