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Friday, 8 March, 2002, 14:14 GMT
Walton's musical legacy
Sir William Walton (1902 - 1983)
Walton: Described as the first "modern" British composer of the century
To mark the centenary of the birth of the late composer Sir William Walton the BBC World Service spoke to his widow about his life and work.

From his stirring Coronation march the Crown Imperial, through to the commercial patriotic film score for the Battle of Britain, Sir William Walton firmly established himself as one of Britain's key modern composers.

Speaking to BBC World Service's Composer of the Month programme, Sir William's widow, Susana, recalled her husband's passion for music and the couple's whirlwind courtship.

She said: "Everyday for two weeks he asked me to marry him, then one day he said 'I'm never going to ask you again'. I said 'I think that's a very bad idea, try once more'."


The couple met in Buenos Aires in 1948. Sir William was 46 and Susana Gil Passo was just 22 years old.

He had been invited to attend a South American conference and had hoped that it would help him to get over the loss of his first love, Alice Wimborne, who had recently died of cancer.

Spying his wife to be at the event, Sir William apparently had a vision, he told her: "I'm going to marry you. I saw you in my life and it had to happen."

Inside that brain there was nothing but music and he just had to express it

Lady Walton

Such visions peppered Sir William's life and from an early age, not only did he know his destiny, but he also ran the sound track to it continuously through his head.

Lady Walton comments: "His mother once said that he was born with music in his head, that he could sing before he could speak.

"Inside that brain there was nothing but music and he just had to express it."


A darling of the avant-garde art world in London in the 1920s and 30s, Sir William met with foreign composers such as Stravinsky and Gershwin.

The resulting affect was a less "English" approach to music compared to his contemporaries, enabling the composer to build an international reputation with works such as The Violin Concerto of 1929, Façade and Belshazzar's Feast.

His cosmopolitan approach was further enhanced when, almost immediately after marrying, the Walton's moved to Italy.

Lady Walton
Lady Walton in her volcanic garden

Love had often been the inspiration behind Sir William's music and with the move, he found that he had a new passion for the island of Ischia.

Despite being a barren place, stripped by wartime occupation, the couple survived because, Lady Walton claims, it was their "honeymoon" period.

Post war they had been unable to transfer money overseas and so the young bride had smuggled essential provisions to get them started.

Lady Walton recalled: "I stuffed my hot water bottle with £5 notes and another with tobacco for William's pipe because he smoked one after another before his cancer, poor darling."


Their island home, La Mortella, was created as a hideaway affording Sir William space to compose.

Visited every summer by the actor Sir Lawrence Olivier, the Waltons' lived happily in their volcanic idyll.

"He worked like an office boy. Eight o'clock til one, five o'clock to eight, everyday of his life," she explained.

William's music convulses you, it shatters you

Lady Walton
However, it was not just for the love of music that Sir William wrote.

Lady Walton explained: "William only wrote on commission, it's not that he wouldn't have written otherwise, but he liked to know that if he did his very best he was going to get a lovely dollop of money."


In 1983, acting on his wishes, Sir William's ashes were scattered in the grounds of the couple's home.

Determined to keep his music and memory alive, Lady Walton has since cultivated a rigorous concert schedule for young musicians to play at La Mortella.

Currently she is also performing from her husband's work, Façade.

Through the timeless quality of Sir William's music, Lady Walton believes that "William is as alive today as he was in 1920".

"William's music convulses you, it shatters you," she added.

"It hasn't lost any of its originality," she said.

Lady Walton speaking to BBC World Service
"William said he had a vision"
See also:

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