Northampton’s Royal and Derngate has recently hosted the latest festival named after Sir Malcolm Arnold, certainly the county’s most celebrated composer.
He was born in Northampton in 1921 in The Avenue, Cliftonville. Sadly, the house is no longer there and so no blue plaque.
Two other celebrated composers were also born in the town: Edmund Rubbra, in 1901 and William Alwyn, in 1905.
However, we do have another world famous composer, who is perhaps the most interesting, in spite of the fact that he was just a long-time local resident.
Although Sir William Walton was born in Oldham, much of his early and most celebrated work had strong Northamptonshire associations. Between 1919 and 1948 he spent a great deal of his time in this county.
When he was 17, William Walton became friendly with Edith Sitwell, whose parents had a home at Weston Hall, near Towcester.
In a letter written in 1922, Edith said Walton “would probably be the best composer we have ever had in England”.
He lived with Edith’s brothers, Osbert and Sacheverell, in London, and was financially supported by them.
In 1933, Edith, again in a letter, mentioned that Walton was spending the winter at Weston with Sacheverell and his wife, Georgia, who incidentally commented: “I hope to heaven he’ll behave.”
Along with many others, one of his greatest works, the oratorio ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’, with words compiled by Osbert Sitwell, was composed in the old tack room at Weston.
He was designated the stables as a workplace with his piano and small electric heater because, frankly, he played so badly.
After being called up in 1941, Walton was exempted from war service on the condition that he composed music for 14 films ‘of national importance’.
These included Laurence Olivier’s Richard III, Hamlet and Henry V, and The First of the Few, which featured perhaps Walton’s most popular concert piece, The Spitfire Prelude and Fugue, a great Classic FM favourite.
During the war, Walton had a passionate love affair with Lady Alice Wimborne, of Ashby St Ledgers. Since his London flat had been bombed, he spent most of the war years either at Weston or at Ashby. Bernard Stevenson, the Sitwell’s butler/chauffeur, remembered that while his employers were in London during the week, Walton was left alone at Weston.
He would often ask to be driven over to Ashby St Ledgers where he stayed for days on end with Lady Alice. Maybe that was why Georgia had been concerned about his behaviour.
In 1948, he was deeply distressed when Lady Alice died from cancer. She left him her London home in Kensington.
Then, while attending a conference in Buenos Aires, Walton met and fell in love with Susana Gil Passo. They married and lived for a while in Lady Alice’s house. They sold the house and bought an estate in Ischia, where Walton stayed and composed for the rest of his life.
So, maybe future ‘Arnold Festivals’ should include Edmund Rubbra’s, William Alwyn’s and definitely Sir William Walton’s music.