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Shakespeare and the music of William Walton

On 23 April 2014 we celebrate the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth. Nearly 400 years after his death he is still a source of inspiration for countless authors, composers, and artists all over the world. His plays are performed again and again in hundreds of languages, and have been the inspiration for numerous operas, ballets, and films. The most well-known and highly acclaimed Shakespeare films are the trilogy made in the 1940s and 50s, starring Sir Laurence Olivier and featuring music written by a famous William of the twentieth century — William Walton.

Walton and Olivier had met in 1936 on the set of As You Like It (another Shakespearean film featuring music by Walton) and again at a BBC recording of Christopher Columbus. By 1944, when he was approached to write the film score for Henry V, Walton had already made a name for himself with his ceremonial and dramatic music (including Crown Imperial March for the coronation of George IV in 1937), and music to accompany various patriotic films during World War II. Olivier and Walton were to work together on three films: Hamlet (1948), Richard III (1955), and their most successful partnership, Henry V (1944).

All three film scores where highly acclaimed in their day, Henry V and Hamlet attracting Oscar nominations. What made them so very successful was Walton’s unerring ability to reflect the nature of each play in his music; he knew exactly how and when to heighten emotions, create tension, and provide moments of light relief. The scores for both Richard III and Henry V rely heavily on pastiches of “Shakespearean-style” music, including folk songs (at the suggestion of another OUP composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams), brass-heavy battle fanfares, and the use of the harpsichord, whilst Hamlet has a darker, motif-led, more brooding score, again reflecting the mood of the play.

Hamlet, by William Walton

Henry V, by William Walton

Richard III, by William Walton

The original film score of Henry V was arranged into two suites; in 1945 by Malcolm Sargent and again in 1963 by Muir Mathieson (the conductor on the original film soundtrack). Henry V remains not only Walton’s most well-known film score but also one of his most popular orchestral works. In fact, in an interview given to the BBC in 1977, Laurence Olivier himself remarked that the film would have been “terribly dull” without the music. High praise indeed.

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