17 Oct 2011

Walton – Violin Concerto

Written by Jeff Counts

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (2nd  doubles piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubles English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, tambourine, cymbals, field drum, xylophone, harp, strings

Duration: 31 minutes in three movements.

THE COMPOSER – WILLIAM WALTON (1902-1983) – Violin virtuoso Jascha Heifetz, having heard about William Walton from violist William Primrose, took the composer out to lunch in 1936 and offered him £300 for a concerto commission. This was an incredible honor for Walton, the chance to collaborate with the most distinguished violin master of the day and he accepted readily. The premiere was planned for 1939 at the New York World’s Fair. 

THE MUSIC – Writing a concerto for someone with the stature of Heifetz was daunting for Walton. He worried that he would not make the solo part difficult enough or spectacular enough, leaving the piece unworthy of Heifetz and his legend. According to his wife, Walton actually considered giving the piece to another violinist so as not to offend the commissioner but eventually convinced himself that he had “exhausted the possibilities of what one could do on a violin,” which meant he could show it to Heifetz without fear. The two met in America in 1939 and worked out the finishing touches together, making adjustments to the third movement in particular. It was an intense period for Walton, prompting him to quip, “I seriously advise all sensitive composers to die at the age of 37.” The premiere did not happen in New York after all and when it did finally take place in Cleveland later that year, Walton was needed at home in wartime London and could not be present. In another fateful twist of the war, the valuable U.S. performance materials were lost during their crossing of the battle-torn Atlantic but Walton, undaunted, conducted the British premiere anyway in 1941 with Henry Holst as soloist. The Concerto underwent some revision in 1943 and now survives as one of Heifetz’s most memorable commissions, a crafty tour de force that Lady Walton said her husband often humbly (and paradoxically) referred to as “rather intimate.”     

THE WORLD – Notable literary publications in 1939 included Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, The Day of the Locust by Nathaniel West and Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo. Also in that year, Al Capone was released from Alcatraz and LaGuardia airport was officially dedicated.