Sir William Walton and the sound of royalty.

by Dr. Jeffrey Lant

Author’s note. To get the most from this article, you will need to listen to three royal fanfares by Sir William Walton, the individual most responsible for the distinctive, rich, soaring sound that epitomizes, defines and glorifies the Windsor dynasty. These fanfares include

1) “Crown Imperial March“. 2) The incidental music for Sir Laurence Olivier’s 1944 production of “Henry V”. 3) “Orb and Sceptre March“.

You will find them in any search engine.

Image is everything.

Consider the singular problem of royalty, especially the most important royalty — sovereign emperors, kings, queens and queen consorts. They do not like us too close to their overpowering presence… but they certainly want to put their stamp on us and leave an indelible impression of grandeur, awe, majesty.

Towards this end, everything their subjects will see (and be able to be influenced and impressed by) is subjected to the most intense scrutiny and consideration. Everything must serve the greater end of the dynasty; the end being just how they are perceived by their subjects… so that the dynasty (with its mountain of anachronistic privileges) is preserved, protected, defended; the better to ensure these near immortals remain “long to reign over us”.

Amongst  the most important aspects of how royalty presents itself to you so that they may rise higher and you make the necessary (and heartfelt) obeisance is the music used to suit their never-ending purpose; the music that dazzles the ear at the same time their clothes, jewels, uniforms, decorations and all the other accouterments dazzle the eye. Of these subjects, the things to capture the eye are by far more discussed than the music that accompanies royalty upon every significant occasion of their lives.

At the April, 2011 marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, the major coverage went to two particular items: the bride’s gown and the two kisses the newly married couple made from the balcony at Buckingham Palace. By comparison a tiny percentage of mention went to the carefully chosen music, including Sir William Walton’s celebrated “Crown Imperial March”. Yes, here is where you heard that stirring fanfare first; although as it surrounded their royal highnesses, wafting them forward on a cloud of acoustic incense… you were paying attention to how the bride and groom looked and how they carried themselves leaving Westminster Abbey. The music was definitely secondary.

You knew the tableaux and its moving figures were perfect; you hardly gave a thought to the essential contribution of the fanfare, much less of Sir William Walton, its composer. Thus, the music does its essential work; moving you, influencing you, directing you where the dynasty wants your thoughts to be at that moment.

About Sir William Walton, (March 1902-March, 1983).

Walton was born into a musical family in Oldham, Lancashire. At age 16 he became an undergraduate at prestigious Christ Church at Oxford University. It was said at the time that he was the youngest undergraduate since King Henry VIII. His musical talents were quickly recognized and encouraged, particularly by the eccentric, talented, well-placed Sitwell family, Sir Sacheverell and his (distinctly odd) sister Edith. He lived with them for many years, while they “finished” their eager protege for the world. With Edith providing the lyrics, Walton composed the music for his first great success, Facade (1923). It established him as a member of the musical avant garde. But this designation (so pleasing to a young man with his way to make) proved short- lived and erroneous.

Walton’s strengths (and they were considerable) were not in inventing new forms, living on the cutting edge. No, indeed, he was no innovator… he was a traditionalist producing the incidental music for two great institutions — the British monarchy and Britain’s cinema. Such a role provided his numerous critics with what they needed to write him off as a “serious” composer… and made Walton wince, despite his celebrity and world-wide renown. It is often thus with those who are gifted in ways other than they planned or wanted…  The coronation of 1937.

Walton was a painfully slow, plodding composer; composition came neither fluently nor with celerity. His works were relatively few, with long gaps between. Nonetheless, despite the nagging criticism of “modernists” who saw Walton as a renegade, his progress was inexorable. In due course he came to the notice of the British royal family, which took serious note of the “Walton” sound… soon to be the Windsor sound — exalted, elevated, often electrifying. The Windsors, having congratulated themselves on surviving the First World War (unlike all three imperial dynasties of Russia, Austria, Germany), soon had need of these very traits. The abdication of Edward VIII and the scandal which shook the monarchy to its foundation made them desperate to reassure the nation of their worthiness. And so Walton got the call of a lifetime, being asked to provide the entry music for Queen Mary, George V’s regal consort, the pillar of the dynasty.

Queens dowager didn’t attend coronations, but Queen Mary knew her presence would reassure the nation… and she wanted something dazzling to confirm her undeniable royalty. Walton gave her, and the world, his “Crown Imperial March”. (1937). The Windsors knew at once they had the sound they — and their challenged empire — needed… and the man who could produce it for them. It was a great gift in one of the worst years in British royal history… and they took Walton to their hearts as he, like his music, soared…

“Henry V” and Queen Elizabeth II’s 1953 coronation.

Walton was now the “go to” man when you wanted music that made showy outward display carried by the imperative commands of trumpets. Walton’s music made you sit up, take notice, and transcend yourself and your little cares. It was bombastic, a shade vulgar, but packed with the vitality and the testosterone the dynasty and the nation needed.

Of his many compositions exhibiting these grandiose traits, two more deserve mention: the film score for Sir Laurence Olivier’s 1944 production of Shakespeare’s “Henry V” and Walton’s “Orb and Sceptre March”  for the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

Walton, in his way, was as much a pillar of the monarchy and Britain herself as Queen Mary.  He lifted people up when they needed it (World War II) and when a wounded nation faced post-war austerity. His music showed you why “this band of brothers” (in “Henry V”) was victorious despite great odds against them… and why the Phoenix of England would rise again with the coronation of the new, young sovereign. It is no wonder a grateful monarch gave him knightly honors and the most prestigious Order of Merit. Thus was recognized and rewarded the grandeur of Sir William Walton who made the dynasty itself and all its princes grander still.


About the Author

Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is CEO of Worldprofit, Inc., providing a wide range of online services for small and-home based businesses.

Dr. Lant is also a Royal Historian and author of 18 best-selling business books.

Republished with author’s permission by Graham Lee – The Income Zone

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