The Piano Music of William Alwyn
William Alwyn is not normally associated with the composition
of keyboard music. However throughout his working life he wrote much
for the piano that deserves our attention. This is diametrically opposed
to the predicament that has plagued the reputations of John Ireland
and York Bowen who are regarded as being primarily writers for the piano
in spite of the fact that each wrote a large amount of music for a variety
of instrumental, vocal and orchestral combinations.
Alwyn, on the other hand is regarded by most that know
his concert hall music as a symphonist, although 50 years ago it was
imagined that the world of film music was the field of his main endeavours.
Today perhaps we can see William Alwyn in the round and can appreciate
his orchestral, chamber, film and piano music.
There are two fundamental problems in any study of
Alwyn’s writing for the piano. Firstly it is difficult to pin down exactly
what he wrote. There are, of course, a small number of ‘recital' pieces
that are relatively well known - at least to Alwyn cognoscenti. However,
much of the opus consists of smaller scale pieces that were either designed
for, or have been used for, educational purposes. I have found a number
of little gems in albums of piano pieces containing works by a number
of composers - especially the excellent Lengnick Five by Ten
series. And secondly, little of this music is easily available either
on recordings or as published scores. It is necessary to haunt the second-hand
music and charity shops in the hope of picking up a few pieces of sheet
music. A small number of works are still in publication.
Within the musical world there is a prejudice against
music produced for the amateur pianist and for educational purposes.
I remember inquiring in a well known second-hand music shop in York
about some piano pieces by Thomas Dunhill only to be told by the shop
assistant, "We don’t get much demand for him. Most people that
come here are not interested in that sort of music." There
was a definite sneer in her voice. Poor old Dunhill, such a craftsman
- whether writing for the professional or amateur. Many of the piano
works of William Alwyn are tarred with the same brush. It is assumed
that because it is published in Volume 2 of ‘The Highway of Progress’
it is not worth considering. Complexity is confused with craftsmanship;
quality with a wrongly perceived need for profundity.
The main recordings available of Alwyn's piano music,
of which there are three obvious contenders – concentrate on the concert
works. The most recent Chandos CD (CHAN 9825) has the Sonata alla
Toccata and the Fantasy Waltzes, played by Julian Milford.
The earlier Chandos Ogdon recording (CHAN 8399) has the Fantasy Waltzes
and the Preludes and the early Lyrita mono recording by Sheila
Randell (RCS16) has the Sonata and the Fantasy Waltzes.
We are lucky that the recent CD by Milford has first recordings of Green
Hills, Movements for Piano and Night Thoughts.
In this article I will consider the works chronologically.
I will examine in considerable depth the Sonata alla Toccata
as being possibly the best known of Alwyn’s works. It is instructive
to see how critics have considered this piece. It is also important
to take into account the Fantasy Waltzes, the Preludes,
and Green Hills. This will be followed by a look at a selection
of the composer’s lesser-known works for piano.
I further wish to look briefly at the series of pieces
which the composer wrote for a once well-known set of teaching pieces,
Lengnick’s Five by Ten.
I will provide an appendix that will endeavour to pull
together a number of sources and provide, as comprehensive list of compositions
for the piano as is possible.
Hunter's Moon (1920s)
According to the catalogue this is the very first piano
music to have come from William Alwyn's pen; at least to have survived.
It was composed in the early 1920s but was not published by Associated
Board until 1932/33. In many ways these are for 'teaching' purposes;
they were originally conceived as examination pieces. However, that
is not to disparage them. No one would claim that this is great music
and no one will expect to see any fingerprints of the composer that
was to emerge in the post-war years. However one feature of these three
miniatures that does strike the player and the listener is their neat
craftsmanship. They are well balanced formally and ever so slightly
daring harmonically. The first piece, Midsummer Magic is a lovely
little capriccio, which is perhaps just a little too fast to suggest
a drowsy summer's evening. However there are two contrasting themes
and a variety of accompaniment figurations, which makes it interesting
for the player.
The second piece, The Darkening Wood is obviously
influenced by John Ireland. This is by far the most difficult piece
in this suite. The left-hand figuration is used over and over again;
this suggests to me the static feel in a wood at night. Yet as we all
know, night-time also brings a wood to life with a thousand nocturnal
creatures. So it is with this music. The interest is in the right hand
and consists of melody and brief snatches of that melody manipulated
in a variety of ways. The movement ends totally at peace with itself.
The last piece has a feel of Schumann about it -a definite
Night Ride through an English and not a German landscape .The
tempo is 'allegro molto' throughout. There is some interesting chromatic
writing here, with the harmony changing constantly. For an examination
piece it is covered with accidentals. Maybe not one of Alwyn's best
pieces, but played well it is exciting and rather fun.
By the Farmyard Gate (1934)
Here we have an excellent example of William Alwyn's
ability to write good and interesting music for children and amateurs.
It is not necessarily easy to compose convincing tunes that are not
patronising to players of an elementary grade. Yet in this suite Alwyn
manages to combine technical interest with good tunes and genuine musical
The Duck-pond is a little gigue - nothing too
complicated yet constantly moving along. There are a few interesting
harmonic touches here which contributes to the interest.
The second piece, A Ride on Dobbin has quite
a bit of unison melody. There is a short contrapuntal section and the
work finishes with echoes of the opening theme, this time harmonised.
Sheep in the Paddocks is a chromatic little
number. It is quite slow and rather wistful. It needs a good pianissimo
However it is the fourth number that is the gem of
this suite - in fact it is one of Alwyn's best miniatures - Swinging
on the Gate. It has a good rollicking 6/8 tune with echoes of Easthope
Martins choral piece - Come to the Fair. But the whole piece
is very jolly and happy. It concludes with a bit of a variation on the
It is a suite that most Grade 5 players could make
a good try at sight-reading. Yet this would be to do it an injustice.
It is actually worth taking a bit of trouble over. It is amazing to
think that this is the same man that composed Miss Julie and
the Magic Island prelude. Yet all the Alwyn craftsmanship is
present even in this small suite.
Green Hills (1936)
William Alwyn composed Green Hills in 1935.
It was conceived whilst on an examining board tour abroad and is dedicated
to Paul Anson, himself a composer. It can almost certainly be regarded
as Alwyn's 'Home thoughts.' It is perhaps homesickness or maybe just
a response to memories of England's 'Green and Pleasant Land' seen through
the lens of sunnier climes.
Andrew Plant in his sleeve notes for the Milford disc
has alluded to the mystical 'horns of Elf-land' that were to be a feature
of the 3rd Symphony written some twenty years later. There is certainly
nature mysticism in Green Hills - whether it derives from Arthur
Machen's dreams of Puck, Arnold Bax's Celtic twilight or Houseman's
Land of Lost Content. It may be that this imagery has been filtered
through the piano works of John Ireland, especially the enigmatic Spring
will not Wait; it is hard to tell.
Yet this piece is a minor masterpiece. It is a miniature
tone poem -lasting less that three minutes; there is not a note too
few or too many.
This music is not pastoralism by any manner of speaking,
except perhaps for a tentative allusion to George Butterworth's Shropshire
Lad Rhapsody near the end. The harmonies are bittersweet; often
having a sense of polytonality. The tonalities of the piece seem to
be constantly shifting; there are parallel chords with gently biting
For such a short piece there is much mood and tempo
change - Andante molto e tranquillo- Poco pui mosso-Poco agitato -Tranquillo
e dolce. In fact the general impression of this piece is as seeming
inability to establish a tempo and a tonality. It is as if it were a
painting with colours running into each other.
The heart of the piece is the 'Poco agitato' that then
becomes 'con passione.' This mood is emphasised by octaves with added
thirds against left-hand arpeggios. This climax is followed by a reprise
of the opening material. There is a gorgeous heart easing spread chord
near the end. The piece dies down to a 'niente.'
Tinker's Tune (1938)
This is a rather workmanlike example of teaching material.
Part of Banks & Sons of York 'Instructive and Tuneful series of
pieces this is in good company with works by Thomas Dunhill and Eric
Thiman along with a raft of now largely forgotten composers. It is probably
written for grade 2 going on 3. However, even although this is 'educational'
it does not preclude interest and musical worth. It is effectively a
little reel and is marked Allegro non troppo. The piece opens with a
figuration in quavers that continues more or less throughout the piece
although subject to subtle variation. There are some interesting harmonic
clashes and a bit of syncopation that add spice to this miniature. It
was published in 1938.
Night Thoughts (1940)
William Alwyn volunteered to be an Air Raid Warden
on the outbreak of the Second World War. He was sent on the required
training course before taking up his duties in the Capital. He decided
to evacuate his family away from the Blitz. At the start of the war
the Royal Academy of Music was closed, (although it later reopened and
composition classes were resumed) and much of the musical life in London
temporarily ceased. Alwyn was at this time heavily involved with the
Ministry of Information and the Army Film Unit in the making of propaganda
films. These productions were shewn at home and abroad. The composer
mentions the fact that these films were so successful and so aroused
the ire of the Nazis that his name was on the list of people who were
to be arrested were Hitler to invade Britain. It was something that
he was quite proud of.
Soon Alwyn was spending many nights at the A.R.P post
in London. He was involved with fire watching and with patrols presumably
to ensure that people had 'put that light out.' This active service
was usually hectic but sometimes involved hanging around waiting the
bombing to start. It was out of these activities that the piano piece
Night Thoughts was born.
This is quite a short piece lasting just under five
minutes. It is divided into four clear-cut sections. The score is prefaced
with a quotation from Walt Whitman, 'By the bivouac's fitful flame,
A procession winding around me, solemn and sweet and slow…' from the
poets great cycle 'Drum Taps.' It is worth quoting the whole poem here
for it is apposite.
By the bivouac's fitful flame,
A procession winding around me, solemn and sweet
- but first I note,
The tents of the sleeping army, the fields' and
woods' dim outline,
The darkness lit by spots of kindled fire, the silence,
Like a phantom far or near an occasional figure
The shrubs and trees, (as I lift my eyes they seem
to be stealthily
While wind in procession thoughts, O tender and
Of life and death, of home and the past and loved,
and of those that
are far away;
A solemn and slow procession there as I sit on the
By the bivouac's fitful flame. (1865)
There is no way that this short piano piece is an attempt
to mirror the sentiments of this great poem. It is simply that the poem
has provided an intellectual support for the moods of the music. Yet
in many ways the key line seems to me to be 'O tender and wondrous
thoughts, Of life and death, of home and the past and loved, and of
those that are far away.' This is what this piece seems to say to
me. It was dedicated to Peter Latham.
The opening of the work is instructed to be played
'Andante, thoughtful and expressive.' This is quite uncomplicated music
- although there are hints of little trumpets with 'horn passages' (elf-land
again?) these are hardly militaristic. There is absolutely nothing avant-garde
here - this is simply Alwyn writing music from the heart. It is really
quite impossible to categorise this work. It is certainly not 'light'
music yet neither is it neo-classical. In some ways the opening theme
is so simple - it reminds me at times of a hymn tune arranged for piano.
As the music develops, however, there is a degree of complexity introduced.
Suddenly there is an almost orchestral feel to this - it is possible
to differential two strands of musical material working - more than
just counterpoint. There are a number of interesting key changes in
the middle section; it would not be too hard to spot a few Delian progressions.
The Agitato section is at first quite romantic - yet
still we hear the trumpets. There is no doubt that John Ireland lies
behind these faster passages. There is a touch of aggression in the
last bars of this fast section before the music returns to the 'hymn
tune.' The piece ends quietly and almost ambiguously.
The listener cannot fail to be pleased with this music.
The composer has satisfied their expectations; this is a nocturne, it
does help us to understand thoughts provoked through the watches of
the night. It is surely one of the best of Alwyn's miniatures and deserves
to be played much more. It is a truly attractive piece that is straightforward,
unpretentious and downright beautiful. It is Alwyn simply being himself.
Sonata Alla Toccata (1946)
The ten-year period from about 1943 until the first
performance of the Sonata resulted in a number of works in a
variety of styles. In 1939 Alwyn had suppressed a number of his early
works and had re-launched his composing career. He adopted a neo-classical
style that resulted in the Rhapsody for Piano Quartet and the
Divertimento for Solo Flute. However this decade was a time of
intense work on film music along with his wartime service in the A.R.P.
He wrote music to some 64 films - both feature and documentary. It was
the time of some of his greatest scores in this medium, including Odd
Man Out, The Wilmslow Boy and The History of Mr Polly.
He was less prolific in writing works for the concert
hall, but this is hardly surprising given his workload. The Concerto
Grosso No. 2 in G was perhaps the last work to be conceived almost
entirely in his neo-classical style, although even here there are flashes
of romanticism clearly visible. He revisited the pastoralism of a previous
generation with his exquisite Concerto for Oboe, Harp and Strings.
This is a considerable achievement and deserves wider recognition. There
were the attractive Scottish Dances, recently rediscovered by
Brian Kay, although these were very much light music trifles, albeit
written with great skill.
So when he wrote the Sonata alla Toccata he
was moving away from the first flush of enthusiasm in the neo-classical
project. Alwyn himself writes, "neo-classic should not be over stressed
as I never permitted the genre to inhibit my in-born romanticism.'
Two years after the completion of the Sonata he
began work on his excellent First Symphony.
Alwyn himself stated that he had written this work
for sheer enjoyment - he claimed that he 'loved the piano with an enduring
love.' Gary Dalkin in his review of the Milford recording suggests that
the work could mark a celebration of the end of hostilities. However
it is clear that on this estimation the central andante is perhaps a
reflection on the inherent sadness and tragedy of war - a remembrance
of those who did not survive.
The work was not given in public until the Cheltenham
Festival of 1951, although it had probably been played a number of times
in private or for small groups of people. It was published in 1951 by
Lengnick. The reception by the reviewer for Music Survey was not optimistic.
Harold Truscott stated, 'This work is neither
a sonata nor a toccata. It is all that can be expected from the stylised
conventions of the modern English School. I am afraid its heart is as
synthetic as its title.
Harold Truscott; Music Survey
IV No.1 October 1951
In many ways of course he was right. It is not really
a sonata at all. Parts of the music are certainly toccata-like, but
in reality it is a collection of three pieces that do seem to form some
degree of unity when played together. In fact I believe that it would
not be possible to play these movements out of context. Where Truscott
is wrong is in his blanket statement about the stylised conventions
of the 'modern English School.' In many ways this is hard to understand.
What does he mean? To which composers is he referring? Perhaps it is
the group of musicians that were to shortly contribute to Five by Ten.
Certainly it was not Arnold Bax, John Ireland or Cyril Scott who were
provoking this remark. Perhaps, if we see it in the context of the piano
music of William Wordsworth and Franz Reizenstein it does make some
sense. Yet it is a sweeping generalisation that does not do the reviewer's
credibility much good.
The unsigned review in Musical Opinion is much more
This, while it is of much more serious proportions
than the ‘Festival March,’ strikes the same note of jubilation and it
is a real pleasure nowadays to see a piano work that does not scorn
nobility of expression in favour of tinkering with vapid snatches of
melody and ‘novel’ dissonances. There are three movements, all fairly
short. The first, after a Maestoso opening, settles down into a glittering
toccata, that has the atmosphere of an extended fanfare. The second,
in direct contrast, is of the utmost simplicity and grows form an idea
built around eight repeated notes with a little tag. The last movement,
a vivace preserves the toccata like surge of the whole conception and
attains its climax in a Trionfale section of great power, and ending
with a Presto Furioso of tremendous energy. The whole work, in spite
of its modern idiom reminds me in its drive and vitality of Handel,
although I should be hard put to it to say exactly why.
Musical Opinion June 1951
This reviewer gets to the nub of the matter. He picks
up on what is perhaps the basis of virtually all of William Alwyn's
music. So much composition at this time was beginning to explore serialism.
Schoenberg's Three Pieces for Piano had a huge influence. It
seemed that a composer had to snap the thread of tradition in order
to become relevant. The reviewer's description of some of this 'modern'
music is pertinent - he complains about composer's who are' in favour
of tinkering with vapid snatches of melody and ‘novel’ dissonances.'
How descriptive of much music that was to be written over the succeeding
thirty years. The strength of Alwyn's approach was in writing a 'work
that does not scorn nobility of expression.' In other words a piece
of music that was fun, entertaining and technically interesting. It
was his ability to unite tradition with modernity without sacrificing
At this point in the discussion it would be of interest
to look at the form and construction of the work.
The first thing to realise is that most of this work
is derived from one 'motto' theme that is given in C major in the first
few bars of the work. It is played 'maestoso.' However this slow material
is soon cast aside and the toccata figurations takes to the fore, played
allegro. The 'second subject' is in the key of Ab major is very much
a dancing tune, that manages to keep the momentum of the music going.
The toccata figuration never really stops, and as both themes are developed
it is inevitable that the opening them is restated triumphantly. The
movement ends rather skittishly.
The slow movement is one of Alwyn's most attractive
and superficially straightforward of pieces. The entire piece is a little
set of six variations; each one of theme being a mere six or so bars
long. The movement ends with a short coda. Joan Chissell has written,
'all of [these variations] retain a limpid purity and innocence bespeaking
a rare 'delight in simple things.'"
The last movement, a molto vivace, is back in the toccata
theme. It has a rippling triplet figure that underlies much of this
movement. Alwyn introduces a marcato idea to act as a foil to the figuration.
But the main point of this movement appears to be the reestablishment
of the original motto theme given at the beginning of the work. The
composer uses a variety of development techniques to allow the motto
to come to the fore. It is given out in octaves and finally in massive
chords. It is a satisfying conclusion to this work.
I found a cutting attached to my copy of the Lyrita
recording of the Sonata by Sheila Randell, I have been unable to find
where it was printed or published although it appears to be contemporary
with the first performance at Cheltenham. I find the writing somewhat
pretentious and not particularly helpful in coming to an understanding
of this work. However I quote it simply as an elusive example of how
musicologist can often obfuscate the clear enjoyment of a piece of music.
Perhaps someone will be able to tell me who the author was and not a
few may disagree with my opinion of these comments.
The pianistic writing of Mr Alwyn shows his awareness
of the new conceptions regarding the instrument’s resources: on the
other hand he is conservative enough not to sacrifice established conventions
purposelessly. In his three movement Sonata alla Toccata the practical
compromise of jazz technique had obviously taken a hold on his imagination,
though we would have welcomed a more consistent assimilation of its
devices instead of his unquestioned acceptance of its mannered figuration
formulae and stereotyped ostinato. Nevertheless the texture is unencumbered
almost throughout. Mainly because of the effective use of staccato and
martellato playing, of percussive discords, and of cleverly contrived
although nowhere striking passage work. The work shows his gift for
inventing alert and pungent musical ideas which are fundamentally quite
simple, yet crisp, always decided rhythmic profile if not consistently
The opening thought of the slow middle movement
is of a more sustained nature. On the other hand we find the extensive
passage in the last movement, subsequently apotheosised in the coda,
antipathetic: this is so to speak in terms of music folklorist, an urbanised
variant of the familiar Stravinsky tune, and quite unnecessarily bombastic,
as these derivative ideas so often are. His flirtation with jazz is
again apparent in the rhythmic patterns: but while shifted metric accents
employed now and again often impart a touch of piquancy to the discourse.
Their exact sequential repetitions or other mechanical multiplication’s
are bound to become dull.
Nor do we believe Mr Alwyn’s harmonic treatment
is entirely free from objectionable features: passages of satisfyingly
purposeful chordal organisation and relatively advanced grammar occur
side by side with harmonic mannerisms which were eschewed by the more
discerning even of the early nineteenth century composers. In addition
there are some less immediately perceptible, though none the less disturbing
stylistic inconsistencies hidden beneath a deceptive fluency of speech:
the deficient of organic growth leaves the promise of the ideas often
unfulfilled: we miss logical relevance in certain of the succeeding
The sustained lyricism of the slow movement, however
would silence dissension. The harmonic scheme of the seemingly unpretentious
opening sentence reveals a subtly organised rotation around an immutable
F whose suggestiveness would compensate for the slight conventionality
of its cadence. The character of this idea excludes any other formal
solution than a set of variations.
Five By Ten (1952)
In 1952 Lengnick published what is a remarkable set
of graded teaching pieces. In fact it is actually wrong to suggest that
they are purely educational. Virtually all these pieces make fine recital
numbers for pupils ranging from about grade 1 to grade 6. The series
was edited and graded by the redoubtable Alec Rowley. What is superb
about these volumes is the eclectic group of composers commissioned
by the publisher to write these miniatures. The list is worth giving
In many ways we have a conspectus of musical composition
in Britain at the beginning of the 1950s. Some were already rather famous
such as Alwyn and Rubbra. Others were on their way up, such as Malcolm
Arnold and Elizabeth Maconchy. A number of these names are now perhaps
forgotten to most listeners, even British music specialists. However
the music of Reizenstein, Wordsworth and Stevens, although probably
little known nowadays urgently needs to be rediscovered.
For the record my favourite piece in this series is
by Malcolm Arnold and is called - The Buccaneer. It has all that
composer's trademarks and is a fine piece that could be played at any
William Alwyn contributed nine pieces to this series.
All of them are fun to play and all prove that the composer could turn
his hand to writing attractive and well written music that is relatively
easy to play. The titles of the pieces are evocative and no doubt were
given to appeal to the children of the day. Although this series is
still in print one cannot help feeling that today's child would find
the titles rather tame.
The first piece, 'The trees are heavy with snow'
is very short - only 20 bars long. It is made up of varied four bar
phrases that reiterates the main theme. This theme definitely has a
'dropping' feel to its progress.
What the mill wheel told me opens with the left
hand imitating the water wheel slowly revolving -'not too fast and rather
wistful. There is a motif given on the right hand and then repeated
- is this the tale? Or is the real story in the left hand?
The first fast piece is The Village Bell Ringers
that ought to be played lively. Basically it is a pedal fifth chord
where the pianist is invited to keep the pedal down throughout the entire
piece. There is a little four bar theme given and then with variations.
Hunting Scene comes complete with a little 'programme'
written by the composer. Along with many 'hunt' pieces it is probably
not politically correct nowadays. It is a fast piece in 3/4 time. The
hunting horns call - echoed by the left hand (pp). The horn call and
its echoes get shorter and shorter until there are only two notes are
left. There is a distinct pause. Then we are off at a gallop - louder
and faster. It builds to a climax with a dissonant chord, where presumably
the fox is nearly caught. But the trail goes cold.
The fifth piece, The Sun is Setting is much
longer than the preceding tunes. It is to be played slow and expressive.
Major, minor and augmented triads in the left hand support a diatonic
melody in the right hand. There is some interesting chromatic figuration
in this piece. The harmony here is effective and quite involved.
The Sea is Angry is a fast and stormy little
tune. It is unusually written in 12/8 time. Even this miniature displays
Alwyn's expertise at writing music depicting seascapes and water. There
is much unison wiring underpinned by a pedal note in the bass. The storm
certainly rises and falls; the composer makes subtle use of chromatic
figuration to emphasises the progress of the storm. Ends in solid d
In my opinion 'Bicycle Ride' is the best of
these pieces - at least it is the most fun. It is highly descriptive
of pedalling up and down hills in the countryside! It is nearest to
the light music genre of the 1940s and 50s. Given a fair old pace at
Allegro leggiero there is a little 'cycling' theme in the right hand.
This theme gets slower or faster depending whether the bike is going
up hill or down. There is a good modulation given when coasting down
hill. There is a slow climb and almost a dead stop. Then off we go with
the cycling theme again. Ends neatly.
Water Lilies is actually quite a complex piece
for educational purposes. It has echoes of a seemingly endless list
of precursors. In many ways it is quite a varied little piece with a
number of ideas and themes. The composer indicates that both pedals
ought to be depressed. This leads to a blurred, impressionistic effect
with the left-hand third chords with added notes. The melody is constantly
varied, with echoes back to the opening four bars.
Cinderella is a recital piece. This is the last
work in the five volumes of Five by Ten and is almost certainly the
most difficult to play and to interpret. It is also one of the longest.
The form of the piece is interesting. On first play through the impression
is given of constant change of melody and accompaniment with no obvious
unifying material. It is composed as a waltz and is written in 6/8 time.
It is only after study that one realises the piece is actually very
cleverly constructed. It is as if the music is reminiscence by Cinderella
after she has returned from the ball. There is constant change of tempos,
figuration and even tune. Nothing ever seems to be tied done – it is
a work of fleeting images. Yet there are snatches of theme that are
presented and re-presented which lead to a sense of unity. A truly lovely
miniature and well worth learning.
Fantasy-Waltzes for Piano (1956)
At about the same time as William Alwyn was composing
his great Third Symphony he was at work on the Fantasy-Waltzes
for piano; at least various ides were beginning to gestate in his mind.
This was the first piano work to be composed after the Five by Ten
The piece was inspired after a visit to Edvard Grieg's
lakeside home at Troldhaugen near Bergen. It was originally to have
been a few 'salon' style pieces composed in an attempt to prove that
it was still possible to write music that was approachable, enjoyable
and fun to play. Unusually for William Alwyn at this time they are not
based on a tone row, but were written in a free virtuosic style.
They were composed for the New Zealand pianist Richard
Farrell, who gave their first performance at Broadcasting House on 2nd
June 1957. He had already played a number of the individual waltzes
in New Zealand. However, Farrell was to die tragically in a motor cycle
accident the following year.
The work is divided into two sections - waltzes one
to six and seven to eleven. There is no single thematic basis to the
whole work. True, there are references in the last bars of some of these
waltzes to the following one. The work is not pastiche. What Alwyn does
is to take the form and rhythms of various kinds of waltzes and apply
his own invention to them. It is not his intention to generate a stylistic
unity - in fact the whole work is predicated on a constant creation
of new material with only a small number cross-references. In some ways
it is like the transcriptions of Franz Liszt -basic material is taken
and then reworked in the composer's image. For example, the final waltz
is reminiscent of a style once popular with amateur pianists - yet it
is worked up into something that is quite definitely the composer's
own work. Unlike the original works they become highly virutosic and
much more concentrated and involved. Alwyn uses a wide variety of styles,
takes them up and throws the away. There are allusions and references
to Ravel, Rachmaninov, Chopin and Johann Strauss. However there are
no actual quotes given; it is very difficult to isolate styles and allusions
and that is not the intention of the composer.
Much of this music is quite romantic - although here
and there are nods to the earlier neo-classical style. This is simply
an application of Alwyn's economical fashion rather than a development
of that style harmonically or melodically. Above all this piece is fun;
the composer is clearly enjoying himself and has produced a minor masterpiece
that is well written and enjoyable to listen to and to play.
The first waltz is straightforward - it is written
in good old-fashioned ternary form; it is a little like Ravel.
Next comes an interesting and quite humorous piece
-with variety and contrast brought by a good cantabile melody.
The third waltz, a 'moderato,' is a straightforward
salon piece. It was apparently the first piece in this work that Alwyn
composed; it was the basis of the entire set. Naturally enough there
are allusions in style, if not in content to Grieg himself. It is ideally
placed third as it acts as a foil to the relative sophistication of
the first two waltzes.
The fourth number is a lovely 'grazioso,' well written
and again in the 'light' music vein.
The Waltz No. 5 in Ab major is a complex piece - at
least harmonically. It pushes the form of a waltz to its limit.
The last piece in the first section is again a foil
to the previous one. It is much lighter in style and is reminiscent
of the kind of salon music that was popular in the early years of the
The first waltz of the second half of this work has
been compared to Debussy. This is more to do with the tones and sonorities
produced on the keyboard rather than any reference to specific works
by the French master. It is a deep and profound piece of music that
perhaps need the context of the surrounding numbers to allow it to be
The Waltz No. 8 is perhaps the most attractive of the
entire set. It has been likened to a Viennese waltz seen through the
transcriptive eyes of Sergei Rachmaninov.
The ninth piece is to my ear is a touch unbalanced.
It opens with a vague, meandering feel and then proceeds into a 'middle
eight' of plunging romanticism. This music is highly charged and very
passionate, only to collapse once more into a reprise of the indistinct
After the romantic stress and strain of the previous
waltz it is refreshing to be presented with what is ostensibly another
quite enjoyable salon pieces.
The whole work concludes with a wonderful finale that
is full of style and pizzazz. The Presto is really the only movement
here that could be construed as pastiche. It is supposedly like the
kind of waltz that was popular with the French publishing house of Durand.
However it is a great way to finish and leaves an impression of a highly
enjoyable work, quite out of sympathy with much that was happening musically
in the late nineteen fifties.
Twelve Preludes for Piano (1958)
Perhaps the first thing to consider is whether it is
right that these twelve preludes should be played as a cycle or whether
they can be excerpted. We need only think of Rachmaninov or perhaps
Scriabin to see that recitalists often pick a number of 'preludes' from
the various sets these composers wrote. The same could be said of Bach
and Chopin. It is, perhaps with the two sets written by Debussy that
we may have to compare William Alwyn's works. Although not exclusively
so, with the exception of one or two encore pieces such as the 'Girl
with Flaxen Hair' concerts and CDs tend to present Book 1 or Book
2 in their entirety.
I think that, although the Preludes by Alwyn are mostly
individually self-sufficient, they are actually served best by being
played together. Yet in some ways this is strange; there is no obvious
thematic thread running through these pieces. In fact the very opposite
is the case. Alwyn decided to use very short note groups as the basis
of these pieces. These were closely related to key centres and all the
preludes have an allocated key signature. Yet he invented a new note
group for each of the dozen pieces. In spite of this diversity it is
best to take these dozen preludes at a sitting. Each number is roughly
two minutes long, the entire works lasting just under half an hour.
The first prelude is quiet and reflective. It is quite
economical in its use of material. For the most part it is played very
quietly with just a little frisson in the middle section. There is a
strange hardness of tone in some of the repeated notes -in fact quite
a disturbing element within what is a seemingly untroubled mood. The
piece ends as quietly as it began.
The second opens dramatically - as implied in the instruction
'Allegro drammatico.' There is much-repeated figuration here giving
the impression of turbulence. However after an impressive flourish the
music dies down and collapses. There are quiet, slow repeated chords
and a simplification of the texture. This is a strange piece really,
with the two sections rather unbalanced.
The next prelude, a 'Molto Semplice' presents music
of seeming innocence. It is truly lovely music that is perfectly balanced
in all its parts. Yet perhaps hidden in the innocence there is a touch
The fourth prelude is actually a study - William Alwyn
says it was composed to display rapid finger technique. There is at
times a jazzy feeling here - or is it perhaps even boogie-woogie? The
second section is much quieter and is rhythmically blurred with much
use being made of the pedal. The melody is given in octaves towards
the conclusion and is followed by a quicksilver coda. A very fine piece
The New Zealand pianist Richard Farrell was the dedicatee
of the fifth prelude. In fact it was composed just a few days after
his death in the motorcycle accident. This is a gorgeous piece that
has much depth and feeling to it. In some ways it appears almost too
simple: it is not until after a couple of hearings that its subtleties
begin to become evident. There are some clever modulations and not a
few bittersweet harmonic clashes. The later part of the prelude makes
use of impressive chordal writing that adds drama. However, in strange
contradistinction some of the writing is almost reminiscent of café
piano style. Yet the overall impression is of balance and near perfection.
The sixth prelude is actually another study. It is
written to display rapid chords in progression. It certainly comes as
quite a contrast to the preceding elegy. It is rhythmically strong sounding
rather like Scriabin or perhaps even Rachmaninov in places, yet it is
none the worse for that. It is certainly one of the best of these preludes.
The piece closes with a good coda and a false ending which gives the
listener a little jolt.
The seventh prelude is quietly played and sounds like
distant bells. It is really quite meditative and has all the appearance
of a very simple piece. Yet this simplicity is perhaps misleading. It
is actually a difficult piece to play well. There are more than just
hints of Debussy's 'underwater cathedral' in these pages. There is a
slight crescendo in the middle section, before the work closes as it
began. This is a well-balanced piece.
William Alwyn states that the eighth prelude is 'pastoral'
in character. This seems to be an overstatement - there seems little
to justify this description. The tempo marking is 'grazioso et delicato,'
however even this seems to be unjustified. There are a number of felicitous
touches in this prelude, yet the overall impression is that the composer
has lost the plot a bit. Some of this music seems to me to be makeweight.
The ninth prelude also seems to suffer from a lack
of formal principle. It is as if the composer has lost his concentration.
The opening of the piece is 'elusive' and in fact becomes a touch monotonous
during the first section. Once again there are touches of Debussy here.
Suddenly the character of the piece changes and the prelude ends with
glissando like scales. A very unbalanced piece.
The tenth prelude is an Allegretto leggiero; once again
this is a study in delicacy of touch. It is a pleasing piece that is
extremely difficult to keep under control and to maintain a consistency
of touch. However, some of this prelude is actually anything but delicate
-there is some intensity here that requires firm playing. The piece
The penultimate prelude is composed on three notes
- Db, Eb and F. This is the ultimate in musical economy. Yet with this
limited material Alwyn is able to create a misty magical atmosphere.
This is an extremely beautiful piece even if it is rather short.
The final piece, an Allegro brings the cycle to a triumphant
close. It opens with a toccata-like figuration that continues, under
a number of guises to permeate the work. Much of the sound of this prelude
reminds the listener of water - from mere ripples to crashing waves.
The 'big' tune is given in the bass with the toccata theme in the treble
clef. There are memories here of the Magic Island Prelude and
perhaps the Third Symphony. There is a big powerful build up,
followed by a sudden diminuendo. An enigmatic coda followed by a huge
display of chords brings the work to a conclusion.
Although there are a number of weak points where the
composer seems to have lost his way, the vast majority of these preludes
are superb in their form, their melodic and harmonic structure and their
relationship to each other. These Twelve Preludes must be taken
at a sitting. Although they are not thematically related there is a
unity about them that only becomes obvious when they are heard together.
Once again it is possible to hear the 'horns of elfland' in these pieces.
I am surprised that this has not been commented on before.
This cycle of preludes will never become truly popular;
they are very subtle and sophisticated (in a positive way). Yet they
deserve to be listened to, played and studied. They are one of the finest
achievements in the literature of twentieth century piano music. They
are as good as any work that was produced for the piano in the 1950s
and much better than most.
Movements for Piano (1962)
To fully understand this work we need to consider some
biographical circumstances of the composer. His relationship with is
first wife had become considerably strained. According to his autobiography,
Winged Chariot, he owed his sanity and health to the care and
devotion of his future second wife. He was finding life quite stressful
in London as well, no doubt it was compounded by his marital difficulties.
His doctor suggested that it was time for a change; he was advised to
leave home and the capital.
However, he had a number of works in the frame that
he felt duty bound to try and complete. In 1959 Alwyn had finished his
Fourth Symphony; this was certainly no restful piece of music.
He had abandoned a Piano Concerto that he was writing due to
the illness of the dedicatee, Cor de Groot. This was to have been played
at the 1960 Promenade Concerts. In spite of his nervous exhaustion and
considerable mental strain he produced a work that is 'gay and bustling'
- the Derby Day Overture. This was first performed at the Proms
on 8th September 1960. At this time he was working on his
final film score - The Running Man.
Finally, William Alwyn decided to set up home with
Mary, who had been a pupil and was herself a composer. They decided
to settle in the Suffolk village of Blythburgh which has an attractive
location near the coast and estuary of the River Blyth.
However, the move was not soon enough to prevent Alwyn
from having his nervous breakdown. He was totally unable to compose
music for nearly two years. He sadly developed a fear of playing the
piano. It was only through the persistence of Mary that he was coaxed
back into this recreation. She encouraged him to play piano duet versions
of Mozart and Haydn. Soon Alwyn was eased back into composing. His first
piece after his breakdown was a String Trio.
His reawakened passion emerged with Movements for
Piano. This is quite a long piece, lasting some fifteen minutes
and consisting of three contrasting yet strangely unified movements.
It definitely marks an enlargement of his compositional style. This
music is often disturbed and unsettled. It is quite introspective, as
if the composer was off-loading much that had been going on in his life
over the past three or so years. The work appears to lack day-light;
in fact it largely consists of dark tones and shadowy hues. However,
what is unique, is the balance that Alwyn generates between the abstract
quality of this music and the extremely romantic feel that much of it
generates. There is also equilibrium between the serial and seemingly
tonal elements of this music that give it its complex feel.
There are three movements to this work - Allegro appassionata,
Evocation and The Devils Reel.
The first movement is tempestuous. Gary Dalkin has
likened it to 'a questing spirit in the rushing turbulent waters.' There
is quite an atonal feel to the opening pages of this movement - the
tune is given out simply at the beginning and is then developed. There
are some percussive Bartokian chords here before the music begins to
take on a passionate tone. This is certainly not neo-classical music
-but full-blown romantic writing. It is only on the second or third
hearing that one realises that there are some warm passages in this
stormy opening movement. The central section has some quiet and quite
heart easing chords. Yet the underlying tone is turbulent, there is
no doubt about that. Much of this Appassionata music is almost Lisztian
The second movement is ominous, and is largely composed
of dappled hues and has a blurred feel to it. Is the composer trying
to portray the dawn over the Blyth estuary? Or is he musically expressing
the rebirth of his composing career after his nervous breakdown? Once
again the atonal feel of this movement is quite obvious - especially
in the opening and closing sections. Alwyn has made use of a tone row
here that is loosely related to that used in his great Third Symphony.
Yet he makes a subtle use of this musical tool: he never allows it to
control his thought - he is master of the row. Suddenly, out of almost
nowhere there is an attractive melody supported on harmonies reminiscent
of a Chopin Nocturne. There is an impressionistic feel to much
of this music - especially in the figurations. The music builds to a
considerable climax and then subsides; there is a restatement of the
original tone row - this time I think portraying 'moonlight on water.'
The movement closes quietly with a sense of peace and tranquillity tentatively
established. The Evocation has been likened in style to the Autumn
The final movement, the Devils Galop, is a frenetic
piece. It is rather like a night ride - but not of the Sibelian type
- more of Ravel's Scarbo or perhaps Berlioz's Gibbet music. It
has rightly been compared to Robert Burn's Tam O' Shanter. Yet
it is not perhaps quite so demonic as some critics have tried to make
out. There are moments when optimism is on the brink of breaking out,
often being repressed at the last moment. Although it is seemingly high
spirited in places it is angry, aggressive and insistent. Alwyn is economical
with his material in much of this movement -there is much circular figuration
giving an impression of speed and swirl. There is the same darkness
here that pervades the entire piece; some of this writing appears to
be ambiguous. There is what appears to be the start of a peroration
at the end, signifying the composer' coming through' but this dies down
as the last page is reached. The work concludes with four or five aggressive
chords that leaves the listener mildly surprised.
There is no doubt that in this work, which is one of
his best piano pieces, he quite clearly re-presents himself as a composer
again and has finally regained his creativity. He has come through the
emotional problems of the past three or so years and is finally triumphant.
The piano works of William Alwyn will never become
'essential' listening for the vast majority of listeners and recital
goers. There will be a limited market for further CD releases. It is
a fact that all the major works have been recorded at least once and
for this all Alywn aficionados ought to be immensely grateful. It is
unlikely that there will ever be a 'complete piano works' cycle.
However, the works that are easily available reveal
William Alwyn as a fine and highly competent, if not great writer for
the piano. What he lacks in subtlety and pianistic technique he makes
up with his technical ability and fertile imagination. All the pieces
considered in this article deserve to be better known. The best of them
are major contributions to the piano literature of the twentieth century
and should take their place in the repertoire of all pianists who are
prepared to explore beyond the standard catalogue of music normally
listened to by the vast majority of music-lovers.
Hunter's Moon (1920s) Associated Board 1932/3
Odd Moments - suite for piano (1920s) Associated Board 1930-1935
The Orchard (1920s) Progressive Pieces & Highway of Progress
Haze of Noon 1926 OUP
Two Irish Pieces for Piano OUP 1926
April Morn - 4 little pieces for piano 1924-26 Assoc.Board
Fancy Free - four pieces OUP 1927
Contes Barbares - homage to Paul Gaugin 1930-33 unpublished
By the Farmyard Gate - 4 pieces for piano J Williams Ltd 1934
"From Ireland" - 7 traditional tunes for piano Keith Prowse
Wooden Walls: suite for piano Forsyth Brothers 1935
Midsummer Night : suite for piano Forsyth Brothers 1936
Green Hills OUP 1936
Five Pieces: suite for piano Unpublished
Two Intermezzi unpublished
Two Pieces for Piano Assoc. Board 1937
From Town & Countryside:suite for piano and voice. Chappell
& Co. Ltd 1938
Harvest Home: suite for piano Banks & Son York 1938
The Tinker's Tune Banks & Son York 1938
Down by the Riverside: for piano unpublished
Night Thoughts OUP 1940
Prelude & Fugues for piano formed on an Indian scale unpublished
Sonata alla Toccata (1946) Lengnick 1951
Nine Children's Pieces published in the five volumes of Five
by Ten Lengnick 1952
Fantasy-Waltzes for Piano Lengnick 1956
Twelve Preludes for Piano 1958 Lengnick 1959
Movements for piano solo J & W Chester Ltd 1962
Twelve Diversions for the Five Fingers Keith Prowse 1964
The Way Ahead March - arranged for piano solo by Chris Langdon 1944
(from the film score)
The Cure for Love: Waltz Chappell & Co. Ltd 1950 (from the film
Desert Victory -March arranged for piano solo - Chappell & Co.
Ltd 1943 (from the film score)
True Glory - March arranged for piano solo - Chappell & Co. Ltd
(from the film score)
Festival March -arranged for piano solo by Felton Rapley Chappell &
Co. Ltd 1951.
John France December 2002