Anderson, Martin, The Independent (London, England)
Welsh composer of fastidious craftsmanship who became an inspirational teacher
It sometimes seems that the smaller countries have to be under external threat before they realise what their composers have to offer. Finland took up Sibelius as a symbol of national identity when menaced by the Russians; the Norwegians found Grieg useful in similar circumstances. Perhaps Wales would have paid Gareth Walters in better coin if the English had still been massed along the borders with halberds and pikes.
But Walters would probably have objected to any status he hadn't earned. In autumn 2008, just ahead of his 80th birthday, I was working with him on a CD of his music, to be released on my label, Toccata Classics, at almost exactly the time of his birthday itself - an obvious hook on which to hang the promotion. I was surprised to discover that he wouldn't hear of it; in an age obsessed with youth, his music, he felt, should stand or fall on its own merits, and - with unfashionable integrity and restraint - he didn't want anyone waving flags on his behalf.
Walters was what the Germans call a Kleinmeister - a master of the smaller form. His output contains no oratorios wrestling with the meaning of life nor monumental symphonies inspired by turning- points in history (his only symphony, for example, is a Sinfonia breve, written in 1964); instead, he produced beautifully crafted shorter works, usually informed with considerable lyrical appeal. His best-known piece was the Divertimento for String Orchestra of 1960: ten years later, David Atherton conducted the English Chamber Orchestra in what was to be the first of no fewer than four recordings. The Sinfonia breve was also recorded, as were A Gwent Suite (1959), the ebulliently Waltonian Primavera Overture (1962), his Elegy, a "poem" for string orchestra (1969), and a number of smaller-scale instrumental and chamber works.
Music was part of Walters' life from the beginning. He began to compose as a schoolboy in his native Swansea, receiving early encouragement from Benjamin Britten, a family friend. Three years after entering the Royal Academy of Music in 1949, his horizons were broadened when he won a scholarship to the Conservatoire National in Paris. There he studied with Jean Rivier, "whose kind, avuncular manner disguised a keen sense of musical criticism", as he later recalled, and, in 1953, with Olivier Messiaen, then professor of musical aesthetics - a rather superior term for musical analysis that some might consider a formal and not very absorbing topic; but his quiet enthusiasm for the subject, particularly in relation to the piano music of Ravel and Debussy, and the then - to most of his students - unknown world of plainchant, was a revelation to us all.
In July of the following year he travelled from Paris to Siena, to study at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana, and it was there that he received an offer from London: a teaching post in the Junior Exhibitioner section of the Royal Academy of Music. It was in that capacity that, in the late 1960s and early 70s, he was the first composition teacher of Malcolm Singer, then in his mid-teens, now director of music at the specialist Yehudi Menuhin School for musically gifted children:
He looked at my first attempts at a string quartet, and told me immediately that I was a composer - how encouraging and supportive he was! …