MUSICOLOGIST

Dr. Gary D. Cannon’s musicological research centers on the life and works of William Walton, the great twentieth-century British composer. His doctoral dissertation, From Oldham to Oxford: The Formative Years of Sir William Walton, constitutes the first of multiple projected volumes dedicated to the composer. His research took him to several archives in England and Italy. Among the music discussed in detail are A Litany, the Piano Quartet, and two works of juvenilia which have never received extended study: The Forsaken Merman and the Valse in C minor for piano.

The complete dissertation can be found here.

Here follows the official abstract:

"The formative years of William Walton (1902–1983) are rarely considered when studying the composer’s life and works. However, careful study of that period indicates many of the directions that the adult Walton would take. Industrial Lancashire was more musically active during the period of Walton’s youth (covering the years 1902 to 1912) than is generally considered. His time as a chorister and later undergraduate at Christ Church, Oxford (1912 to 1920), is replete with influential interactions with talented adults and fellow students. Detailed consideration of Walton’s juvenilia reveals a keen thinker who assimilated these various influences in a unique manner. Far more than merely a springboard for a future talent, these years resulted in inspired works and a firm purpose for the budding composer."

And here is the introduction:

"Sir William Walton has been well served by biographers, researchers, archivists, and editors. Few twentieth-century composers have been the subject of such focused research. During his lifetime Walton was never neglected by critics or writers of small independent volumes. The first major wave of true Walton scholarship came slightly before and after his death in 1983, with the publication of a chronological catalog of his works, a bibliography, and three biographies including his widow’s memoirs. Walton’s centennial year of 2002 brought a second swathe of published materials: a volume of his selected letters, another fine biography, a photojournalistic study, a survey of his manuscripts, and especially the critical edition of his published scores, comprising twenty-three exhaustively researched volumes. Add to these assorted articles, recording notes, tributes, and webpages, and certainly Walton scholarship is a path well trod.

"This begs the question why further Walton research is deemed necessary. Notwithstanding all of the above, there remains one crucial aspect of his output that has suffered neglect. The best Walton biography, Michael Kennedy’s Portrait of Walton, deals with his youth—the period from his birth in Oldham to his departure from Oxford to live with the Sitwell clan in London—in a mere thirteen pages. Other biographies remain similarly slight as to their subject’s formative years. Yet to Walton this was a period replete with music-making, first as a child singer in his father’s church choir, later as a chorister at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, and then as an undergraduate at the university. The fact that his youthful musical experiences were so focused on the choir loft make this period an especially apt subject for a dissertation in choral music.

"That said, readers should not expect herein a discovery of unknown and unsung choral works. Only two of Walton’s choral works from the period survive today. The earliest is A Litany for unaccompanied choir. This work is well known among aficionados of English church music, though in a revised version now believed to have been prepared over a decade later. The second work is The Forsaken Merman, for soprano and tenor soloists, double women’s chorus, and orchestra. Alas, Walton apparently never orchestrated this cantata—indeed, there are indications that he never completed its initial sketch—and it has never been performed. It survives only in a piano-vocal score with few indications of his expected orchestration. From the point of view of choral music, The Forsaken Merman is of but minor interest: the chorus appears in only twenty of the work’s total 424 surviving measures.

"He is known to have composed other choral music during his youth—including Magnificat settings and a six-part motet—but none of it has survived. Of the music that remains, most is vocally oriented: four settings of Swinburne and one of Shakespeare. There are also miniatures for organ or piano. At age sixteen he attempted his first multi-movement work, the Piano Quartet. This was Walton’s work-in-progress when he first met the poet Sacheverell Sitwell, an encounter which completely changed the direction of the young composer’s life. Soon thereafter Walton left the ivy-covered halls of Oxford for the glitz and glamour of interwar London, newly embraced among the now mythical “Bright Young Things.”

"The vast majority of Walton scholarship has been undertaken by British scholars whose expected audience has clearly been British readers. These writers have made certain assumptions on behalf of the reader: an understanding, for example, of the stereotypical personalities and sociocultural backgrounds of diverse regions in England, or the manner in which the University of Oxford functions. As the present document is written by an American scholar trained in the United States, and as the William Walton Trust has expressed interest in publishing some of this research on their website, every effort is made herein to render matters clear for international readers. For similar reasons, quotes have been reproduced exactly as they appear in the original, complete with unorthodox or inconsistent spelling, capitalization, punctuation and the like. If punctuation appears inside or outside a quotation mark, it is because the original source did or did not include that punctuation.

"How Walton’s early years were both representative and unusual among English youths of his period will be considered on equal grounds. Indeed, one purpose of the present dissertation is to consider what Walton did not do as much as what he did. This is especially crucial in considering the reasoning whereby he became an undergraduate at Christ Church and why he opted to leave without a degree. As regards his juvenilia, we will likewise consider the impressively unorthodox manner in which he composed. Herein you will find discussions of those musical works that Walton is known to have encountered in his youth, either as a performer or an audience member, and the relative influence that these works had on his concurrent and future compositional output. To aid this survey of an artist’s evolving maturity, we will proceed in strictly chronological order, rather than dealing with each influence in turn. It is hoped that this will yield a sense of the development of a young man’s musical mind as one coherent whole, rather than a collection of disparate voices. For example, too often scholars handle the Oxford period in toto before moving to the Sitwell influence, whereas strict chronology demonstrates a subtle interplay that better informs our understanding of why Walton left Oxford in the manner that he did and why he composed in a particular style at a particular time. Moving chronologically also affords the opportunity to assess each composition in turn, witnessing the steady maturation of a unique musical voice.

"The various influences of Walton’s formative years are here revealed as an intricate web. From the professional singing careers of his parents to the repertoire sung in his father’s church choir, from the mostly traditional works that Walton sang in cathedral to the more modern works he consulted at the university library, from the established composers passing through town to the innovative young poets returning from war… each of the many influences in Walton’s life plays its own part. It takes, however, a very special personality to assimilate all of this in such an individual way. Let us begin with the region of Walton’s birth, Lancashire, and the musical family into which he was born."

Click here for the full text of From Oldham to Oxford: The Formative Years of Sir William Walton.