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Walton, Sir William (1902-1983)


Main image of Walton, Sir William (1902-1983)

William Walton, composer of orchestral, chamber, choral and dramatic works, including over a dozen film scores, was born into a poor but musical family. In 1912 he became a chorister at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, and began to compose from an early age. Whilst Walton often claimed to be largely self-taught, he did receive a thorough musical training at Oxford University. Mixing in the artistic circle of the Sitwells, he met Stravinsky, Gershwin and other influential figures whilst still in his twenties. Always concerned for his financial position in the early years, Walton scored his first film, Escape Me Never (d. Paul Czinner, 1935), for a fee of £350.

As with many composers of his generation, the war effort offered him fruitful opportunities to score patriotic films, notably Olivier's Henry V (1944). This film was significant in establishing the reputation of British cinema on both sides of the Atlantic. As a film for Britain in wartime, it provided encouragement and comfort at home. To its wider audience, it was about heritage, and the gravitas that a theatrical tradition can bring to cinema. Walton's score is an integral part of this multiple effect, and clearly demonstrates the composer's broader musical inclinations, in which tonality, orchestration and musical structure are inherently dramatic tools.

His attention to dramatic detail and pacing placed him at the forefront of 'serious' composers willing and able to work in cinema, and many of his film scores were adapted as orchestral concert suites. Then, after a flurry of activity in the '40s, Walton's return to film scoring, with Battle of Britain (d. Guy Hamilton, 1969), did not find favour at United Artists. All of his music, except the 'Battle in the Air' cue, was replaced by Ron Goodwin's last-minute score, thus setting a seal on the golden age of British film music in a symphonic tradition. However, there were plans in 2002, supported by MGM and United Artists, to reinstate all of Walton's cues in a new cut of the film.

David Burnand, Encyclopedia of British Film

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Selected credits

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Moving wartime biopic of R.J. Mitchell, designer of the Spitfire

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Ealing propaganda film about a factory foreman's rescue of vital machinery

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Laurence Olivier's multi-Oscar-winning Shakespeare adaptation

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Laurence Olivier turns Shakespeare into rousing propaganda

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Brutally effective WWII propaganda film on the dangers of careless talk.

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Laurence Olivier's definitive version of Shakespeare's great history play

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Chilling classic imagining a brutal Nazi invasion of a small English village

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Margaret Lockwood stars as a tough barrister

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