Symphony No. 1 (Walton)

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The Symphony No. 1 in B-flat minor by the English composer William Walton was commissioned by Sir Hamilton Harty, and completed in 1935.


The work is in four movements.

  1. Allegro assai
  2. Scherzo: Presto con malizia
  3. Andante con malinconia
  4. MaestosoAllegro, brioso ed ardentemente – Vivacissimo – Maestoso

It is scored for a symphony orchestra comprising: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in B-flat (doubling clarinets in A), 2 bassoons, 4 horns in F, 3 trumpets in C, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani (2 players), snare drum, cymbals, tam-tam and strings.[1] The percussion section (other than timpani) is only brought into use towards the end of the last movement.

The second movement is of note for the con malizia (with malice) performance instruction; allegedly this was inspired after Walton parted from a long-time girlfriend.[2]

Performance history[edit]

The first complete performance was given by Harty and the BBC Symphony Orchestra on 6 November 1935, although a performance of the first three movements had been given on 3 December 1934 by Harty with the London Symphony Orchestra, while Walton struggled with the composition of the finale. Harty also conducted the US Premiere of the work on 23 January 1936 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.


The symphony had its unusual genesis in Walton's tempestuous relationship with Imma von Doernberg, who finally left him for the Hungarian doctor Tibor Csato. The turbulent emotions and high-voltage energy of the symphony were the fruit of these events, with an eloquent, dramatic first movement, a stinging, malicious scherzo and a thoroughly melancholic slow movement.

The finale is totally different in outlook, being almost Elgarian in its ceremonial jubilation (although the two fugal sections clearly nod towards Hindemith).[citation needed] It is evident to the listener that a cloud has lifted, and this is explained by the fact that Walton became stuck after the slow movement, but his new relationship with Alice Wimborne provided the musical impetus and inspiration for the last movement — although he still dedicated the symphony as a whole to Imma von Doernberg.

In musical terms, the work is a landmark of English composition and represents the peak of Walton's symphonic thinking. The two composers in favour in 1930s England were Beethoven and Sibelius, advocated by Constant Lambert in his book Music Ho!. Walton cleverly draws on both sources: the first movement is written in Beethovenian sonata form, and the developmental procedures clearly derive from Beethoven. But within this skeletal frame, the first movement is shot through with smaller Sibelius-like motifs (such as the opening horn call) which run throughout the movement and bind it together. The thematic rigour and shattering emotional power of the movement — and the symphony as a whole — may be attributed to this unique method of musical construction.


Walton's First Symphony has been well represented on record. Notable recordings include:



  • Ottaway, Hugh. "Walton's First Symphony: The Composition of the Finale" The Musical Times, Vol. 113, No. 1549 (Mar., 1972), pp. 254–257.

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