The centenaries of artists are tricky occasions. The mere mortal has not yet had time to acquire immortality, and the commemoration may tactlessly underline how we have already forgotten whomever it is we are supposed to be remembering. So it is with William Walton, who was born in Oldham on 29 March 1902 and died in Ischia, on an estate resembling a lush tropical Eden, in 1983. His Argentinian widow, splendiferously hatted, is presiding over a series of memorial concerts, and Oxford University Press has published a photographic album entitled The Romantic Loner, edited by Humphrey Burton and Maureen Murray. But is Walton - who began as musical jester to the Sitwells, composing cheeky modernist whimsies such as Facade, and went on to supply brassy battle anthems for Laurence Olivier's Henry V as well as a grandly officious coronation march for Elizabeth II - anything more than the fading echo of a society even deader than he is? Will his second centenary be marked at all?
Burton and Murray are wrong to characterise him as a solitary romantic, estranged from his atonal times. He was a court composer, a purveyor of music to high society. He began holed up in the Sitwells' attic, and relied on subsidies doled out by a series of titled mistresses, one of whom left him a house in Knightsbridge and a Bentley when she died of cancer. Having climbed his way to the top, Walton then abruptly rejected all these jewelled perks. In 1949, he moved to Ischia with his young wife Susana, ignoring the sniffy disdain of friends such as the Kenneth Clarks, who thought that it wasn't "done" to live abroad.
Luxuriating in the sun, he was disconcerted to discover that he had run out of music. He had little enough inside him to express, which is why it took him so long to write his two symphonies, while a third never got beyond five sketched bars. He therefore settled down to be a kind of musical journalist, accepting commissions to underscore the zeitgeist. He boosted wartime morale with his cavalcades and fanfares for Henry V, composed a prelude and fugue to celebrate the exploits of the Spitfire bomber, and added to the soundtrack of a film about the Battle of Britain a jeering distortion of the horn call from Wagner's Siegfried. Britain may have trounced the Germans, but the quotation did not prove that Walton was a greater composer than Wagner.
Once the war had been won and the new monarch installed - while a band played Walton's Orb and Sceptre, with the composer cheering himself up in frosty Westminster Abbey by surreptitiously swigging from miniature bottles of whisky concealed in the floppy hat awarded to him along with his honorary doctorate from Oxford - there was little for him to do except celebrate the complacency of an affluent society or rally an empire that no longer existed. In 1956, he boosted the civic pride of Johannesburg in an overture written for the 70th anniversary of the settlement's foundation. In 1959, he manufactured one more plodding march for a television series based on Winston Churchill's History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Between times, landscaping a hillside in Ischia and renting out holiday cottages to friends, he cultivated his garden and waited for the next royalty cheque.
Before he volunteered to be an anodyne laureate, there was a mischief in him that produced fine music. He was, he admitted, a "scrounger" in his early days, and the escapades of the social climber and sexual adventurer are audible in his overture Scapino (1941), based on the subversive intrigues of the servant in Neapolitan commedia dell'arte. Observing high society from outside or from below, he saw the absurdity of its rites: hence the brilliance of Facade, with its cheeky tangos, hornpipes and tarantellas, or the tart characterisation of the slimy go-between Pandarus, vocally caricaturing the mannerisms of a civil servant well known in the 1950s, in his opera Troilus and Cressida. An urbane song cycle about the delights of London, commissioned by the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths in 1962, includes a poem by Charles Morris which - mocking the bucolic tedium of English pastoral music - insists that "a house is much more to my taste than a tree" and yearns for "a good grove of chimneys". Late in life, Walton toyed with the idea of an opera based on The Importance of Being Earnest: tantalisingly apt, except that it would have been impossible to add music to a play that is, as W H Auden pointed out, already a "verbal opera", in which the characters sing epigrammatic arias about cucumber sandwiches and plummet through an octave when mentioning handbags.
Even Belshazzar's Feast, the oratorio that he earnestly hoped would establish him as a latter-day Handel, is more a social satire than a solemn meditation on scriptural prophecy. The pagan brazenness of the Babylonian court suggests the London salons frequented by the young Walton; its revels have a lewd, jazzy swing, thanks to a shimmying saxophone. Nevertheless, he persuaded himself that the work had some spiritual fervour. In 1963, when he conducted it in Hebrew translation in Tel Aviv, he piously assured the orchestra that it was about the downfall of tyrants, and "could have some special significance in the Land of Israel". In fact, the shouted choral praise of mercenary deities gives voice to Walton's mercenariness, rather than decrying despotism.
He, too, worshipped gods of gold, silver and brass. His colleague John Ireland commented on his commercial avidity, but Walton had to be grasping to pay for that grandiose private paradise on Ischia. "The debts on the building of the property," Susana Walton commented innocently, "were an incentive to encourage him to accept commissions." Benjamin Britten was better off in his drab, functional cottage beside the sea at Aldeburgh, and his own court of what Walton called "Aldebuggers" did not require him to compromise with high society. Walton, by contrast, had a 70th birthday party at 10 Downing Street, where Ted Heath rounded up the Queen Mother, Henry Moore and, naturally, Lord Goodman ("our solicitor", as Susana loftily called him).
It sounds like a gruesome occasion. Thanking Heath for the honour, Walton droned through a fulsome rhetorical speech that Olivier had written for him and sent by telegram. Kenneth Clark's wife, once Walton's mistress, was so drunk that she twice fell off her chair, and had to be dragged home. Walton was feasting with panthers, or perhaps had been fed upon by them.
His social career ended in a pathetic apotheosis in 1983, when Tony Palmer awarded him a bit part in his biopic about Wagner. Richard Burton played Wagner; Walton, bewhiskered by the make-up department and eased into military uniform, was cast as the senescent king of Saxony, with Susana as his consort. The two pretenders held doddering court for a single scene on their terrace in Ischia, apparently unaware that the joke was on them. After this charade, it is sad to remember the sexual sound effects with which they had scandalised other voyagers on the ship back to England after their wedding in Buenos Aires in 1948. Every night as they dressed for dinner, Walton would whip the floor with his belt while Susana emitted screams of ecstatic anguish on cue; the passengers in neighbouring cabins circulated gossip about their marital games, and directed gelid stares at them whenever they appeared in public.
Even when the music dried up inside him, Walton remained yearningly rorty. An Oxford colleague of mine remembers a recording session of his liturgical music at a college chapel during the 1970s. The elderly composer attended and, when questioned by the organist about how a certain passage should be played, said that he couldn't care less: all he cared about was getting through the session as quickly as possible so he could go to see an X-rated film that was showing at a seedy cinema in (appropriately enough) Walton Street. The choir chirped its way through the anthem. Walton then struggled into his mac and sloped off into the twilight to watch Linda Lovelace unmusically opening her lubricious throat. It is a touching and somehow encouraging image: inside the grandee, there was still a dirty old man.
Walton - who was proud of the "pornographic" interlude that accompanies the off-stage consummation in Troilus and Cressida - knew that music is instigated by Eros. A pity he spent so much of his life paying insincere homage to chaster, whiter, more Anglican gods.
"William Walton: a celebration 2002" is at the Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 (020 7960 4242) and Symphony Hall, Birmingham B1 (0121 780 3333), until end of March
William Walton - The Romantic Loner: a centenary portrait album by Humphrey Burton and Maureen Murray (Oxford University Press, £25)
The Selected Letters of William Walton edited by Malcolm Hayes (Faber and Faber, £30)