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
Belshazzars Feast (1931), the Violin Concerto (1939), the film
score for Laurence Oliviers 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
William Walton wasnt 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
William Walton | All Rights Reserved
Photo courtesy of the Foundation
His music wasnt 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 werent sophisticated, independent
"short stories," but authentic chapters of a long-unfolding
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
Paolo Petrocelli: How did you meet Sir William
Lady Walton: It was 1948. William was a delegate to an
meeting of the Performing Right Society in Buenos Aires , where
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!"
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
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
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
[Laughing] I never did know how that room was cleaned. He
would sit for hours in front of the piano, even if he wasnt 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
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.
2004, the U.S. firm Briggs & Stratton awarded La Mortella
prize as "the most beautiful park in Italy," placing it ahead of
than 100 other gardens open to the public)
Lady Susana Walton
William Walton | All Rights Reserved
Photo courtesy of the Foundation
PP: Visiting La Mortella, one feels that Sir William
didnt ever leave this house or this garden. Do you think he is still
LW: Yes, he is without doubt still here and from his
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
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
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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