William Walton (1902-1983) Arr William McKie
Orb and Sceptre - Coronation March
William Walton began his musical career as a boy chorister and occasional organist at
Christ Church, Oxford, but he spent the rest of his life in much more cosmopolitan
surroundings. Leaving Christ Church in 1920 without obtaining a degree, he was taken up by
the eccentric Sitwell family, and lived with them in Chelsea for many years in the centre
of artistic London society. By the time he was 30, Walton had already made his name as a
serious composer, with works like Façade, the Viola Concerto, and the spectacular
oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast, and during the Thirties he discovered another talent
when he began to write music for the movies. By the end of the Second World War he was
firmly established as one of the most successful contemporary British composers, and soon
afterwards he married and moved to the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples, where he
lived for 35 years until his death in 1983.
In the context of such a varied and colourful life it is perhaps not surprising that
Walton soon forgot his early church music training. Apart from some teenage organ
voluntaries (presumably lost or destroyed) he never composed any organ music, and when in
1965 he was commissioned to write an anthem for the Christ Church choir, he frankly
admitted "I know b..... all about the organ!" However, some of his most popular
orchestral works have been arranged for the instrument by professional organists - most
notably the two Coronation Marches.
When plans were being drawn up in 1937 for the coronation of King George VI in
Westminster Abbey, a composer had to be found to write the Coronation March, but at that
time there was no obvious candidate; Sir Edward Elgar - the "voice of British
music", who had written the last March for George V in 1911 - had died three years
earlier. The BBC were responsible for the selection, and they made an adventurous choice:
remembering the ringing ceremonial music of Belshazzar’s Feast, which had recently
received its premiere, they commissioned a March from the young "modern"
composer William Walton. At first Walton was intimidated by the prospect, and felt that he
could never produce anything that would match the genius of Elgar. But in the end he rose
magnificently to the occasion with Crown Imperial, which was enormously successful - so
successful, in fact, that he was asked to write another March for the Coronation of the
present Queen in 1953. Never the most self-confident of composers, Walton doubted that he
would be able to repeat the success of his first march, but the "big tune" in
the middle of Orb and Sceptre is one of his finest inspirations, and the surrounding music
is impressively ornate and colourful, perfectly capturing once again the unique atmosphere
of British ceremonial and pageantry.
Walton also composed a massive Coronation Te Deum for this grand occasion, and
naturally he was invited to attend. In her entertaining biography of her husband, Lady
Walton recalled that "he wore his Oxford gown of a Doctor of Music, and filled the
round velvet hat, with its large black brim and soft top, with miniature bottles of whisky
to sustain himself through the long ceremony."
Soon after the Coronation, Orb and Sceptre was transcribed for organ solo by Sir
William McKie, who was Organist of Westminster Abbey at the time.
© David Gammie