Two Pieces from Henry V

Programme note

William Walton (1902-1983)
Two Pieces from Henry V (1944)

A slow worker and by no means a prolific composer, Walton enjoyed a great deal of success as a film composer, often leading critics to dismiss his music as too ‘lightweight’ and ‘populist’ to be considered alongside other luminaries of the twentieth century. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Walton worked in relative isolation: largely self-taught, he had no pupils, held no posts at conservatoires and gave no public lectures. Walton himself was only too aware of the critical disapproval that lurked behind him, once declaring: ‘I seriously advise all sensitive composers to die at the age of 37. I know: I've gone through the first halcyon period and am just about ripe for my critical damnation.’

But criticism of his film music overlooks the remarkable assimilation of styles elsewhere within his music, and ignores works such as Façade, which, although it stirred up controversy at its first performance, is now celebrated as a turning point in twentieth-century composition. It says something of Walton’s popularity among the masses that he was commissioned to write coronation anthems for the crowning of two twentieth-century monarchs: Crown Imperial for the coronation of George IV in 1937, and Orb and Sceptre (1953) for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II seventeen years later.

By the time Walton wrote the music for Laurence Olivier’s film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V, the two had already collaborated on nine other films. Directed by and starring Olivier himself, the cinematic stylisation of the original Globe Theatre production was released in 1944, intended as a morale booster for the British public as the First World War wore on. The first of three Shakespeare adaptations, it would prove to be one of the pair’s most successful collaborations to date, earning a number of Academy Award nominations, including the award for Best Score. Although the music for the film was popular in its own right, Walton felt strongly that film music made little sense when divorced from its context. It was 29 years before he finally allowed an arrangement of his score to be made, permitting Muir Matheson – a close colleague and the conductor of the original film score – to produce a suite comprising five movements for chorus and orchestra. The second and fourth movements are scored for strings alone. Passacaglia: The Death of Falstaff, depicts the slow and sombre lament of Sir John Falstaff, Henry’s youthful companion who dies from a broken heart after being cast aside when Henry takes the throne. In Touch her soft lips and part, we see the wayward ruffian Pistol bid goodbye to his sweetheart as he heads for France, in one of Walton’s most tender and expressive pieces of music.

© Jo Kirkbride