On William Walton’s ‘Five Bagatelles’…
With it being Good Friday I thought about writing about an Easter piece that has particularly inspired me, or has a particular resonance with my work, and there are many fine Easter pieces (and some awful ones…) but it is hard to commute Leighton’s Crucifixus pro nobis or MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross into 500 words and one meaningful musical example. So I decided that with the weather being so unabashedly summery (despite being spring) to go for something that reflected this weather and bank holiday mindset – the first piece that came to mind was William Walton’s Five Bagatelles.
I am a big admirer of Walton’s work from the stunning early motet Drop, Drop Slow Tears through the early successes of the First Symphony, the Viola Concerto, the grandiose Belshazzar’s Feast and through to works such as the Coronation Te Deum, the Missa Brevis and the film music. I also admired his deadpan northern wit, his mad wife and his amazing home in Capri. For those not acquainted with Walton and his work may I suggest viewing Tony Palmer’s 1981 documentary At the Haunted End of the Day, a poignant if somewhat depressing survey of the man and his music.
I came across the Five Bagatelles in 2005 whilst looking for inspiration for my own guitar piece I was writing at the time and to be honest they totally took my breath away, they perfectly draw on the guitar’s natural musical characteristics and Walton adds a good dash of his own personality into the mix for good measure. The five different bagatelles each capture a different mood from the relentlessly upbeat first, the languid second, the smoky, seductive third, the dreamy fourth and the frantic finale. All feel instinctively like guitar music and written by a man who knew his way round the guitar (even if he didn’t necessarily – one wonders how much influence Julian Bream had in the composition?) – Walton was so happy with the piece he later arranged and elaborated it for orchestra under the title Varii capricci, though it wasn’t nearly half as good.
I recently read a review of a recent guitar recital in The Times which doubted whether the guitar could ever be distanced from the Mediterranean, sun-kissed associations that follow it, and in a large part I agree – certainly Five Bagatelles is more upbeat, brighter, sunnier than much of the music Walton was writing at the time. Even the more reflective moments feel like early evening in Capri with the sun dipping over the balcony, the third Kir Royale on the way. Maybe it is a brave man that plays against these associations? There are darker, tougher guitar pieces in the repertoire – Lennox Berkeley’s three works, Richard Rodney Bennett’s Five Impromptus and the amusingly titled Lullaby for Illian Rainbow by Maxwell Davies fit that bill – but are they as successful? Who is to say, but certainly Walton’s Five Bagatelles is a work I find myself coming back to again and again – especially on days such as these.