William Walton: Crown Imperial


Composed between 1936-37 for the coronation of King Edward VIII on 12th May 1937, the Royal event did not turn out quite as expected. Whilst the performance of Walton’s Crown Imperial did happen on this date, the person crowned was not Edward VIII. Edward had since abdicated and his younger brother, George VI, took to the throne. Crown Imperial was also performed at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, however the score was heavily revised by the composer. In recent times Crown Imperial has been heard as a recessional piece to the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton in 2011.

Although some have dubbed Walton’s royal march as “frankly a pastiche of the pomp and circumstance style”, the work has still remained popular with audiences. The music’s affiliation towards the music of Elgar is apparent, but it has its own identity and is now seen as a respectful homage to Elgar. It is sometimes known by its nickname – Pomp and Circumstance March No. 6. 

The Music

The title of the march was taken from William Dunbar’s poem “In Honour of the City of London”:

Empress of towns, exalt in honor

In beauty bearing the crown imperial,

Sweet paradise excelling in pleasure,

London, thou art the flower of Cities all.

Opening with a bold C major march-style figure, the work falls into a classic ABABC form. The dynamic builds from the slightly quieter opening, which is supported by the Walton-esque long pedal points from the lower strings. This opening is recognised as a nod to Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance marches. The incisive opening becomes the heart of this march, with it becoming the most developed, repeated and recognisable figure of the whole piece. 

The dotted rhythm patterns add to the march style and when the brass enter after the opening string figure it properly sets in the atmosphere of the piece. After a climactic section where the whole orchestra come together, all playing counter-melodies to one another, it creates a huge wall of sound that is only penetrated by the bold fanfares from the upper brass. 

A quick modulation to Ab major sees the an Elgarian trio section which expands through the orchestra. Walton’s luscious string writing achieves an effective atmosphere change between the march and the lyrical section. After a quick pause and a tap from the bass drum, the opening march motif is proclaimed again.

With the march and trio both heard again in the lead up to the finale section, the tension begins to build to the bridge section. The mighty triplet strikes are proclaimed and the orchestra ascend into one of the biggest sections dynamically of the whole piece. The orchestra grow together, with the woodwind adding decoration to the explosion of sound underneath.

The heroic coda section begins and is high in energy and shows off Walton’s quick march style perfectly. The march theme spreads infectiously throughout the orchestra again and this adds to the excitement of the march. As the tempo picks up the music comes to a sudden close before a processional brass fanfare is heard and the rumbling response from the orchestra lays the foundation for the next two fanfares. Crown Imperial ends with three big C major chords before the work comes to a triumphant close. 


Final Thoughts

Crown Imperial has also been arranged for other ensembles such as organ, solo piano, military band, and perhaps most famously – brass band. Now a Royal family favourite, the work is often seen programmed into concerts due to its infectious nature. From the quick march style at the beginning to the lyrical trio section, this march has everything you need. 

Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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