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Cover Painting: Invocations by William Alwyn


INVOCATIONS for soprano and piano
A LEAVE-TAKING for tenor and piano

Notes by William Alwyn, © Mary Alwyn

My song-cycle Invocations was completed in December 1977 and was written for, and is dedicated to Jill Gomez as a token of gratitude for her inspired singing in the name part of my opera Miss Julie, both in the BBC studio performance and in the gramophone recording of the opera. Invocations is the third of my song cycles - the first, Mirages for baritone and piano, was a setting of my own poems; A Leave-taking for tenor and piano, poems by Lord de Tabley, is the second.

The poems chosen for InvocationsSix Nocturnes for baritone and piano which were first performed by Benjamin Luxon before an invited audience at a broadcast from the Birmingham Studios in 1975.

In his poems, Invocations, the poet invokes both the spirit of love and the spirit of nature. The first song of the cycle, Through the Centuries is a love poem.
Through the centuries I have held your hand,
whispered your name as the wind in the trees --
nothing remembered and nothing forgotten
each time it was different, each time the same

The music reflects the poet's brooding on a love that persists through meetings and partings. The second song, Holding the Night is again a love song.
Holding the night in the palm of my hand
feeling its blackness as the wind
strams to the edge of the gulf
to fall through unknown trees.

The turbulent music for the first verse dissolves into an ecstatic mood (pianissimo)
The moment has always been ours
when the tips of our fingers touch . . .

The Third love-poem, Separation is the expression of the poet's frustration
Out in the dark night
the birds are asleep
and you too are sleeping
out of my reach
held only in my thoughts.

The music reflects the words in the form of a nocturne.

No. 4 is a nature poem entitled Drought - memory of the long Summer drought of 1976.
These are the long days of waiting
when to touch a stone is an act of faith . . .

The music bleakly expresses the sense of the parched earth when
Hope is a dry seed hidden
under crisp leaves in the gutter.

The Fifth song by contrast depicts musically the patter of rain.
The annual miracle unfolds
and each leaf holds its bead of rain,
then lets it fall - only to be renewed again.

The sixth song, Invocation to the Queen of Moonlight is again a nocturne, a sustained melody with a gently pulsing accompaniment and tells of the moon's drift on the breast of the sea, encrusting the dim landscape with marble.

The song-cycle ends in a joyful mood - Our Magic Horse - a love-song in which the poet exclaims:
Where can we find our magic horse
to take us our journey among the stars . . .

and sums up with these words:
Let us always try to be up-side down,
to see the wonder of pointless things,
to ride together our magic horse
and know the truth of its hidden wings.

The galloping rhythm of the piano brings the cycle to a brilliant close.

My song-cycle A Leave-taking was written for Anthony Rolfe Johnson who so splendidly sang the part of the gamekeeper in Miss Julie.

The poems chosen are from Poems, Dramatic and Lyrical by John Leicester Warren, Lord de Tabley (1835 - 1895), first published with admirable etchings by Charles Ricketts two years before the poets death. De Tably is too fine a poet to be relegated to limbo - his range is remarkably wide (witness the lyric beauty of The Pilgrim Cranes and the horrific detail of the Study of a Spider - but, alas, he is remembered only in anthologies.


Gramophone - June 1994

Both of these cycles are finely written settings of poems for which the composer had a special affection, and they are sung by the artists to whom they were dedicated. Jill Gomez and Anthony Rolfe Johnson had both taken leading roles in Alwyn's opera Miss Julie, and the songs were offered as an expression of gratitude. Going with this is an appreciation of their voices and musicianship, Gomez so clear in tone and secure on high (there is a beautifully poised top C in the third song taken over a broad interval from below), and Rolfe Johnson so expert in coloration, with impressive resources of power to be drawn on at climaxes. The piano writing is also immensely skillful, as is the arrangement of the songs in sequence, so that (for example) the fifth song of Invocations, Spring Rain comes effectively, loosening the fingers after the chords and octaves of the fourth. Both pianists make much of their opportunities and are as authentic in their work as the singers themselves.

Invocations comprises six songs, settings of poems by Alwyn's friend, Michael Armstrong, while A Leave-taking will in all probability afford most listeners an introduction to the poetry of John Leicester Warren. Baron de Tabley, a man of what they used to call many parts: botanist, author of A Guide to the Study of Bookplates (1880) and a poet who can write in his Study of a Spider:

Toper, whose lonely feasting chair
Sways in inhospitable air.

Alwyn has a fine sense of the song-maker's art in establishing a unity and allowing a difference. Particularly attractive are the Invocation to the Queen of Moonlight, where there is an uncloying, delicate sweetness, and The Ocean Wood where the piano part enacts the sea-fantasy and the voice, catching the marine mystery, grows to a resounding climax. Forty-six minutes is rather short in playing-time, but it is easy to think of discs that last longer and have less on them.

Fanfare - March 1994

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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