Robert Walker

b. 1946



Robert Walker was a chorister at St Matthew’s, the remarkable Northampton church that commissioned work from Graham Sutherland, Henry Moore and Britten. After studying at Cambridge (1965–8), five years as Director of Music at Grimsby Parish Church (1968–73), Walker made the decision to become a full-time composer in 1978. For many years his base was Brinkwells, the Sussex cottage where Elgar wrote his Cello Concerto. He founded the festival in the nearby town of Petworth. From 1982 to 1991 he was a professor of composition at the London College of Music.

His style is well described by his own note on his Piano Quintet: ‘Vernacular materials are strongly evident, and there’s no attempt to be stylistically pure. Old forms, shapes and tonalities rub shoulders with more contemporary devices’. In this, Walker was years ahead of fashion, and suffered official neglect as a result, much to the bewilderment of his enthusiastic audiences. In 1992 Walker left Britain to live in Bali. He remained in Asia for 14 years, but returned to his roots in Northamptonshire in 2004.


The musical world is perhaps at last catching up with Robert Walker. All those latest ideas - the re-discovery of melody, the emancipation of the concord, the rejection of wanton complexity, the creation of a new audience, hands-on practical composing with the odd notion that musicians should enjoy their work, and the sincere wish that listeners might too - Walker's been doing all that for years. In the early eighties, in a note on his 'Piano Quintet', he compared his methods with those of 'some architects [who] have recently moved away from the brutality of unalleviated glass and concrete to a gentler re-working of old materials - bricks, wood, gables and the like.' His description of the second movement applies to his music generally. 'Vernacular materials are more strongly evident, and there's no attempt to be stylistically pure. Old forms, shapes, and tonalities rub shoulders with more contemporary devices'. This philosophy places him firmly in the empirical tradition of English thought. Here is a composer with roots, with all the title to intelligibility that that implies.

Born there in 1946, the tap-root is Northampton, a town with more than its fair share of individualistic musicians and poets. For many years too far from either Birmingham or London, from Oxford and Cambridge, to feed on the cultural leavings of others, Northampton developed its own slightly idiosyncratic institutions, all of which needed to display that responsible and responsive closeness to the audience that is such a feature of Walker's work. None was more significant, with its tradition of musical commissions, its Henry Moore and its Graham Sutherland, than St Matthew's Church, where Walker was a chorister. That took him to Jesus College, Cambridge in 1965, where he was a choral scholar and organ scholar, and thence to another town with its own independent traditions, Grimsby. Here he was organist of the Parish Church, and music master at the Choir School.

Favourable reactions to the works that sprang from this intense engagement with musical and social reality allowed Walker to devote more time to composition - as well as other practical matters. By the late seventies he had restored a remote thatched cottage in Sussex, which happened to be the place in which Elgar wrote his 'Cello Concerto', and he had founded the Petworth Festival of English Music and Art, which revolved around the pictures Turner painted at Petworth House. There followed a decade or more of self-exploration, where his music, ever surer in touch, reflected depths of character revealed now by religious introspection, now by erotic extroversion.

This period saw a progression of orchestral music from At Bignor Hill (1979) inspired by the downland landscape, through the Variations on a Theme of Elgar (1982), to the enormous Symphony No 1 (1987) which creates a world of its own with synthesiser and its rock-music rhythms, its woodwind telling over the mathematics of bell-ringing and above all its painfully tender yet alarmingly physical love-song finale to the composer's own words. The String Quartet No 1 (1982) and the Piano Quintet (1984) head a body of chamber music that combines beauty and seriousness of intent with sheer high spirirts. And always there's music for voices, culminating with the magnificent De Profundis (1990) where Oscar Wild's works are illuminated and dwelt upon till they reach a significance worthy of Elgar's Gerontius, to which Walker's oratorio can form a huge prelude.

Walker's works are characterised by their creator's understanding of what has always been music. English Empiricism is sometimes misunderstood as mere serendipity. In fact, it offers us a chance to grapple knowledgeably with a truly perceived reality, rather than amuse ourselves with artificial systems. But the approach can only be successful in the hands of someone to whom the reality is familiar. Walker's sense of tonal balance, with its simultaneous see-sawing of dominant and sub-dominant harmony to definite the shifting tonic, could only come from a lifetime of singing, his word-setting from a real love of poetry. Walker's grasp of the materials of his art is such that it allows him, like Walton and Haydn, to be witty without being shallow. The Variations can make people laugh out loud, the sly transformation of the String Quartet into Schumann is a quieter humour, while the brilliant orchestral show-piece My Dog has Fleas (1990) does for ukulele-tuning what Lady Bracknell did for handbags, and makes one dream of The Importance of Being Ernest as an opera.

In the aftermath of the popular disaster that has characterised most classical music in the last fifty years, there still lingers in the corridors of musical power the musty taint of an habitual preference for knowledge unleavened by understanding, for intellectual brilliance untempered by humanity. The unfamiliarity of Walker's combination of all four of these attributes, and a common confounding of simplicity with naïveté, may explain the neglect his music has suffered, despite his success with audiences that had the chance to hear it. His response was characteristically robust. He built a house under the volcano on the island of Bali, where he devoted himself to the study of the gamelan, especially its social structure. A period of reflection, and a return to a self-sufficient artistic society like those of his early career, seems to have brought about a new serenity. Robert Walker later moved to Bangkok, but returned to Northamptonshire in 2004.

Walker's music is what the classical music world desperately needs, especially now. Clever and beautiful where so much is mindless or ugly, it will persuade those floating listeners, at present abandoned to the hollow satisfaction of proclaiming Comedy to be the new Rock Music, that contemporary intellectual discourse and emotional empathy are still possible in music.

I have enjoyed and admired Walker's music for over twenty years. I urge you to seek it out.

David Owen Norris.


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