Alwyn (1905-1985) - Symphony No. 5 "Hydriotaphia"
Alwyn, composer, pianist, flautist, poet, painter, and translator, is not
a name to set the masses flooding to the box-office. He has written symphonies,
orchestral works (including Concerti Grossi!), film music and chamber
music. Literary influences came late, as all his principal vocal works
appear after 1970 (although he started writing his one opera in 1961).
Symphony, written for the 1973 Norwich Triennial Festival, has a literary
inspiration, being dedicated "to the immortal memory of Sir Thomas Browne
(1605-1682)". Each of its sections carries a quotation from Browne's great
elegy on death, HYDRIOTAPHIA: URN BURIAL, or a Discourse of the Sepulchral
Urns lately found in Norfolk (that sounds a jolly little tome!). The
vividly impressive quotations demand music of epic proportions, which it
is, although this epic takes only a quarter of an hour: Alwyn has followed
Webern in producing highly compressed music. I detect other (admittedly
tenuous) associations with the Second Viennese School. His orchestration,
powerful and pungent, is reminiscent of Schoenberg and Berg. Although (I
stress!) not a serial composition, the entire work grows from a single
motive of only 5 notes worked out on similar lines (at the opposite pole
to Sibelius' First!). This theme has two parts: a 3-note upward thrust
([A], something of a musical triple-jump) and a 2-note chromatic descent
[B], which carry the classic connotations of "aspiration" and "resignation".
"Life is a pure flame, and we all live by an invisible sun within us".
You cannot miss the theme: it is sprayed around the orchestra with great
abandon (no sign of a hosepipe ban here!), motif [A] being dominant.
[Slow Movement] "But these are sad and sepulchral pitchers, which have
no joyful voices: silently expressing old mortality, the ruins of forgotten
time". A hiatus is broken by the foreboding sounds of bells, harp, and
muted-string harmonics. [A] droops downward, and [B] dominates. The music
rises, groping blindly and turning poor old [A] inside out in the process,
to a miserable climax, leaving [A] (now right side up) hanging in perplexity.
[Scherzo] "Simplicity flies away, and iniquity comes at long strides
upon us". The quiet is shattered by a shocking shriek from the wind. The
air is filled with self-destructive energy (is that a rhythm from Beethoven's
that I hear?), the theme warped grotesquely by appalling abuse.
[Finale] "Man is a noble animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous in
the grave". A brief recall of an event in the opening bars (several orchestral
crunches and snare drum flourishes) prefaces a solemn conclusion in which
the curt theme blossoms into an impassioned threnody of hypnotic, grave
beauty (forgive the pun!), before finally coming to rest in ambivalent
it isn't compulsory to observe the quotations, they do illuminate the music.
The first and third sections contrast the vitality of innocent youth with
the decay that follows, as life's hard knocks take their toll. The second
and fourth contrast the pointless futility of it all with death as part
of life's rich pattern, a non-religious optimism (how often do we hear,
"I hope I get a good send-off"?). Two initial hearings sufficed to send
it straight to No. 1 on my hit parade of post-Shostakovich symphonies.
© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street,
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