The first time I listened to William Walton's (1902-83) Symphony No. 1 in b-flat minor, my immediate reaction was: "Holy mackerel! This is awesome!" Written in 1935, it is one of the greatest English symphonies, a synthesis of classical symphonic form with modern musical language. While it is full of harsh dissonances, it is never ugly. Driven by sophisticated rhythms, tinted with remarkable instrumental colors, and structured around unusual yet clearly-marked themes, it hits the ear as being at one and the same time revolutionary and intelligible, sensitive and sensational.
I would hate to be Imma von Doernberg. The dedicatee of Walton's First Symphony was the composer's partner in a stormy relationship that inspired three out of its four movements. They're full of extraordinary music, but not the kind you or I would like to think we had inspired: the first movement tense, angry, aswim with violent passion; the second bitterly sarcastic, "with malice" actually written into the tempo marking; the third mournful and melancholic. So much for art imitating life. At this point, Imma dumped Walton and shacked up with someone else, and for a while Walton was stuck. The unfinished symphony was actually performed without a finale in late 1934, while the composer racked his brains over how to finish it. Then he found new love with one Lady Alice Wimborne, resulting in the joyful, pomp-and-circumstancy fourth movement.
Now you know what Walton was thinking about when he wrote this music. It doesn't seem half as significant as the music itself, does it? Perhaps it's best not to know so much about the influences behind a work of art. For when I hear Movement I, Allegro assai, I can't bring myself to visualize Imma von Doernberg throwing breakables at William Walton. I hear, instead, a tragedy of tension, conflict, and anguish playing out on a world stage. I hear cities being battered by artillery, populations being brutalized by invading troops, deportees being hoarded onto trains. I hear bombers cruising over a dark country covered with plumes of smoke, thundering impacts, and deadly flowers of flak rising into the night sky.
Movement I is almost a single-movement symphony unto itself. Lasting over 15 minutes, it has a sort of three-movement structure superimposed on its sonata form, with much of the development taking on the character of a slow movement. It has a phenomenally concentrated unity of theme and motive. And it has a character most distinct from the type of music Walton is best known for.
The first thing you hear is the timpani rolling a faint pedal B-flat. Over this, the horns announce a four-note motto theme (B-flat, F, G, A-flat in its first permutation). I challenge you to listen for this theme, and to count the ways it appears. You won't spot most of them. It gets flipped around and upside down, woven into the inner parts, stretched and extended and varied any number of ways, but it's always there like a strand of musical DNA. You may have to listen to this movement several times (you won't mind) to do this, because your ear will be instantly captivated by a plaintive oboe theme introduced at 15", against a backdrop of nervously twitching strings. This is the theme your attention will be drawn to throughout most of this movement. Nevertheless, you can easily spot the motto theme on the English horn (overlapping the tail-end of the oboe theme).
Though the movement begins quietly, the feeling of tension begins to build quickly. It starts to get exciting around 40", and stays that way for quite a while. After a big, all-in restatement of the oboe theme, Walton unveils a second-groupish cello theme at about 1'45", longer and more contemplative but still underpinned with anxiety. Another noteworthy cello-driven episode begins around 2'35", an island of eerie, icy stillness in an otherwise turbulent exposition section. After a big, brassy version of the oboe theme, the music rises to a shriek that also, ironically, serves as the first solid cadence, or point of musical relaxation, so far. The ensuing codetta draws on all the material heard so far, building to around 4'45", when the orchestra delivers a shattering, climactic statement of the oboe theme, dying away at the end, and leading to the low-key opening of the development around 5'15".
Note the eerie duet between a bassoon (in its high register) and solo viola as the development begins. The music continues to search around in a bleak, ruined landscape. Around 7' it builds up a bit of energy, then drops back to a solo texture again, with various instruments spotlighted against a backdrop of tremolo strings. Around 8'10" clarinet and flute inject a touch of playfulness into an otherwise serious string passage, like someone idly fiddling around while another person is trying to have an important discussion. The anger begins to heat up again around 8'30". As it grows in dynamics, it moves forward in harmony toward a seemingly inevitable goal. Around 10'15" this ascending juggernaut seems to break through the cloud-cover into a wide-open, timeless stratosphere.
By 11'15" the pressure has become all but-unbearable in a slow-cooked climax that subsides directly to a unique hybrid of recap and coda. Here an inverted form of the opening motto-theme forms an low-brass ostinato over which the strings croon out the main theme. The wrapping-up music builds till about 13'15", when the whole orchestra seems to take a deep breath before screaming in frustration. From 13'45" to 14', the brass instruments mass together for a huge, dissonant fanfare that ends in another shattering pause. The music resumes its course toward final resolution, with a shift to B-flat major, throbbing timpani, blazing brass, still-twitchy strings, and a final unison bark of bitter laughter.
Movement II, Presto con malizia, is Walton's scherzo. It is a kaleidoscope of contrasts, full of trippy rhythms and stinging color combinations, teasing figures, and obnoxious dissonances. Listening to it is not unlike babysitting a bunch of little kids who have just been fed loading doses of sugar. Not that I would know anything about that. There is definitely a certain snarkiness about it. It has a peculiar ending, with a cadence in the "wrong" key followed by a long pause - just long enough to make you think, with dismay, that it may really be over - before the music barges back in for a few more choice words before slamming the door on its way out.
Movement III, Andante con malinconia, opens with a quiet sense of space. Into that space floats a mournful flute melody, joined gradually by other instruments. The harmony is strange and distressing but not unbeautiful. It gives one a sense of an intelligent mind locked in an emotional wasteland. It vibrates with loneliness and discouragement. Yet the thoughts it turns over are delicate, sophisticated ones. At times the music flares up with passion. At other times, as over the pedal point that begins around 7'10", it seems to float on a cushion of numbness. I sense a kinship with Sibelius in the climactic "heart laid bare" passage at 9'. The movement dies away very wistfully.
Finally, Movement IV shines a ray of joy into this symphony. It opens with a fanfare that won't let you forget that its composer also wrote both Crown Imperial and Orb and Sceptre for the coronations of British monarchs. About 1'15", it bursts into a faster tempo and goes absolutely gaga with gladness. The idea of a brass fanafare never seems far away, yet there is also a perceptible relationship with the first movement. It's like the other side of the same coin. At 3' Walton introduces a quirky fugue subject, invading a territory of modern orchestral polyphony previously held exclusively by Paul Hindemith. Within a minute and a half, the fugue has built to a huge climax. A bit premature, maybe, for a movement lasting 13 minutes. But Walton soon finds other ways to divert us, developing his themes in an atmosphere of vibrant intensity. At times it's like a huge orchestral toccata, testing all the sonic possibilities of the instruments, the recording equipment, and your stereo.
At about 9'20", after faking us out with a sense of the music dying away, Walton socks us with another huge fanfare. At 10'20", a solo trumpet plays something like Taps - a kind of peaceful farewell. But a minute later, this idea swells to a dazzling, shimmering glory that keeps building all the way to the symphony's spectacular finish. The pauses between the final chords remind me of the similar pauses at the end of Sibelius's Fifth, of which I once said "there isn't another symphony ending like it." Well, in a way there isn't - Walton's First doesn't take it quite so far - but it's certainly an homage, and it still makes you want to hold your breath and pray that the Classical Radio DJ doesn't hit the "stop" button before it's really over!