Griping at Walton (2)

In yesterday’s posting, I discussed what I consider to be a most unfortunate choice made by William Walton in his music for The First of the Few (1942) — in the form of that spatter of quotations from Wagner that he used to characterise the Nazis, three minutes in. I think it was a nasty and cheap thing for him to do — and, even worse, artistically destructive — but as Walton was a great and important composer, I’m prepared to cut him a little slack. Temporarily, anyhow.

First of all, I’m allowing that the association between Wagner and Nazis was something the Nazis themselves had worked jolly hard to establish — and that, in doing such a thing, they weren’t exactly hampered by that ghastly military-band Nibelungenmarsch on themes from the Ring that was concocted, c. 1876, by … oh, who cares. In posting the whole, hideous excrescence here (in a brand-new — and even more hideous — home-made video produced by some neo-Nazi sad-arse and uploaded in the last six months or so), I want to remind everyone of a few of the sights and sounds that Walton and many of his 1942 audience must have had somewhere in mind… [Note: On further investigation, I find that in this recording the march is slightly abbreviated. Lucky you.]

(At this point I will pause for two minutes so you can go and hold your brain under the hot tap and scrub it clean of all that filth.)

Secondly, I’ll point out that when Walton committed — or, rather, joined in with — this act of musical libel, he was not only living through his second war with Germany (he was born in 1902, and so was a teenager by the end of World War 1), but had even had his house in London bombed to bits during an air-raid in 1941.

Thirdly  — and with both of the above points in mind — what other kind of music could we have expected him to come up with for that juncture? The issue behind my question is surely one that has confronted every creator who has ever been required to produce some kind of intra-artistic representation of people who have been trying to kill him: what kind of creative care, what species of artistically expressible intention, what degree of psychological comprehension or identification is a person even capable of bringing to the task of depicting ‘the other side’ within an artistic medium?

Is it even imaginable that Walton — or any other composer — would have looked through a musical sketchbook, or sat at a piano, and searched for a theme or motif that connoted ‘just the right kind’ of … what? ‘Aggressive imperialism’? ‘Hierarchical authoritarianism’? ‘Deranged racism’? Music has not the means to communicate concepts and abstractions — and while aspects of the ‘violent’, the ‘barbaric’ and the ‘horrific’ do fall within its range, they have a terrible tendency to be viscerally exciting when musically instantiated: music communicates their ‘is’, not their ‘ought’. For Walton to have produced an original idea for the Hitler-Goebbels-Goering juncture that had musical point and sense and power would surely have been to pay the still-undefeated, still-threatening enemy a compliment that they were not in any sense felt to deserve. Small wonder, I think, that in the end Walton the composer withdrew temporarily in favour of Walton the documentarian: he allowed the Nazis to have, quite literally, their own music, and pretty much left it at that. Of course, it’s tough — very tough! — on Wagner’s Ring to be dragged, yet again, into such degrading company; but at the same time, it isn’t Walton’s fault that the Nazis failed to understand Wagner.

If the above succeeds in getting Walton ‘off the hook’ to some extent, then I’m pleased. Tomorrow, he’ll be back on it — as a result of the music he wrote for the 1968 film Battle of Britain. And if you want to know now what the problem is there, have a listen to this:


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