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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 feeling.

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 technique.

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 opening theme.

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 discords.

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 and slow

- 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 moving,

The shrubs and trees, (as I lift my eyes they seem to be stealthily

watching me,)

While wind in procession thoughts, O tender and wondrous thoughts,

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 ground,

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 encouraging,

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 integrity.

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 original.

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 sentences.

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.

Unattributed cutting

 

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 full.

Edmund Rubbra

Madeleine Dring

Bernard Stevens

Malcolm Arnold

Julius Harrison

Charles Proctor

Elizabeth Maconchy

William Wordsworth

William Alwyn

Franz Reizenstein

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 recital.

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 minor.

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 miniatures.

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 twentieth century.

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 appreciated.

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 opening music.

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 of melancholy.

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 technically.

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 finishes quietly.

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 in sound.

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 Legend.

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.

Appendix 1

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 1935-1949

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 1931

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 1945

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

 

Arrangements

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 score)

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

 


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