Walton was born on 29March 1902 in Oldham, England. His father, Charles Alexander Walton was a music teacher and his mother, Louisa Maria (née Turner) was a singer. Walton was a child prodigy and learned piano and violin, but he never mastered either of them and chose to be a singer instead. Walton was sent to a local school but, he joined Christ Church Cathedral School in Oxford as aprobationer chorister, upon his father’s advice. Dr. Thomas Strong, the Dean of Christ Church, noted that the young Walton was extremely talented. Sir Hubert Parry, his teacher, also happened to see the manuscripts of some of Walton's early compositions and said that, "There's a lot in this chap; you must keep your eye on him." Walton remained in this institute for the next six years.
Walton was greatly influenced by Hugh Allen, who was a dominant figure in Oxford's musical life. Through Allen, Walton stepped into a world of modern music, including Stravinsky's Petrushka. Walton was greatly interested in learning musical scores by Stravinsky, Debussy, Sibelius, Roussel and other famous composers and spent hours reading books on music. Walton neglected his non-musical studies, which were also part of this graduation syllabus and consequently, failed in non-musical subjects including German and Algebra and left the institute in 1920, without a degree. From his works, such as choral anthem ‘A Litany’ composed when he was 15, it is assumed that he had a mature style of composition from his early ages.
Roy Campbell, Siegfried Sassoon and Sacheverell Sitwell were his companions at Oxford. Sitwell invited him to London, to stay with his family and he remained there for the next fifteen years. This friendship proved to be a turning point in Walton’s life. Walton received a warm welcome from the Sitwells. While there, Walton received music lessons from Ernest Ansermet, Ferruccio Busoni and Edward J. Dent. He experimented with string quartet, being influenced by the Second Viennese School, which impressedAlban Berg, who then took Walton to Arnold Schoenberg, Berg’s teacher and the founder of the Second Viennese School.
In 1923, Walton gave his first public performance, ‘Façade’, in Aeolian Hall, London. This performance was delivered in collaboration with Edith Sitwell, a famous British poet and critic, sister to his friend, Sacheverell Sitwell. They adopted an unconventional style to present this work and it was criticized for the same but eventually, became a great success. In 1929, he gave his Viola Concerto, after which he gained immense recognition as the vanguard of the British classical music. Belshazzar's Feast, a choral cantata, was the next success in Walton’s life. Though this work started as a small-scale work with a small chorus and orchestra of about fifteen players and soloist, it went on to become a massive work with time. The work was staged and became a great success and won wide acclaim. Walton then performed in Three Choirs Festival concert in Worcester in 1932 and met the great English composer Elgar, whom he greatly admired.
Walton’s relationship with the Sitwells deteriorated as he developed new friend circles. His first love affair was with Imma von Doernberg, a young widow of a German baron, and this relationship lasted till 1934, until she left him. Walter purchased a house in Belgravia 1931 and moved in to that house, putting an end to his life with the Sitwells. In 1934, he got into a new relationship with Alice, divorcee of Viscount Wimborne. Alice and Sitwells had a mutual dislike for each other and thus, this relationship made a big crack in Walton’s relationship with the Sitwells.
‘Belshazzar's Feast’, which got completed in 1935, was Walton’s first Symphony. He experienced a writer’s block in 1933, probably due the strain in his relationship with Imma von Doernberg and this resulted in a break-up. However, Walton resumed writing after a break of eight months and completed the fourth movement in 1935. Walton was assigned the task of composing the march for the coronation of George VI. Upon an understanding that he would compose music for wartime propaganda films, Walton was exempted from the military service during the Word War II. He was a part of the Army Film Unit and wrote scores for six films during the period of WW II. Walton worked for BBC as well and composed music for a radio-drama about Christopher Columbus. In May 1941, Walton lost his house in German bombing after which he moved to his new romantic partner, Alice Wimborne, to her family house at Ashby St. Ledgers. During this period, Heifetz, famous musician, bought the exclusive rights to play the concerto for two years and hence, Walton’s music was not heard in England until 1941. In 1947, Walton premiered his most substantial work, The String Quartet.
Walton was recognized by the Royal Philharmonic Society's with a gold medal in 1947. The same year, he also received an invitation from BBC to compose his first opera. This work was based on Chaucer's ‘Troilus and Criseyde’, but he had to put a halt to this work due to the death of his wife Alice in 1948. As an effort to take his mind off this grief, music publisher Leslie Boosey persuaded him to participate in a conference on copyrights in Buenos Aires, as a British delegate. He met Susana Gil Passo there. Though she ridiculed his love initially, she finally accepted his proposal of marriage and they got married in 1948 at Buenos Aires. Walton was knighted in 1951. In 1953, at the coronation of Elizabeth II, Walton was commissioned to write a Te Deum for the occasion.
Walton sold his house in London and moved to Ischia along with his wifeSusana Gil Passo in 1956. He lived on a hilltop house named, La Mortella. He was diagnosed with lung cancer and underwent a surgery in 1966. His next work, a one-act comic opera called ‘The Bear’, received an enthusiastic welcome in Britten’s Aldeburgh Festival, in June 1966. In 1967, Walton was bestowed with membership of the Order of Merit and became the fourth composer be honored so.
Walton breathed his last on 8March 1983 at La Mortella, at the age of 80. He was buried in Ischia. A memorial service was held at Westminster Abbey and a commemorative stone in his honour was placed next to those of Elgar and Britten.
Walton maintained cordial relationships with his fellow composers and young composers but he didn’t influence their style of composition. However, after his death, his widow Susana Walton initiated in formation of a trust named ‘Walton Trust’ which runs arts education projects, promotes British music and conducts annual summer master classes for gifted young musicians.