What cheer? GOOD cheer!
Walton’s lively setting of an old English Carol “conveys the irresistible anticipation of the holiday.”
Born in 1902 to a singing family, Walton had a musical childhood and joined Christ Church, Oxford at the age of 16. He failed to graduate, having neglected his non-musical studies, but was taken under the wing of the Sitwells, who introduced him to poets including Siegfried Sassoon, to whom he dedicated his first Overture, Portsmouth Point. He met Stravinsky, Gershwin and Schoenberg, and following Elgar’s death was commissioned to compose a march in his style for the coronation of George VI. “Crown Imperial” was an instant success, unlike many of his earlier compositions.
Walton is perhaps best known for his cantata, Belshazzar’s Feast (1931) set around text put together by one of the Sitwells. Sir Thomas Beecham programmed the work for the Leeds Festival, where it was conducted by Malcolm Sargent to great acclaim.
The Carol “What Cheer” was composed in 1961, by which time Walton was living on the Italian island of Ischia with a wife 24 years his junior. Grimshaw points to a ponderous bass line but notes: “the ebullient cadence in major that ends each chorus finishes the piece in an unambiguously mirthful character”.
Walton was knighted in 1951 and received the prestigious Order of Merit in 1967. Upon his death at the age of 80 he was buried on Ischia and a memorial was erected in Westminster Abbey next to those of Elgar and Britten.