William Walton: Spitfire Prelude and Fugue

Context

Film music was bread and butter for William Walton. He established his career as a prolific British composer through his film scores. In 1942 alone there were four films released with music by Walton. The First of the Few was one of the most popular, and due to the flood of positive remarks about both the film and Walton’s music, the composer created the Spitfire Prelude and Fugue. 

The piece consists of excerpted parts from The First of the Few. The ‘Prelude’ part of the work originally plays over the opening credits of the film, whereas the ‘Fugue’ section represents the assembly of the first Spitfire. Spitfire Prelude and Fugue was premiered by the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in January 1943, with Walton conducting. 

One positive review of Walton’s music came from the New Statesman and Nation saying:

“Walton’s music deserves special recommendation. His fugal movement for the assembly of parts of the Spitfire adds immensely to the most moving sequence in the film.”

Another review, this time from John Huntley reads that:

“The Prelude is a patriotic, resounding piece of good orchestration; simple in construction, it makes ideal film music.”

 

The Music

The dramatic opening from the shrill winds to the stately strings morphs into “one of Walton’s finest marches.” The way that Walton interweaves the two strands of melody, whilst also keeping the tension high makes this opening very exciting. 

Brass stabs and interludes accentuate the bold atmosphere created by Walton. The call and response between the wind, brass and strings creates a complex dialogue across the orchestra, which only heightens the drama of the music.

The intricate melodic movement here represents the fugue that represents the assembling of the first Spitfire. The interwoven lines and Walton’s keen use of counterpoint musically describes the interaction and communication between the mechanical parts of the Spitfire as they come together.

A central lyrical violin solo depicts the exhaustion of the aircraft’s designer, R. J. Mitchell. After this short slow section finishes, the march and fugue then unite in an explosive way to accompany the completion of the aircraft and its first triumphant launch. 

The bombastic percussion and brass accentuate the return of the shrill winds, with fanfares shooting across the orchestra. The melody starts from the basses and cellos and subsequently makes its way up the orchestra until the texture has been thoroughly secured. 

Walton’s incredible march writing shines through in this end section, with the style and orchestration being particular highlights. The piece comes to a rousing finish with a flurry of loud chords. 

Final Thoughts

William Walton was dubbed by British composer Benjamin Britten as “the head prefect of English music”, and this shows in works like Spitfire Prelude and Fugue. The intricate orchestration, the bold melodies and the rousing atmosphere, this is one of Walton’s works that will never be absent from the concert hall.

Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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