President: Mary Alwyn
Patron: Vilem Tausky CBE

Cover Painting: The Torrents of Spring by William Alwyn


String Quartet No. 1 in D minor (1955)
String Quartet No 2 "Spring Waters" (1975)

Notes by William Alwyn, © Mary Alwyn

Quartet No 1 in D minor

Apart from some innovations in formal design, this work poses few new problems, except those always inherent in an extended work, but is content to explore the infinite variety of colour available to a composer in this most perfect of all chamber combinations. The four movements are fused into a whole by the subject hinted at in the opening few bars and heard again fortissimo toward the end of the vigorous finale. A feather-light scherzo is followed by an introspective slow movement expressive of my perpetual search for the meaning of beauty. Who knows but that I might have glimpsed it in the serenely ecstatic melody which sings high above the throbbing chords on the lower strings? Strange that my next work was to be my Third Symphony (1956), utilizing a new scale system and voicing a passionate protest against the cruel futility of war. But life, particularly an artist's life is revitalized by such contrasts.

String Quartet No2 : "Spring Waters"

Of all the arts, music alone is truly abstract, it can neither express concrete ideas nor can it create pictorial impressions. Music is a vehicle for the emotions - emotions which can impinge on the sensibilities of the listener more directly and more subtly than words. So, although I have subtitled this work "Spring Waters", and the score bears the quotation which heads Turgenev's great novel:
My careless years,
My precious days,
Like the waters of springtime,
Have melted away
and although they echo something which I felt deeply on reaching the age of seventy, these words should be regarded merely as the motivating spark that fired an essentially abstract composition.

Nevertheless I did experience certain definite moods while constructing the work movement by movement:
1 (Moderato) the "Spring Waters of high hopes and romantic illusions flood away to reveal, not the flowering of a new spring, but (Lento) the bare steppes of resignation and disillusionment;
2 (Allegro scherzando) recalls the lost turbulence of youth and young love, but now seen "as through a glass darkly";
3 (Adagio etc.) the daunting prospect of old age, "all passion spent", is emotionally stated in a bleak fugue, only to be brushed aside in an upsurge of passionate resentment, but the fugue returns, though not for long, and the work ends on a triumphant note - death is not defeat.

For the analytically minded, the seeds from which the whole work germinates are to be found in the opening bars of the first movement - notably the first violin's cantilena and the rhythmic answering phrases on the cello.

A gap of twenty years separates the composition of these two string quartets. The Second Quartet is dedicated to "R.W."- my versatile and gifted friend Reg Williamson who persuaded me to compose this work.

Notes by William Alwyn (1982), © Mary Alwyn


Gramophone - May 1994

I enjoyed both these works very much. They communicate. The First Quartet comes from the mid-1950s and was written just before the Third Symphony. It has a questing, deeply expressive yet volatile first movement, a delicately flimsy dancing Scherzo, and a profound Andante balancing serenity with inwardness. The Second was composed two decades later and derives its subtitle, Spring Waters from Turgenev, whom Alwyn quotes on the title-page of his score:

My careless years,
my precious days,
like the waters of springtime,
have melted away.

Its theme echoes both the disillusion and resignation of old age, and there is a hint of despair running through many of its pages. The probingly introspective first movement is followed by a Scherzo which is also troubled, viewing youth through a glass darkly. The Adagio which begins the finale opens in the bleak stratosphere, then a sad cello solo, taken up by the violin, continues the desolate mood which is followed by a melancholy fugal treatment. The quickening at the end - at first ambivalent - in the music's last few seconds suddenly becomes positive.

Both works are very well played and the performances are obviously strongly felt and spontaneous in their outpouring of emotion, though they mirror the underlying restraint of an English composer not wishing to let his grief over-whelm him. The listener cannot help but respond with pleasure to the inventive flow of the First Quartet and particularly to the touching self-questioning of the Second. The digital record- ing from the early 1980s has fine focus and presence. and sounds admirably natural in its CD format.

Both quartets are works of substance. The First comes from the mid-1950s and immediately precedes the Third Symphony. It has a probing, deeply felt first movement, a dancing. gossamer Scherzo and a profound, yearning Andante. Its companion comes 20 years later and derives its subtitle, Spring Waters, from Turgenev: 'My careless years, my precious days, like the waters of springtime, have melted away.' Its theme is the daunting prospect of old age, and there is a note of disillusion and resignation running through its pages. Both works are well played and the performances are obviously felt and thoroughly committed. Playing of this calibre undoubtedly moves the listener, particularly in the introspective self-questioning of No. 2. The digital recording from the early 1980s has clarity and presence and sounds admirably natural in its CD format. However, the playing time is too short for a full-priced record (45 minutes).

Fanfare - March 1994
(Reviewing both the Song cycles (CHAN922) and the current disc:)

William Alwyn (1905) was somewhat lost in the shadows of his more famous contemporaries, Britten, Walton and Tippet and is only now beginning to find any kind of international following. All five of his symphonies have been recorded and widely circulated, and some of his shorter orchestral pieces have also attracted attention Trying to describe a particular music to someone who hasn't heard it is very tricky. If I say "late Romantic" or "post-Romantic," you might conjure up images of bombast that are completely foreign to Alwyn's aesthetic. But if I talk about English reserve, perhaps some of Benjamin Britten's carefully and thoroughly controlled, exquisitely crafted music will come to mind - and that would be wrong too. If I say "tuneful" (which it can be), you'll think of English folk tunes, and again be wrong. I could refer to expressionism, but it isn't Strauss or Berg either (though both composers have influenced Alwyn). No, this music is Alwyn - and references might help to place it, but might give the wrong impression as well

Some of Alwyn's orchestral works are of a pastorale, gently lyric nature. Both of these discs feature music on a more intimate scale, but emotionally more complex. The songs in particular remind one of early Berg with their narrowly drawn melodic lines and intense harmonics. I found the songs a bit wanting in variety, and while I enjoyed each cycle by itself (Invocations is twenty minutes, A Leave-Taking is twenty-five), taken together they become a bit monotonous. Both are generally gloomy and emotionally turbulent, and could use some leavening.

The quartets have a richer wealth of material to explore, and I find them notably preferable in particular the First Quartet from 1955 with its expressive Adagio that Alwyn himself describes as "an introspective slow movement expressive of my perpetual search for the meaning of beauty." I think he may have come closer to that elusive goal than most composers who have undertaken this search, and the disc may be worth the investment for this movement alone. Fortunately, though there is more. The strongly contoured but graceful opening movement, the delicate, almost Mendelssohnian scherzo, and a rather dark-hued, somewhat disturbing finale; all round a superb chamber work.

The Spring Waters Quartet dates from twenty years later, 1975. Its title is not to be taken as an indication of musical picture-painting: there are no rippling water effects to be heard here. The reference is to a quotation from Turgenev:

My careless years,
My precious days,
Like the waters of springtime,
Have melted away

The music is somewhat more astringent than the First Quartet, bleaker for much of its length, though interestingly upbeat at the end. Harrnonically, contrapuntally, and coloristically, this is varied and involving music from one of Great Britain's more interesting composers of this century. These may not have the depth, range, and variety of the Bartok or Shostakovich quartets, but they should be of interest to anyone who responds to those works.

The performances on both discs are strong (each of the song cycles is sung by the artist for whom it was written). Alwyn was involved in both recordings (he wrote the excellent notes for the LP original releases, which are supplemented by his widow) and paintings of his are used on the covers of both booklets for the CD boxes. Both Gomez and Rolfe Johnson sing clearly, with knowledge and obvious love of the songs. and with clear diction. Their pianists are full partners as well. The Quartet of London seems to me to be remarkable in its emotional involvement and commitment to the two quartets. Recorded quality is excellent on both discs.

I would think that for those who are unfamiliar with Alwyn's work, the quartet disc would make a better introduction. It has more variety of mood and texture, and, I think. better music. The song cycles have their pleasures to offer, but I suspect that they will reveal them more easily to the already converted.

Henry Fogel

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