Our True North”: Walton’s First Symphony

true north walton's first symphony

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True north Walton’s first symphony: The debt of Walton’s First Symphony to Sibelian models of symphonic form is often acknowledged, but the debt’s wider implications are seldom considered. The inter-war English idolization of Sibelius may help to explain why Walton should use characteristic Sibelian procedures such as rotational form, heavy dependence on pedal points for structural purposes, and focus on a sound-sheet or Klang—however individually Walton treats these devices—but it does not account for all that is interested At this moment in British musical history. In this article, a richer context is drawn by locating Walton’s Sibelianism in a more general contemporary artistic concern with what Michael Saler calls ‘the myth of the North’: an inter-war emphasis on the industrialized north of England. This ‘myth’, a development of modernist preoccupations with the relationship between technology and humanity, is reflected both in what Jed Esty calls an ‘anthropological turn’ in writers such as Eliot and Woolf (a turn to a romantic nationalism), and in Heidegger’s philosophy of art—connections that open up a range of ethical and political considerations. After presenting an analysis of the Sibelian technique of Walton’s symphony alongside discussion of its thematic treatments of nation, culture, and geographic environment, and the changing antagonisms of late modernism, this article reconsiders the historical significance of Walton’s music, and reads it as a presentation of views on authentic community and the place of England in the twentieth century.


Walton’s First Symphony is a special case in this development and historical contribution. It had two premieres: the first three movements were given in December 1934,and the complete work, with the fugue-infused finale, in November 1935.3 The critical response was that it was a Sibelian work, and for that reason a great modern symphony. The reasons for this are not obscure. Sibelius was the post-war influence of choice for British composers.4 Writing in the Musical Times in March 1935, between the two premieres of the symphony, G. D. Skelton summed up the prevailing English attitude: ‘To the question ‘‘Who is the greatest living composer?’’ a German would probably reply ‘‘Richard Strauss’’, and an Englishman probably ‘‘Sibelius’’.’ He notes that the Nazis had of course banned the Jewish Mahler.


By conducting a symphonic argument in the terms understood by English critics to be the most effective modern means of addressing the problems of form generation, thematic development, and trajectory towards an ultimate goal, in his First Symphony Walton made a case for himself as Sibelius’sçand, because of the finale’s flagrant reference to his ceremonial style, also Elgar’sçheir in the English musical establishment. It may seem that his adaptation of the Sibelian technique amounted to the manufacture of a style incapable of effectively projecting itself beyond the Second World War: a superbly over-elaborated edifice erected at the end of a blind Finnish alleyway. Certainly, in this symphony English Sibelianism reached a hortatory height in the composition than in the writings of Gray and Lambert it had already accomplished in criticism, and in that respect alone it is an ideal characterization of a central thread of English musical thought in the middle of the age of anxiety. To answer whether it constitutes a new and interesting artistic statement, however, we must interpret the burden of the Waltonian Klang.


In a short article called ‘Music as Art’, published in 1931, William Walton argued that to listen too unreflectively to criticism of old styles of musical composition in an age of great experimentation is ‘to play upon our inferiority complexes, and to deflect us from our true north’.19 Great music, he says, remains great and valuable as a model for contemporary composition even if its vocabulary has become unfashionable because its artistic successes cannot be invalidated by changes of fashion.
As I have noted, after the Second World War, Walton’s music ceased to be considered a vital engagement with modern musical trends. Since then, it has seemed somehow aesthetically significant that he ensconced himself on Ischia, an island near Capri in the Bay of Naples, far from the musical world of London (or anywhere else), and produced increasingly Romantic works at the very slowest drip.20 As a consequence, the conservative opinions in ‘Music as Art’ neatly fit our picture of the man, and it perhaps needs not to worry us that they were not written by Walton at all.
Michael Kennedy points out that this article, one of a series on different subjects, was by a writer (call him the ‘pseudo-Walton’) who by chance had the same name as the composer. The periodicals’ editors never acknowledged the confusion bound to follow from the publication of these essays, but in 1977, when Stewart Craggs’s catalog of Walton’s output was published,21 the composer protested that he had had nothing to do with the articles. ‘I have never written an article of any kind ever… I should perhaps be ashamed to admit it, but I was (for that matter still am) incapable of putting pen to paper in a coherent way.

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© The Author (2008). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

‘Our true north’: Walton’s First Symphony, Sibelianism, and the Nationalization of Modernism in England

Original language: English

Pages (from-to) 562-589
Journal Music and Letters
Volume 89
Issue number 4
Early online date 15 Sep 2008



Publication status Published – 2008
‘“Our True North”: Walton’s First Symphony

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Professor Siavosh Kaviani was born in 1961 in Tehran. He had a professorship. He holds a Ph.D. in Software Engineering from the QL University of Software Development Methodology and an honorary Ph.D. from the University of Chelsea.

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Maryam Momeni was born in 1970 in Tehran. She holds a degree in Literature - German language from the Melli University of Tehran.
As an assistant administrator, my duties will include overseeing and analyzing financial operations, approving purchases and expenditures, mediating between staff and other executives, appointing heads of departments, marketing and promoting the business, and facilitating training programs. My expertise in streamlining business operations will help the organization thrive and maximize efficiency and profits.

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