Retirement does not mean inactivity for Dr Robin Walton. Now living in Hilton, having lectured in the Department of Music at Wits from 1971 until 2005, he is in demand as an organist in Hilton and Pietermaritzburg, is working with the Pams choir and will be conducting their concert on July 29.
Last month, he went to Britain where he was awarded an Associateship of the Royal School of Church Music (RSCM) at a ceremony at Llandaff Cathedral in Wales, for his services to church music in South Africa. His interest in the subject started when he was at school in Stockport and he joined a choir at Manchester Cathedral. He went on to study music at Cambridge and then taught – in England, Kenya and at Wits.
His interest in music has seen him edit the South African Journal of Musicology for nine years – he was a founding committee member. He was also a co-founder of the SA Music Libraries’ Association and a founding committee member of the Roodepoort International Music Eistedfodd. For his PhD, in the late seventies, he researched Italian and Venetian opera and the sacred music of the 17th century. But now, for what he describes as “ordinary listening”, he is more likely to put on CDs of the more recent orchestral repertoire – composers like Bruckner or Mahler and other music from the early 20th century.
The RSCM is active in this country, aiming to keep up the standard of music. Walton agrees that with dwindling congregations in many churches, English church music is, to an extent, marginalised. But it still has its supporters and, despite his years in the professional environment of a university, Walton firmly believes that amateur music is vital, besides giving pleasure to musicians and audiences alike.
“When I was in England, I went to watch a cricket match at Charterhouse School and I heard music coming from the chapel,” he says. “So I went in and there was a local amateur music society from Godalming, creating a lovely sound.”
They were performing one of the pieces of music that Walton is currently rehearsing with the Pams choir.
Walton started to work with the choir late last year. “I don’t have a job description,” he says. “But I’m working with the choir and conducting them.” He has had plenty of experience – he was director of the Wits choir and orchestra for several years and was in charge of their opera productions. A look at his CV also shows that he has conducted the Nairobi orchestra, was a special commissioner for the RSCM for almost 20 years, running workshops and other events, and was organist and choirmaster at St Michael’s Church in Bryanston, when living in Gauteng.
“Church music is a Eurocentric interest – you can’t get away from that,” he says. “But I don’t think we have to apologise for anything.”
For the forthcoming Pams Winter Concert in the Cathedral of the Holy Nativity, Walton will be conducting the choir, while Bill Bizley conducts the Maritzburg Philharmonic Ensemble. They have put together a programme that will involve both singers and orchestral players, with the choir’s music including Bach’s cantata Sleepers, Awake; Haydn’s The Heavens are Telling from The Creation; Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine; a Bruckner motet and music from Mendelssohn’s Elijah.
Walton knows that amateur music is up against all kinds of competition when it comes to attracting young singers and players – in South Africa’s outdoor-oriented society there is always sport, and there are plenty of other attractions and commitments. But he believes that, as long as music is marketed properly, it can still draw support. The RSCM makes a point of targeting young people and, says Walton, if music and musicians can reach out, the future need not look bleak.
Walton’s interests go beyond music – when he was at Cambridge he was awarded a Half-Blue for lacrosse, a team game, popular at girls and some boys schools in England, played with a stick with a net on the end. His interest in sport has continued and, now that retirement offers more free time, he can read more – he is currently engrossed in Irène Némirovsky’s compelling novel of France during the Nazi occupation, Suite Française. But music is still a central part of his life.
• The Pams Winter Concert will take place at 3 pm on Sunday, July 29 in the Cathedral of the Holy Nativity in Pietermaritzburg.