02 February 2024

P.R. Jenkins

Spotlight Walton: The First Symphony

It is a well-known fact that Karajan met some of the most important composers of his time – from Richard Strauss to Hans Werner Henze. The case with William Walton seems to be special as they were not only colleagues but friends – at least at one period in their lives.

After Walton had married in 1948, he lived with his wife Susana in Ischia, Italy. Susana Walton recalled in her book “Behind the Façade”:

“Another visitor to Ischia in those early days was Herbert von Karajan. He used to come for the radioactive cure which had made the island famous. Most conductors, he told us, suffered from bad backs.”

By this time, the Waltons had not yet built their house “La Mortella” with its famous garden. They lived a nomadic life on the island and Karajan did not stay with them but in a hotel. There he dined with Walton and Walter Legge in a separate room because Karajan refused to wear a tie on his holidays and wasn’t allowed into the dining room.

Susana was Argentinian, so the couple could give Karajan advice for his South America tour in 1949. The year before, Karajan had conducted Walton’s “Belshazzar’s Feast” in Vienna with the Vienna Symphony. The short oratorio (about 35 minutes) was performed with the baritone Paul Schöffler and the choir of the Vienna State Opera. “To judge from the newspaper reviews, Karajan conducted it with unusual fire and ferocity. (Richard Osborne)” Pieces written by contemporary British composers were a rarity on the programmes of the Musikverein. Years later, “when the once amicable relationship between Walton and Karajan had fallen into disrepair (Osborne)”, Walton suspected that Karajan had conducted it only to ingratiate himself with the British authorities in occupied Vienna and to recommend himself for the collaboration with the Philharmonia Orchestra. That seems very unlikely, as Karajan wrote in a private letter from September 1947 to his old friend and colleague, the superb chorus master Wilhelm Pitz:

“Yes, things are underway again. I have 8 concerts with the VPO and 3 with the Singverein, whose conductorship I am assuming. […] As an innovation I am doing William Walton’s ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’, the best choral music that’s been written in the last 50 years. I strongly recommend it to you.”

Karajan wouldn’t have praised a choral work as being the best in the 20th century so far, if he hadn’t believed it. The rift between Karajan and Walton obviously had to do with Karajan criticising some aspects of Walton’s orchestration of the first symphony and Walton’s discontent about Karajan’s lack of engagement for his other orchestral works. It wasn’t very helpful that Karajan failed to tell Walton that he was going to conduct the first symphony in Rome in 1953, meaning that Walton couldn’t attend the concert. The live recording with the RAI Orchestra is the only testimonial of a Walton/Karajan interpretation.

In 1955, Karajan conducted the first-ever performance of Walton’s orchestration of the British anthem at the beginning of a concert with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. He also conducted Walton’s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” during a United States tour the same year. Apart from their personal differences both men expressed respect for each other’s artistic achievements in later decades. Walton was very fond of Karajan’s “Ring” recording and Karajan, when asked by Richard Osborne about Walton in 1989, said:

“I liked him very much. I remember he rang me once – he could be very amusing – and said, ‘I am writing a Theme and Variations. I’ve written the Variations but I don’t yet have the Theme!’ He was a wonderful man.”

Richard Osborne: “Karajan. A Life in Music” Chatto & Windus, London. 1998

“Conversations with Karajan” Edited with an Instroduction by Richard Osborne. Oxford University Press. 1989

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