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Orb and Sceptre - Coronation March

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


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