Some people, like the high school star quarterback, peak early in life. Though he never played football (rugby is more the game in England), Sir William “John Boy” Walton was one of these people, as we shall soon see. Born in 1902 in the industrial burb of Oldham, Lancashire (by the way, Lancashire cheese melts beautifully and is a favorite cheese for Welsh Rabbit!) to musical parents. His father was the director of a local church choir and even though there wasn’t much money, they sacrificed to send young William to Oxford. While there, he spent hour after hour in the library, studying the works of Bartók, Prokofiev, Holst, and any other modern classical composer within his reach. What he didn’t do was study, which led quickly to him flunking out. Without the distractions of classes and professors, Walton spent his time playing piano in a jazz band and enthusiastically composing music in an upstairs room where he was freeloading, um, living off the kindness of some friends.
Unlike many of his brooding, melancholy peers, Walton was very witty, light-hearted and knew how to take, and give, a joke. During a rehearsal for the first performance of one of his later pieces, the clarinet soloist, referring to a very difficult part for his instrument, asked, “Mr. Walton, has a clarinet player ever done you an injury?” Ah, those wacky British. Some composers would have sulked for weeks over such a comment while others would have jumped into a fit of rage. Walton just laughed and forbid the clarinet player from ever playing his music again. Okay, he just laughed. Walton later wrote about an experience in meeting George Bernard Shaw where he couldn’t concentrate due to the constant shifting of Shaw’s dental plate, a sight that would have scarred a lesser-composer for life! During his life, Walton composed two symphonies, choral and opera music, and a lot of film scores. Specializing in music for films based on the works of Shakespeare, Walton was not overly impressed with this music he created for hire, calling them “appropriate but otherwise useless music.” Willy was very practically minded about his craft, once stating, “I’ll write anything for anybody if he pays me... Naturally, I write much better if I’m paid in dollars.” His good-humored nature resulted in him being affectionately known as the “Grand Old Man” of English music. One could be called worse things. He died peacefully in 1983 in an island off Italy.
Being very orderly, Walton wrote his first symphony before he wrote his second. Some have called his first symphony (and if this isn’t niche marketing, I don’t know what is) “the most important symphonic work written by a British composer during the inter-war years”. Um, yeah. Based on a classical structure, this symphony is quite good, filled with a strong lyricism and energy that the composer was never able to again capture. In fact, he created such a maelstrom of tensions within the first three movements that he was unable to figure out the best way to resolve them before the date of the premier. Therefore, the piece was first played incomplete. However, the final movement was worth the wait. After the first performance of the complete symphony, this work was recognized as a classic and soon added to symphonic repertoires around the globe.
While doing some research for this article, I discovered that there is a Rachmaninoff Society whose members feel that this Russian Romantic composer has yet to gain the cult status of Mozart and are thus working tirelessly to preserve and promote his music. They aren’t a discriminating bunch, though. Anyone with twelve Sterling pounds can join (fourteen if you are overseas). I’m not what you would call a conspiracy theorist (though I do believe the U.S. government is involved in secret genetic experiments to breed the ultimate Attack Emu) but I’m pretty durn sure that some members of the Rachmaninoff Society have infiltrated the upper echelons of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic. Is it the Nasty-Grams™ that I received after misspelling Rachmaninoff as RachmaninOV? I think not. Ney, ‘tis due to this being the third Rachmaninoff piece to be played by the Philharmonic this season! Not that I mind, no not in the least! Rachmaninoff music is fit for a feast (I’ve been reading Seuss lately)! Rich orchestration, beautiful melodies, and nearly every one in a minor key! The latest and last Rachmaninoff piece to be performed this concert season is his Piano Concerto #3 (in D minor). This piece played such a crucial element in the 1996 movie Shine that it should have been listed as having a supporting role. In this true-life story, David Helfgott was driven mad, partially because of this piece (redrum, anyone?). He wasn’t the most stable fellow to begin with (like Rachmaninoff himself) and he was driven over the edge by practicing the piece, trying to perfectly portray the gaping expanse of the emotions contained within, not merely listening to it. All attending Saturday’s performance of this concerto will leave with nearly as much sanity as they took in. Rach wrote this concerto as an exhibition piece for his first United States tour way back in 1909 and dedicated it to Josef Hofmann (no relation). Due to time constraints, he wasn’t able to adequately practice the piece after he wrote it and had to leave immediately on a ship bound for the America. While sailing over the Atlantic, he was only able to practice on a soundless keyboard... not the ideal practice situation. Regardless, the first performance met with great success. The piece opens with a beautiful, nostalgic and haunting theme that is very much like a Russian folk song. In composing this, Rachmaninoff stated that he wanted the piano to sing like a vocalist, to enchant and to draw the audience in. In my humble opinion, this opening theme alone is worth the price of admission! The second movement is rich in color and again, very Russian in flavor (sounds like I’m describing a rich, tangy gumbo!). Here a serene calmness is contrasted with a moment of fantasy when the opening theme reappears in waltz form. The breath-taking finale is a whirlwind of passionate melodies played out by an orchestra seemingly on the verge of tears of joy, breathing music so full and glorious and all-encompassing that the listener can think of little else.
A bit more on Rachmaninov
Copyright 1998 Jason Hoffman