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William Alwyn: A Memorial Tribute

by Hubert Culot

(This article first appeared in the British Music Society Journal: Volume 7 1985)


    William Alwyn was born in Northampton in 1905. His father was a grocer, and his family totally unmusical, though they all shared a passion for literature and the visual arts.
      "We all shared father's literary enthusiasm and his less-knowledgeable interest in art ... but neither he nor the others had much feeling for music. In this I was alone".
                                                            (from 'Winged Chariot', an essay in autobiography, William Alwyn, 1983)
    Throughout his life his activities were often divided between music, poetry and painting. He left school at the age of fourteen to assist his father in the grocery store. But he "was not cut out to be a provincial grocer" and he managed to gain entry to the Royal Academy of Music as a flautist at the age of fifteen.

    At the Academy he also had some teaching in piano and was later to write some large-scale works for this instrument (Fantasy Waltzes, Sonata alla Toccata, Twelve Preludes and Movements). He also gained some experience in conducting. His father's death compelled him to leave the RAM and to start earning a living by flute playing and some piano teaching.

      "The need for money was urgent so I took the first reasonably paid job that came my way, the position of music master at a residential private school in Surrey...but the strain of musical isolation became too much for me and I suffered a minor nervous breakdown...and the arrogant headmaster showed little compunction in promptly dismissing me from my post at his school. This was in November 1926..." (op.cit)
    At that time he was appointed a professor of composition at the RAM and became a flautist in the London Symphony Orchestra.

    His first orchestral work, Five Preludes for Orchestra, was first performed at the Promenade concerts in 1927. Later he discarded all his early works including a Piano Concerto (first performed by Clifford Curzon with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer) [now available again - see discography], an orchestral suite, Peter Pan, thought unplayable by Sir Alexander Mackenzie but performed later by Henry Wood at the Queen's Hall, a violin Concerto [now available again - see discography], a huge setting of Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a piano suite, April Morn, and several string quartets. He did so because he felt "he could no longer look Mozart, Debussy or Puccini in the face" .

    In 1936 he started composing music for films, mainly for documentaries. In 1938 he shared the Collard Fellowship of the Worshipfull Company of Musicians with his friend and fellow townsman, Edmund Rubbra.

    His first acknowledged works were written in 1939: the Rhapsody for Piano Quartet and the Divertimento for Solo Flute. The latter was performed in 1940 by Rene Le Roy at the International Contemporary Music Festival in New York. The Divertimento is a short work in four movements, effectively laid out for the instrument in a neo-classical idiom. During the war years Alwyn's output of serious music was rather limited. In 1942, however, he wrote the Concerto Grosso No 1 ( "dedicated to my friends in the LSO" ). This work still shows some neo-classical leanings that the composer was soon to abandon.

    After some shorter works including the Concerto for oboe, Harp and Strings (1944), possibly his sole incursion into the pastoral world of some older British composers, the Scottish Dances (1946), the Sonata alla Toccata (1947), a virtuoso piece for piano still belonging to his neo-classic period, and the brilliantly scored Overture for a Joyful Occasion (1948), Alwyn launched out on his First Symphony in 1949.

    The work was first performed by Sir John Barbirolli at the 1950 Cheltenham Festival, where it was well received. The first symphony is laid out in the four customary movements, although some Alwyn fingerprints are already apparent, especially the use of germinal cells out of which the rest of the work slowly grows. It is full of imaginative writing, eg. the splendid tune for horns in the second movement. The slow movement is a simple ABA form and essentially song-like in character and already shows Alwyn's lyricism in full. It is followed by a finale which, according to Alwyn, is probably the most extrovert piece I have ever written . As a whole, however, the First symphony stands out as a fully accomplished piece of music amply showing Alwyn's abilities as a true symphonist.

    The First symphony was followed by the Concerto Grosso No 2 (for string orchestra) in 1950. It is beautifully laid out for strings and contains a fine slow movement where the solo quartet dialogues with the full body of strings. It is a work that deserves more hearings than it receives.

    After two short works, Festival March (1951) and The Magic Island (1952), Alwyn completed his Second Symphony in 1953. It is a much shorter work than its predecessor and is in two movements of two sections each, although there is much thematic unity maintaining the cogency of the symphonic argument. It contains many fine examples of effective scoring, eg. the beautiful epilogue of the second movement, that is in fact, based on the theme given by the bassoons in the first two bars of the 1st movement. According to William Mann, Alwyn's 2nd symphony is essentially a one-movement composition concerned throughout with a few themes heard at the start, a typical fingerprint of Alwyn's symphonic manner. The 2nd symphony was written at the request of Sir John Barbirolli and first performed in Manchester.

    The next work, Lyra Angelica for Harp and Strings (1954), was inspired by Alwyn's intense love of the 17th Century English metaphysical poets. Each movement illustrates a quotation from Fletcher's Christ's Victorie and Triumph. The result is a beautifully poetic work sensitively wrought, sincere in all its intimate beauty. In a letter to William Alwyn I once remarked that the concerto is in four movements, all of them slow, to quote Vaughan Williams speaking of his Pastoral Symphony, but that the composer's supreme craftsmanship had avoided any dullness or uniformity of colour. This work should be heard more often. It is a pity that harpists do not turn to it for a change from Ravel's Introduction and Allegro, Pierne's Concertstuck and Debussy's Danses Sacree at Profane.
      "But performing artists are strange creatures - and they like to have works specially written for, and dedicated to them. And I have found, after long experience and disappointments, that if one dedicates a work to a performing artist, all other performing artists are reluctant to play it!"
                                                                                                                   (letter to the author, 18 April, 1979).

    1955 was an important year for Alwyn; it saw the completion of the beautifully nostalgic Autumn Legend, inspired by Pre-Raphaelite painters, and also of the String Quartet in D minor (in fact, No 1) and the first important piano work Fantasy Waltzes. The First String Quartet is a fine work, beautifully written for the medium and is in four movements, of which the slow one is once again an outstanding example of Alwyn's lyricism offsetting the brilliant scherzo that precedes it.

      Who knows but that I might have glimpsed it(beauty) in the serenely ecstatic melody which sings high above the throbbing chords on the lower strings?            (Alwyn in his sleeve note for Chandos CHAN9219).

    The slow movement is, in fact, the emotional climax and the very core of the whole work, the scherzo providing for its physical climax. The work is capped by a lively finale in sonata form ending with a re-statement of the main theme from the 1st movement. Originally Fantasy Waltzes were to be a set of unpretentious miniatures and, nevertheless, very soon outgrew the composer's intentions. They actually became his first large-scale piano work, consisting of eleven movements aiming more at diversity than unity. The eleven pieces are highly contrasted and masterfully contrived for piano. They were written for and dedicated to Richard Farrel, who first performed them.

    In 1956 the BBC commissioned the Third Symphony, first performed by Sir Thomas Beecham. It is in Three Movements, the first full of animation and sometimes of grinding energy, and followed by a beautiful slow movement counterbalancing the energy of the first and providing some repose before the violent onslaught of the 3rd movement, sometimes reminiscent of Holst's Mars. The menacing colour of this movement finally turns into glorious sounding triumph. The 3rd symphony stands out as a tightly argued work of imagination and creative urge.

    The 3rd Symphony was followed by the delightful Elizabethan Dances, commissioned by the BBC for the 1957 Light Music Festival and by the twelve Preludes for piano, another large-scale work first performed by Cor de Groote, for whom Alwyn composed the 2nd Piano Concerto. Due to sudden and total incapacitation by paralysis of his arm de Groote did not perform the concerto, which was scheduled for the Proms. The piece has never yet been performed. ( It has now as it is available on CHAN9196 )

    In 1959 Alwyn completed his Fourth Symphony, also in three movements, though their order differs from that of the third. The first movement is a moderato followed by a rather long scherzo, then another moderato ( the plan of Alwyn's 4th bears some semblance with that of Rubbra's 7th of 1957, also in three movements with a long scherzo placed second). All three movements are dominated by a motto heard at the outset, a practice already encountered in the earlier symphonies. The conflict started in the course of the 1st movement develops some power in the restless scherzo, while the third movement, a Passacaglia, brings the work to a triumphant conclusion in which the ostinato from the scherzo is recalled to form the basis of the epilogue of the symphony.

    Having composed the short overture Derby Day (1960), providing some relaxation after the fourth symphony, Alwyn turned to one of his most important chamber works, the String Trio (1962). This is a short work in four movements, all based on a row given at the very beginning of the first movement although, strictly speaking, the work is in no way atonal or serial. It is, however, a compact work full of imagination and invention, of highly contrasted ideas, in which the conflicts are eventually washed away by the peaceful coda of the fourth movement. The String Trio is one of his most important works.

    It was followed by Movements for Piano (1963), the Clarinet Sonata (1963) and the Concerto Grosso No.3 (1964). The last work, subtitled Tribute to Sir Henry Wood, though short, is very enjoyable and contains some forceful writing for brass and many fine moments for the strings and woodwind. It is a virile work, devoid of any neo-classical gestures, and could become popular if it were heard more often. Alwyn then set out to write his opera Juan or the Libertine, which was completed in 1971. In the meantime, when the main work on his opera was over, he composed an important work with a highly misleading title, the Sinfonietta for Strings (1970).

    Any composer less modest than Alwyn would have called it a symphony since the work, in three movements,, develops an argument as symphonic as that of his earlier symphonies. It is tightly packed, full of vigorous writing and energy, and sometimes reminding us of Honegger or Alban Berg (the slow movement, in fact, quotes from Berg's opera Lulu). The Sinfonietta bears ample proof - if such were needed - that Alwyn's music can be very personal and highly individual in the frame of its traditionalism. In spite of its diminutive title it is a powerfully impressive piece of music, composed on a full symphonic scale, and already pointing towards further developments in Alwyn's music, while marking a definite advance on the preceding works.

    A further step in Alwyn's development as a symphonist was achieved in tyhe Fifth Symphony: Hydriotaphia (1973). This was preceded by a beautiful short work for flute and harp Naiades (1971), first performed at the 1971 Bath Festival. Naiades is a poetic piece, sometimes reminiscent of Ravel, a colourful work making full use of the impressionistic qualities of the instruments for which it was written. It takes the form of a short suite of contrasted episodes developing the same basic idea set forth in the flute's first phrase. According to the composer, the work was inspired by the ever-changing lights and colours of the estuary of the River Blyth and the rippling Reed Marshes which I can see from my studio window (from Winged Chariot).

    The Fifth Symphony was commissioned by the Arts Council and first performed at the Norwich Triennial Festival in 1973. It is in one movement falling, however, into four clearly defined sections. As is often the case with Alwyn, the basic material of the whole work is heard at the very beginning after a brief flourish. Each section bears a quotation from Sir Thomas Browne's Hydriotaphia: Urn Burial and the music sets out to reflect these quotations though retaining its symphonic character throughout. Although the music contains much that is familiar in Alwyn's music, it reveals a considerable extension of his expressive range. The scoring is more inventive than ever and clearly shows a new development into bold orchestration, though some sign of this were already evident in the Third Concerto Grosso. On the whole the Fifth Symphony is not only the shortest of the five, but also the most compact, sometimes of astringent quality and succeeding in saying important things with unsurpassed economy of means - clearly the product of a searching mind at work. Along with the String Trio and the Sinfonnieta for Strings it belongs to the best of his works.

    In the wake of the Fifth Symphony Alwyn composed a song cycle Mirages (1974) to his own poems. Some of these songs are very impressive, especially Aquarium and Metronome, and have qualities comparable to those found in the best songs of John Ireland, an old friend of Alwyn.
    In 1976 he wrote the Second String Quartet "Spring Waters", first performed at Aldeburgh by the Gabrielli String Quartet, for whom it was written. This fine work is a worthy successor to the 1st string Quartet, though very different, both formally and emotionally, while showing the same mastery of string writing. It is in three movements with a somewhat fantastic scherzo placed second. The work is much tenser, more restless, at times more sardonic than its predecessor. Even the big unison near the end of the 3rd movement does not succeed in sounding as triumphant as the composer might have wished. The work admirably reflects both the quotation from Turgenev that heads the score and the turbulent mood of the painting by Alwyn that aptly illustrates the sleeve of the Chandos recording of the piece.

    At that time too Alwyn completed his second Opera Miss Julie (1976) to his own libretto based on Strinberg's play. It is the result of a long-cherished desire to set the play. He had been thinking about it for years before eventually managing to produce an adaptation in which he succeeded in preserving all the basic elements while turning it into a highly accomplished libretto that provided him with many opportunities for a powerfully dramatic score. Alwyn's adaptation includes the appearance on the stage of a fourth character, Ulrik the gamekeeper, who is only referred to in the play. In fact, Alwyn transferred the Chorus to the Gamekeeper. He also somewhat changed the ending of the play by replacing the pet bird strangled on stage by Jean with a pet dog shot off-stage by Ulrik. He also tightened the dialogue by keeping only the essential words and cutting any asides that might have slackened the dramatic pace. The score contains much that is typical of what might be referred to as Alwyn's last period. The scoring is as bold and inventive as ever, although a rather superficial hearing might lead on to think that the opera is a two-hour waltz. Indeed the waltz rhythm permeates the whole work and is used very much in connection with its expressionistic "Viennese" undertones. Another reason for such extensive use of the waltz rhythm is to remind the listener that a ball is going on outside during the first half of the opera. Nevertheless, it is used with much subtlety in many different colorings that add to the richness of a score that is characterized by perfectly dramatic dialogue that relies much on natural speech rhythm and contains no aria, no ensemble, though it overflows with melodic writing. Alwyn repeatedly expressed his views about opera and obviously, in writing Miss Julie worked out most of his ideas quite successfully. When the opera ends, one is sure to have lived through some deep, committed experience that leaves no-one unmoved, performers and listeners alike. In 1979 in a letter to Opera magazine Benjamin Luxon described the work as a real opera written by some one who fully understands the capability of the Human voice. Later, in an interview for Music and Musicians (Nov '82) Jill Gomez stated that it is a fantastic work, beautifully written. But because it's tuneful and vocal and doesn't go plink-plonk-plink, the opera houses aren't interested in it.. In fact, the work has already been broadcast and recorded by Lyrita, but it still awaits its first stage performance.

    In his last years Alwyn turned repeatedly to the voice. After Mirages and Miss Julie he composed three other works for voice and piano. These song-cycles were written as a thanks-offering for the singers who had sung in the broadcasts and gramophone performances of Miss Julie. Six Nocturnes (1976) on poems by Michael Armstrong were written for Benjamin Luxon, A Leave Taking (1977) on words by Lord de Tabley was composed for Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, who gave the first performance at the Aldeburgh festival in 1979. For Jill Gomez, Alwyn wrote Invocations (1978), again on poems by Michael Armstrong.
    At about the same time he composed a Concerto for Flute and Eight Wind Instruments (1980), which reveals memories of his youth. According to the composer It came (to me) like recollections of joy once experienced. I just wanted to write a piece of musical beauty. (Alfons A. Kowalski in Pro Musica Sana, Summer 1980). In 1980 Alwyn also wrote another song-cycle on poems by Michael Armstrong, Seascapes for Soprano, treble Recorder and Piano, which was first performed in October 1982 in the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. The work was a commission from the Northern Arts Council.

    In 1980 William Alwyn was awarded the CBE in recognition of his long years of service to music and the arts.

    While discussing A Leave Taking with the author, Alwyn wrote that since completing my opera, Miss Julie, two years ago I have felt disinclined to embark on a new major work... the protracted labor seems too formidable to face in what little now remains of my life. but he went on, the creative urge is still with me.

    Indeed, after a rather long convalescence following a severe illness, William Alwyn turned again to composition. In 1983 he completed his Third String Quartet, his last composition . In a letter to the author he confided that the writing of the work was prompted by the Quartet of London's performances of the earlier string quartets recorded by Chandos.

    This short survey of Alwyn's music would still be incomplete if a few words were not said about his work for the studios. In fact, Alwyn was also much active in the field of film music, which he enriched in a quite unique way.

    A quick glance at the list of works will show that it includes more than 100 films. Alwyn started writing film scores as early as 1936, whilst his last film score The Running Man was written as late as 1963. Besides many fiction movies ranging from comedies to dramas and including three Disney films, there have been many documentary films. Alwyn's activities as a film composer reached a peak in the decade 1936 - 1946, the Golden Age of British film Music, during which many British composers also worked for the screen: Bliss, Britten, Benjamin, Bax, Walton, Ireland, Rawsthorne and Vaughan Williams, to name just a few that come to mind.

    Among his best film scores mention must be made of Odd Man Out (1947) and Shake Hands with the Devil (1959). Both scores contain impressively powerful music which sometimes rises to symphonic proportions, e.g.. the title music to the former and Dublin 1921 from the latter. His film music very often contains highly characteristic features generally found in his concert works. A striking example can be heard in his score for The Crimson Pirate (1952), although the film in itself may not be altogether distinguished. Nevertheless, it provided Alwyn with many opportunities to write some fine music and especially some sea music mainly as a splendid horn melody reminiscent of the magnificent horn theme from the scherzo of the first symphony. On the other hand, some of the music for Shake Hands with the Devil shares the same dramatic intensity and dark eloquence as the Third Symphony. Other excerpts from film scores e.g.. the Punting Sequence from The History of Mr. Polly (1949), might have found their way into a Concerto Grosso or some short orchestral suite.

    In fact, writing for films was as serious a task as composing a major symphony. Alwyn approached the film score with the same earnestness of purpose and the same artistic integrity as he did his concert works, and he always tried to meet all the requirements of the film while writing music of high quality. He did his own orchestrations with the exception of the three Disney films, which were scored by Muir Mathieson who, incidentally, conducted most film scores by Alwyn. As the composer says in his autobiography each film score I had written was an opportunity for experiment and an exceptional chance, given the splendid orchestras who played my scores, to improve and polish my technique and widen my dramatic range. Although he enjoyed writing for films, Alwyn was never interested in having his scores re-recorded or re-worked. I once suggested, rather naively, that he should make concert suites from some of his best film scores in order to preserve some fine music, which he countered by saying that the scores had been destroyed along with Pinewood Studios in the fifties! In this he shared the late Sir Arthur Bliss' defiant attitude towards his own film music, which is a pity given the musical excellence of some of it.

    © Hubert Culot

    Some Film music has now appeared on CHAN 9243: Suites from Odd Man Out, The History of Mr Polly, The Fallen Idol and Calypso from The Rakes Progress.

    UPDATE - May 1996

    When I wrote my article on William Alwyn published in Journal 7 of the British Music Society, I had to rely on the then available recordings issued mainly by Lyrita, all of which have now been re-issued in CD format, and on the few already released by CHANDOS and also on general information gathered from various sources such as sleeve notes, entries in various books on film music, list of works supplied by Lengnick and Co. as well as information kindly provided by William Alwyn whose autobiography, Winged Chariot was also important in this respect. (Craggs and Poulton's catalogue published by BRAVURA appeared after my article.) As a result some of my comments on earlier works were evidently very sketchy.

    In the meantime, CHANDOS embarked on their major Alwyn cycle which is now nearing completion. Some song cycles and a few piano works (Sonata alla Toccata and Movements) have still to be recorded or released. This significant venture was instrumental in deepening our appreciation of Alwyn's oeuvre. It was particularly interesting to be able to hear - at long last - some discarded or simply forgotten pieces that had lain unheard for many years, some of which proved to be milestones in his output as well as very fine pieces of music.

    The Fist Piano Concerto, the earliest of all, appeared to be a highly original and beautiful work that, some influences notwithstanding (John Ireland and Prokofiev), already showed a personal voice. It is one of the major offerings of this CHANDOS cycle as is the first performance and recording of the Violin Concerto, a major achievement in Alwyn's output. This is unquestionably one of his greatest masterpieces and one of the works that could have become popular if the circumstances had not decided against it. The much later Concerto for Flute and Wind Octet is another find. A beautifully nostalgic piece as well as a deeply felt remembrance of times past although there is nothing morbid in the beautifully crafted music. It was also interesting to hear the Second Piano Concerto though I found it somewhat less original than its predecessor. It might however have become popular with the Prom audience for whom it was composed. On the whole it is a more extrovert work than, say, the symphonies and, as such, might have appealed to a wider audience. Again Fate decided that it would not be so. Some of the shorter orchestral works proved to be winners too. I particularly think of the beautiful Concerto for Oboe, Harp and Strings or the remarkable Concerto Gross No. 3 to name but two that come to mind.

    The two volumes of chamber music had also much to offer besides a handful of somewhat better known pieces such as the Divertimento for Flute, Naiades and the Clarinet Sonata, some of the hitherto unrecorded and unheard pieces proved to be sizeable additions to Alwyn's discography. e.g. the Flute Sonata (1948), the Music for three players (Violin, Clarinet and Piano [1950]), the Trio for Flute, Cello and Piano (1951), the Oboe Sonata (1934) and the Sonata Impromptu (Violin and viola [1939]). All these pieces enable us to appreciate the stature of Alwyn as composer of chamber music and this is particularly important since it was well-known that he had composed many chamber works though most of them were virtually unknown.

    This short survey would not be complete if mention was not made of the wonderful CHANDOS release of suites from the film scores. This is particularly worthwhile for it amply shows that Alwyn approached film music with the same commitment, earnestness of purpose and dedication as he did his concert works. It is thus now possible to listen to these scores for what they essentially are: beautifully crafted and deeply felt music. The score of Odd Man Out is very telling form this point of view. The final cumulative section really rises to symphonic proportions. Some other film scores should now be preserved in modern recordings, e.g. the darkly impressive Shake Hands with the Devil that may compare with Odd Man Out for all its musical qualities. This may lie in the not too far future.

    The CHANDOS cycle is a magnificent achievement and does a great deal for our appreciation of William Alwyn's stature as one of the most distinguished and significant composers of his generation.

    © Hubert Culot 1996