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Alwyn (1905-1985) - Symphony No. 5 "Hydriotaphia"

William 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). 

The Fifth 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". 

I [Introduction] "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. 

II [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. 

III [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 Seventh that I hear?), the theme warped grotesquely by appalling abuse. 

IV [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 serenity. 

Although 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. Enough said?

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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