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INTERVIEW: COMPOSER SIR WILLIAM WALTON, AS REMEMBERED BY HIS WIFE, LADY SUSANA WALTON

 

By Paolo Petrocelli

ROME, 18 JULY 2008 — Sir William Turner Walton was —  without any doubt — one of the composers most responsible for defining the sound of early-20th Century British classical music. Born 29 March 1902 in Oldham, Lancashire, he was fundamentally a self-taught composer. He had his first public success at the age of 20 with Façade, a composition on a text by Edith Sitwell, and reached international fame with the Viola Concerto of 1929, premiered by Paul Hindemith. In 1948, arguably already beyond the zenith of his career, he decided to settle down on the Isle of Ischia, in Italy, where he stayed until his death at the age of eighty.

His wide ranging and stylistically varied repertory – the highlights of which we remember as the two Symphonies (1931 and 1960), the cantata Belshazzar’s Feast (1931), the Violin Concerto (1939), the film score for Laurence Olivier’s adaption of Henry V (1944), the tragic opera Troilus and Cressida (1954), the Cello Concerto (1956), — seem to be the result of constant stylistic research encompassing the motifs and traditions of romanticism, modernism, jazz and Ars Nova, seemingly in pursuit of an absolute, personal and characteristically individual language.

William Walton wasn’t a "simple" composer. He imbued his works with expressions borne of a profound knowledge of cultural currents — a worldliness acquired not only through intellectual study, but also through a wealth of personal experience.


Lady Walton and Sir William Walton in the 1950's
© Foundation William Walton | All Rights Reserved
Photo courtesy of the Foundation William Walton

His music wasn’t the product of abstract inspiration, but of an instinctual need to express himself through it. He used the timeless language of music as a means to communicate his mortal concepts and emotions. As a consequence, his works weren’t sophisticated, independent "short stories," but authentic chapters of a long-unfolding autobiography.

In the years following the death of her husband, Susana Gil Passo (Lady Walton) dedicated herself unwaveringly to the realization of the William Walton Trust and the William Walton Foundation, whose goals are to encourage and support the education of aspiring young musicians and composers. In addition, Lady Walton opened their magnificent estate, La Mortella to the public, revealing and making accessible to visitors one of the most fascinating and beautiful private gardens of Europe. At the age of eighty, Lady Walton answered my questions with incredible energy and enthusiasm.

Paolo Petrocelli: How did you meet Sir William Walton? 

Lady Walton: It was 1948. William was a delegate to an international
meeting of the Performing Right Society in Buenos Aires , where I was
living. At the end of a press conference for guest delegates, in which I participated as secretary of the delegate of the British Council of Buenos Aires, William turned to me saying, "You will be very surprised, Miss Gil, to hear that I am going to marry you!"
 
For three weeks I rejected his daily marriage proposal, until when one day, just before his return to England and evidently discouraged, he didn't ask me to marry him anymore. I worriedly asked him, "Try one more time." ... he did it and I accepted.

PP: Why decide to move to Italy after the marriage?  

LW: It was William's decision. When he was seventeen, on the occasion of his first journey abroad, he was so impressed by the light of south Italian landscapes that he never forgot their beauty. During our return trip from Argentina, William realized that it was the time to do what he always wanted…live in this area, in the bay of Naples. This is how we took up residence in Ischia.

PP: What does La Mortella mean? 

LW: La Mortella is the name, in the Neapolitan dialect, of the blueberry plant that gives its name to our residence. Here William found the tranquility he needed to dedicate himself to writing his works. My duty was to take care of him, of our home and of our garden.

PP: How did Sir William schedule his working days?  

LW: He worked as a office worker would: from eight in the morning until one in the afternoon and from five until eight in the evening. According to him, discipline was the basis of his inspiration. Until the last years of his life, he dedicated himself to writing music with extreme seriousness and incredible rigor. He would closet himself in his music room, where it was absolutely prohibited to enter..

[Laughing] I never did know how that room was cleaned. He would sit for hours in front of the piano, even if he wasn’t able to play, he used it for composing. He himself said that he played better with his "behind" than most composers did with their hands! Something happened in his brain when he imagined his music…the creation of it took place entirely in his head. 

PP: To which works of your husbands are you most attached? 

LW:  The First Symphony, I think. I'm not a musician and I can't read music, so it hits me like something physical.  In listening to that Symphony, my whole body, my entire being is altered…it is so overwhelming. 

PP: After the death of Sir William in 1983, how was the idea of opening
La Mortella to the public born?  

LW: William wanted this property and his works to survive. So I
created the William Walton Foundation, whose primary aim is supporting the vocational training of young musicians. It followed that the gardens of La Mortella were opened to the public. At the beginning, everyone told me that I was mad to take that decision, because nobody would come here…today we have 60,000 visitors every year.

(In 2004, the U.S. firm Briggs & Stratton awarded La Mortella first
prize as "the most beautiful park in Italy," placing it ahead of more
than 100 other gardens open to the public)

 
Lady Susana Walton
© Foundation William Walton | All Rights Reserved
Photo courtesy of the Foundation William Walton

PP: Visiting La Mortella, one feels that Sir William didn’t ever leave this house or this garden. Do you think he is still present? 

LW: Yes, he is without doubt still here and from his stone (William's
Rock, where the composer's ashes are placed) he suggests and helps me. On one occasion, for example, a tree had collapsed over one of our greenhouses. After three days of hard work it was removed and…we didn't find any broken glass! It is impossible that a tree can fall over a house of glass and nothing happens! I'm sure that it was William that protected our greenhouse! 

PP: What do you miss most about Sir William?  

LW: Laughter! You could not even imagine the things that would spring to his mind...he was like a mad child and made us have so much fun! Yes, I think that this is what I miss most of all, his sense of humor...he could be such a fool!

Editing by C. Davis Remignanti

Paolo Petrocelli is an Italian violinist and musicologist based in Rome.  In 2007, he was the recipient of a research grant from the William Walton Trust. Soon after,  he completed his professional editorial internship at the Library of the Academy of Santa Cecilia in Rome for work related to the publication of Volume VII of the Ludwig van Beethoven Letters, by Sieghard Brandenburg.  In 2002,  Mr. Petrocelli won first prizes in the XII Literary Prize "Unione Lettori Italiani" and the poetry competition "Poeti e Poesia" organized by the Roman publisher Pagine.

 

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