England's Sir William Walton, who passed on last week, was for so long immersed in the literary culture of this century, and so retiring an image as a composer, that one wasn't sure but what to classify him as a literary figure. From his near-adoption by the lustrous Sitwell family, and his many collaborations in vocal and operatic works, it is a little astonishing to realize how much his own musical man Sir William was, and how much of his music stands on its own merits as significant art.
Perhaps more than his literary, retiring qualities, it was the arrival on the scene of that blazing comet, Benjamin Britten, that eclipsed Walton, just at the point when Walton's national and international prestige was on the threshold of a full-scale blossoming. Britten was a prolific fountain of music; Walton was the pensive tortoise among composers. The war came. Never lacking in national (and royal) acclaim, he nonetheless continued his ''life apart,'' and, one can see, retained his identity as an artistic figure quite content to follow his personal path.
England wouldn't be England without the passion for the last word in tasteful pomp. And the pomp wouldn't be more than circumstantial, by this date, without Walton's many fine contributions to that aural tradition. Elgar alone shares Walton's plane of preeminence in the mastery of Britannic musical regality.
Yet it is ultimately in his quietest, most lyrical moments that the weight of Walton's high gift for fantasy and expressivity reveals its worth. Time and again, it is the intimate and tender that have ascendency over flash and bombast. The sheer poetry of the Cello Concerto's closing, the melancholia of the 1929 Viola Concerto, are stunning, self-effacing forfeitures of display possibilities in favor of spellbinding poignance. Who that has seen Olivier's ''Hamlet'' of 1947 can forget the yearning and aching of Walton's funeral music for the last scene?
Of course, his First Symphony (1935) will always be one of the century's crowning achievements: a timeless, solidly crafted work of art at the same time as it is such an archetypal child of its time, summing up the social and artistic angst of the day with a vehemence and eloquence unsurpassed by anyone, writing in any style.
Our modern musical world finds nothing easier than to pass judgment on a composer like Walton, for all his manifest conservatism and lack of the requisite signs of niche-carving nihilism. In the long haul, though, as our sagest musicians have always reminded us, it is the degree to which listeners respond, on which all music is to be judged. And, in time, happily, our modern musical culture's growing penchant for retrospectives will probably bring it to offer in salute the hand with which it has recently down-thumbed a unique, complex, and creative member of its - our - community.