President: Mary Alwyn
Patron: Vilem Tausky CBE

Cover Painting: The Magic Mountain by William Alwyn


Symphony No 5 "Hydriotaphia
Sinfonietta for Strings
Piano Concerto

Notes © by Mary Alwyn

Symphony No.5 "Hydriotaphia" (1973)

William Alwyn wrote: Mary Alwyn writes:

Symphony No.5 was commissioned by the Arts Council for the 1973 Norfolk & Norwich Triennial festival, where it was given its first performance with Alwyn conducting. Fourteen years had elapsed since the composition of his cycle of four symphonies, a period almost totally occupied by the composition of two operas, Juan, or the Libertine and Miss Julie. During that time his attitude to symphonic writing had radically changed. His aim now was to compress the traditional four-movement symphony into a short, one movement work in four brief sections, thus preserving the dynamic contrasts of the traditional symphonic form.

This Fifth symphony is dedicated, appropriately, to the immortal memory of Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682); physician, philosopher, botanist and archaeologist, Norwich's most famous citizen, whose great elegy on death was first published under the title Hydriotaphia: Urn Burial, or a discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk (now more generally known by its sub-title: Urn Burial). Although each section of this one-movement symphony is headed by a quotation from the book, the work is in no sense "programme music". Browne's wonderful prose sets the mood of each section and is an expression of the composer's personal indebtedness to a great man whose writings were always at his bedside and were a life-long source of solace and inspiration to him.

The upward thrusting three-note figure of the opening Allegro on which the entire symphony is based:

can be linked with the quotation Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible sun within us. After a hollow silence, the second section is introduced by the sinister sound of tubular bells, muted string harmonics and insistent harp notes: But these are sad and sepulchral pitches, which have no joyful voices; silently expressing old mortality, the ruins of forgotten time. After a high trill on the solo violin the music plunges into a brief scherzo section: Simplicity flies away, and iniquity comes at long strides upon us. This part ends with a brief reference to the opening bars which links it to the final section. Man is a noble animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave. This final quotation from Sir Thomas Browne is reflected in the slow, solemn tread of a funeral march. The three-note motto, heard dolefully at first on the tubular bells, gradually grows into a long, expressive violin melody, which leads to a maestoso climax. As the music fades, the motto theme is heard for the last time, and the work sinks to rest on a chord of E major, a serenity, which is disturbed to the last by a dissonant note on the muted horns.

Sinfonietta for Strings

William Alwyn received the invitation from the Arts Council to compose this large-scale work when we were on holiday on Lake Maggiore in Italy in the autumn of 1969. I remember the smile of delight as he read the letter and remarked that this would give him a welcome change from the opera he was engaged in writing. This was the four-act Juan, or the Libertine.

Dr Mosco Carner had stayed with us earlier in the year and spent much time in discussing the first sketch of Juan and his own work in progress - a definitive book on Alban Berg. In return for our guest's helpful comments Alwyn wrote for him an extended essay on Berg's orchestration and dedicated to him the Sinfonietta.

Piano Concerto No. 2

(Commissioned by the BBC for the 1960 Henry Wood Promenade Concert)

Works especially composed for this mostly young, enthusiastic - and some-times overenthusiastic - audience seem naturally to assume a particular style and brilliant appeal, and this concerto is no exception. Written for the Dutch pianist, Cor de Groot, it gave him every opportunity to show his complete mastery of the keyboard with all its pianistic pyrotechnics.

Alwyn had completed the work - over 30 minutes' music - when disaster struck: the soloist became completely disabled with a paralysis of one arm, which ended his concert-playing career. The Concerto had to be removed from the programme and in its place the BBC asked Alwyn to write a lively piece to open one of the concerts. In bitter disappointment the composer scribbled CANCELLED across the score, and yet another unperformed work was banished to the back of the music cupboard. But there was little time to brood on this ill-fortune for he had immediately to turn to the new composition - the result was the gay and bustling overture Derby Day.

Piano Concerto No. 2 has, therefore, never been performed. A few years ago I retrieved the pencil manuscript from the cupboard only to find that at some point during its neglect the composer had cut out the slow movement, leaving two outer movements, both fast, with only a short bridging passage between them. It seemed to me a great pity and an artistic miscalculation not to include the original beautiful slow movement. I therefore spent many long hours and days puzzling out how to restore a satisfactory ending to the first movement and include the whole Andante before the final Allegro con fuoco begins its impetuous course. My solution is what you will hear in this recording.

The Allegro (first movement): after a crescendo on the brass, the piano immediately announces its presence with a flurry of octaves, then introduces the theme on which the whole work is founded:

Unison strings and woodwind join in and the theme is played martellato, gradually quietening until the soloist bursts in with emphatic octaves. These lead to a questioning tune, which broadens to a climax with a long melody on unison strings. A rhythm on woodwind and brass hints at the final movement and builds to a long piano cadenza which ends pianissimo and the celli and bassi bring the movement to a muted close.

The piano begins the Andante with a simple, long melody in C major, which the strings take up as the pianist elaborates on it. This opening section grows to a statement of the motto from the first movement. it is followed by solos for the first horn, then cello, then the piano returns, molto semplice, and a quiet chorale-like progression ends the movement peacefully in C major.

The final movement, Allegro con fuoco, opens with rhythmic strings and strident brass before the piano enters with a brilliant passage leading to a jazz-like rhythm, which is immediately taken up by the whole orchestra. The motif::

plays an important part throughout this finale. It is tossed around in the orchestra and elaborated upon by the piano until a hint of the blues tune occurs and trills lead to a broad expressive tune on unison strings. The opening rhythm returns accompanied by short fanfares on the brass and much virtuosos piano-writing leads to a long cadenza. A final accelerando drives the music to a brilliant close.

Notes © by Mary Alwyn


Gramophone - January 1994

The Piano Concerto No.2 (1960) was written for the Dutch pianist, Cor de Groot, but he became paralysed in one arm immediately before the planned premiere. Alwyn threw the score into a cupboard where it remained for three decades and when Chandos proposed a recording, the composer's widow found it was necessary to devise a closing section for the first movement and restore the slow one, which Alwyn had jettisoned.

The work opens heroically and contains a good deal of rhetoric, yet the string writing has a romantic sweep and the Andante proves to be the high- light of the piece. The finale, with its lively jazz syncopations, is marked allegro con fuoco (a strange combination), its stridency demanding the tranquil central section which then combines with a further burst of romanticism. The movement is undoubtedly too long (13 minutes) and had Alwyn heard it performed he might well have made cuts or revisions. Howard Shelley plays with much bravura and an appealing sensitivity, and there is plenty of energy from the orchestra.

The powerful Fifth Symphony (1973) with its cogent argument distilled into one movement with four sub-sections has a curious subtitle, Hydriotaphia. This derives from the works of physician/philosopher Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82), the symphony's dedicatee, whose writings were always by the composer's bedside. Browne's elegy on death was published under the title Hydriotaphia: Urn burial, or a Discourse at the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk.

Quotations preface each section of Alwyn's score: "Life is a pure flame" inspires the energetically kaleidoscopic first movement, while the melancholy Andante brings "sad and sepulchral pictures expressing old mortality". The violent scherzo suggests that "iniquity comes at long strides upon us" and the curiously ambivalent finale brings the thought that "man is a noble animal, splendid in ashes". This is a Marcia funebre and provides a moving and compelling, if equivocal, apotheosis for a succinctly argued work. The symphony is not too easy to come to terms with, and hardly shining with optimism about the human condition, but rewarding to listeners who persevere.

The richly expansive Sinfonietta for Strings is almost twice as long as the symphony. The string writing, very much in the English tradition, is vigorous in the first movement and hauntingly atmospheric in the beautiful but disconsolate Adagio, very touching in Hickox's tender performance. The unpredictable finale begins impulsively before the mood changes completely and becomes altogether more subdued and muted in feeling. Then Alwyn builds contrapuntally to an emotional climax using themes from earlier movements, with the momentum continually fluctuating.

The recordings were made in All Saints, Tooting, in south-west London, where the reso- nance brings spectacular results. The acoustic suits the Sinfonietta especially well and provides richly beautiful string textures. In the Symphony, although the sound is thrillingly spectacular, detail is not always sharply defined. Hickox, who is com- pletely at home in the composer's sound-world, is consistently sympathetic, while at the same time tautly controlling the structure of the work. The obviously dedicated LSO is particularly responsive in the Sinfonietta, a masterly work which ought to be in the concert repertoire.

Ivan March

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