|Founder: Len Mullenger|
This was first published as a chapter in Contemporary British Music by francis Routh published by Macdonald in 1972
© Francis Routh 1972/1998
William Alwyn, who was born in 1905, is an unashamed, if unfashionable romantic. Not for him the new, the experimental or the untried; he has sought to make his music live with the traditional means of the symphony orchestra, and with recourse to nothing apart from the sheer quality of his craft. For him the key of C major has not yet been fully exploited, and there is a great deal still waiting to be said with the ordinary orchestra as we know it.
His extremely full professional life started on the bandstand on the sea-front at Broadstairs. From there it took him as a flautist to the London Symphony Orchestra in 1927, when he played under Elgar and Vaughan Williams during the heyday of the Three Choirs Festival. He has appeared as conductor, not merely of his own works, though opportunities for this have been infrequent. He has been unstinting in carrying out those more menial tasks that sometimes befall musicians; from 1926 to 1956 he taught at the Royal Academy of Music in London; he has also undertaken more than his fair share of advisory panels and committees. There is no contradiction in this. The busy practicalities of everyday life are the necessary checks and balances against which the concentrated work of composition is done. This is Alwyn's personal solution to the question that every composer has to answer, today more than ever-the extent to which he must commute between the ivory tower and the market place; both are equally important, and yet neither by itself is sufficient.
Not until he was forty-four did he undertake his first symphony; but it was by no means his first composition. As a student, when he was under Sir John McEwen at the Royal Academy of Music, he had written a piano concerto, which his student-contemporary Clifford Curzon played at a concert in Bournemouth, under the composer's direction. Several early manuscripts were discarded, including a second piano concerto, and a violin concerto; and as early as 1927, when he was only twenty-two, Henry Wood had introduced his Five Preludes for Orchestra at a Promenade Concert. From his student days onwards, Alwyn retained the greatest respect for Wood, whom he described as 'the focus of my musical life'. Then again, in 1940, his Divertimento for solo flute had been played at an I.S.C.M. Festival in New York.
He is chiefly known, like his colleague Malcolm Arnold, as a composer of film music; yet to let it go at that, with the implied disapproval that the words 'film composer' usually call forth, would be both unfair and inadequate. Certainly the film studio represents a lucrative economic haven for the composer, which makes it immediately suspect to those who consider commerce and art to be irreconcilable. Certainly the film composer is required to work as a member of a team, and therefore to accept a role of artistic dependence to some extent on the wishes of others, such as the director of the film; this again causes raised eyebrows among those musicians to whom entire independence and personal choice are an article of faith.
Yet there can be more to it than that. No composer has done more than Alwyn to explore the serious possibilities of the use of composed music by established composers in films, which led to such notable successes as Walton's score for Henry V, and Vaughan Williams' score for Scott of the Antarctic. Alwyn's most notable films were Odd Man Out and The Fallen Idol, which he made for Carol Reed. His treatment of music in these and his many other film scores was as something dramatic rather than as something merely programmatic or descriptive; and this sharpening of his dramatic sense in the film studio led directly later on to his writing his opera The Libertine. Moreover, the film composer can occasionally find scope and outlet for orchestral experiment of the sort that Busoni used to imagine; and this was particularly the case with the documentary films made in the 30's.
Among his smaller compositions, greater scope is given to his characteristic style by the shorter tone-poems, whose central feature is instrumental colour, rather than by those more conventional chamber-music works, whose main structural prop is traditional counterpoint, which does not appeal to him. Examples in the first category, which belong in the tradition of Delius or Arnold Bax, are The Magic Island (1952) for orchestra, and Autumn Legend (1956) for cor anglais and strings. Examples in the second category are the String Quartet (1954) in D minor, and the String Trio (1963), the last of which, however, the composer values highly. A characteristic occasional work is the Concerto Grosso No.3, written in 1964, after the fourth symphony, to 'the ever-living memory of Henry Wood', and played at a Promenade Concert on the twentieth anniversary of Wood's death. The three movements use brass, woodwind and strings respectively, and the third movement is an elegy.
But the core of his output consists of four symphonies. The first, in D, was completed in July 1949, and played by the Hallé Orchestra under Barbirolli at a Cheltenham Festival concert the following year. It is conventional in more ways than one; a symphony in the grand manner, which proclaims its composer's allegiance without qualification, and stands in direct line with the tradition of Tchaikowsky or Richard Strauss. This romanticism strongly appealed to Barbirolli. In thus displaying his orchestral prowess, Alwyn displays a remarkable craftsmanship. Though the symphony is diffuse in its material, it shows already certain features, such as pedal-points and brass writing, which are permanent characteristics of his style. The themes are firmly diatonic, the texture luxuriant; there is also a suggestion of the cyclic technique, which he was to develop later. But taken as a whole the work sums up the past, as Alwyn had experienced it, rather than points to the future.
The Second Symphony marks a turning point. It was completed in April 1953, and followed the highly colourful symphonic prelude The Magic Island (1952). The symphony is in two parts, as against the customary four; the first part is slow, elegiac, characterised by falling, chromatic intervals, particularly the augmented second. The material of this part has close affinities with The Magic Island.
The second part is entirely contrasted; quick, impetuous, brilliant, with spacious phrasing. The material is the same as that of the first part, but it is differently applied, and the scherzando momentum of the opening bars is never lost sight of; even in the slow, trio-like middle section, the main pace is felt to be present, though beneath the surface of the music. Moreover, the structure of the movement is clearly delineated and genuinely symphonic; those parts that are thematic are differentiated from those that are merely subsidiary, or links. The point towards which the music moves is a transformation into D major of the F/D minor material from the opening of the first part. The work closes with a coda, recalling the mood of the first part.
The introduction of more chromatic progressions, the evolution of a thematic pattern over a held pedal-note, or repeated pedal-point, the distribution of homogeneous thematic material over the symphony as a whole, are all features which indicate the direction in which Alwyn's symphonic thought was developing, and which anticipate his individual contribution to this genre, which was to become fully apparent in his next symphony.
This was written in 1955/6, and played by the BBC Orchestra under Beecham on October 10th 1956. Barbirolli, who was to have conducted the work, was taken ill some time before. The year spent in writing this symphony has been described by the composer in his diary Arial to Miranda, which is not only the self-portrait of an artist at fifty, but is also the record of his work on the symphony, interspersed as it was with the innumerable distractions of a working musician in London; his thoughts, his observations about his colleagues, about his art generally, and indeed about humanity at large.
(Arial to Miranda was published in Adam, International Review, Nos 316-17-18 (1967) It is hoped permission will be granted by the Alwyn estate to reproduce it on this site.)
Several smaller works separate the second from the third symphony; the D minor String Quartet, the highly characteristic and colourful Fantasy-Waltzes for piano, the concerto for harp and strings Lyra Angelica, and a little piece for solo harp, Crépuscule. The last piece was a deliberate and highly productive exercise in self-discipline and limitation of material -a device that was to be applied again in the middle movement of the third symphony, as well as elsewhere. Alwyn himself says, (Arial to Miranda, 3 November) 'My new system of founding the harmonies on a short scale pattern consisting of a few selected notes and working within these limits is proving as stimulating here as it does in the symphony. The discipline is neither restrictive nor irksome; on the contrary it seems to ease the mental process, and by limiting the palette, paradoxically suggests new colours.'
The rough sketch of the Third Symphony, which the composer saw, with justification, as 'a fresh chapter in my symphonic output', was completed by 29th September 1955, and played through to the conductor John Hollingsworth. Two weeks later, it was commissioned by the BBC, and is therefore dedicated to its then head of music Richard Howgill. Work on various film scores (Safari, Black Tent) interrupted work on the symphony, as well as a book on film music.(The technique of Film Music - Focal press, 1957) Orchestration began in March 1956. The first movement was finished by 8th May; the slow movement by 14th May; the whole work by 11th June.
Of the three movements of the symphony, the first is built from the notes of the first group, the second is built from just the four notes of the second group, while the third is built from a bringing together, and a consequent working-out, of the two groups. A rhythmic ostinato, with which the symphony opens, is associated with the first group, and thus occurs, in varying guises, in the first and third movements; but in fact, as Ex. 14 shows, the themes and rhythms of each movement are closely related.
The first movement consists of the presentation of various thematic patterns and fragments formed from the notes of the first group; these are fitted into a freely modified sonata-form structure. The second movement consists of the exploitation of the melodic and harmonic possibilities contained in the four notes of the second group. Thus the chord of the tritone pervades the movement, and the tonality veers between D minor and F minor. 'The closing bars,' says the composer, 'should sound strangely remote.' The acceptance of the self-imposed limitation in this movement is highly suggestive, partly because of the contrast with the first movement - extreme slowness compared with extreme speed; the insistence on one chord compared with frequent directional changes of harmony-partly also because of the sense of foreboding that the listener feels, subconsciously; a sense that the calm of this movement is not to be permanent; that it is the calm before the storm of the finale. Which breaks abruptly. The conflicting tonalities of the two groups are juxtaposed and worked out. By [Q] the second group is in the ascendant; a powerful figure of rising quavers, given to trumpets and trombones, marks the apex of the development of this movement; the same figure is to appear again, at the very end of the symphony, to mark its exciting fulfilment, when the E flat tonality of the first group finally triumphs. This conclusion is forecast at [W], when the note linking the two groups, B flat, is at last established. From this moment onwards the end is inevitable, since B flat, the dominant of E flat, attracts the music irresistibly towards that tonality. But first Alwyn recalls the corresponding moment just towards the end of the first movement (after [Z]), with a quiet violin theme in E flat.
Once more in this symphony, the characteristics of Alwyn's orchestral style are amply represented: plentiful writing for the brass; fondness for ostinato phrases, and expressive use of orchestral colour; the conception of music as a succession of contrasting episodes, marked by bursts of climax, and based on the primary musical elements, such as loud contrasted with soft, strings contrasted with wind, con tuttaforza contrasted with molto calmato, and so on. But the symphonic principle of the conflict and working Out of tonalities derived from two complementary parts of the 12-note scale, is both a highly individual technique, and recognisably a valid development of traditional symphonic practice.
The same principle is carried one stage further in the next symphony, the fourth, which was first heard played by the Halle' Orchestra under Barbirolli at a Promenade Concert in 1959. It is more subdued a work than the third, which is illustrated by the fact that the composer dispenses with the percussion that he has hitherto used in the first three symphonies, and uses only timpani. The twelve notes are again divided into two groups, of eight and four notes respectively.
The first group is scalic, centring round F sharp; the tonality encompassed is therefore that of D major, or F sharp minor. The second group is intervallic, chiefly consisting of fourths and fifths, and centring on the tonalities of B flat and E flat. The tonal contrast and conflict between the groups is thus very marked, and the composer proceeds to exploit this in the course of the symphony. Generally speaking, the first group is used to create rhythmic movement and thematic life at the opening of phrases, and at the beginning of sections of the symphony, and to project the music forwards; the second group provides the converse of this, and is used to mark the cadences at the end of phrases, to conclude sections, and indeed to provide the end of the symphony as a whole, which is on B flat.
After an introduction in which the two groups are carefully spelt out, the one by the woodwind, the other by the cellos and basses, the first theme, consisting of the first group, is given to strings and woodwind together. An afterthought to it is allotted to a solo cello, over a pedal F sharp, which is the note in common to both tonalities of the first group (Ex. 16 (a) and (b)).
The conflicting tonality of the second group is immediately juxtaposed, by horns and bassoons, which makes also for contrast of timbre, and the resulting clash leads to the first moment of climax, in D major, propelled forward by a rhythmic ostinato, derived from the first theme. Again the music comes to rest on F sharp, high up this time in the violins. A gradual quickening leads into the next Allegro, and the ostinato forms the link with the following section. The tonalities combine for the second subject, which first appears in the muted brass,
but is soon exploited and developed by the strings. The strings maintain a restless assertion of the first group, and just when the music is moving towards this, the horns in unison (ff, con tutta forza) proclaim their dissent, and succeed in veering the music towards the B flat tonality of the second group. The bass instruments however remain loyal to the first group, and are not won over until the next, and last, moment of climax (at [S]). Once this has happened, a B flat pedal-point is maintained until the end of the movement, while the timpani sustain the rhythmic ostinato.
The brilliant second movement follows the conventional symphonic form of scherzo and trio. After the scherzo rhythm (3+3+2) has been established, on the single note D (after the manner of the opening of the third symphony), the scale-notes of the first group are used as a thematic pattern on which the movement is built. The notes of the second group are used either melodically or chordally to offset the tonality of the first group. They are interjected, first by the trumpet, later by the brass generally. Inevitably the first passage comes to rest on F sharp, and soon the first-group scale appears in that tonality, sung out by a solo oboe, while muted trombones interject the second-group notes as a chord. At the repeat of the scherzo, this solo is allotted to a violin, with the indication 'roughly'. It is just the sort of country-fiddle theme that Aaron Copland might have written.
When the strings and woodwind change, at [N], from the bright tonality and swinging rhythm of the first-group theme, and assume the more ponderous gait of the second, we know that the end of the first scherzo section is not far off. The slower middle section combines the notes of both groups in a theme given first to violins alone, then to two bassoons in canon. All the tension and excitement of the scherzo is released, and the thematic pattern is given a free rein for it to move to a full, romantic climax for the whole orchestra in unison (at [W]). After the repeat of the scherzo, the music comes to rest on F natural (at [LL]), and the first-group scale is then transposed, inverted and developed, with the two theme-groups jostling for supremacy.
The slow movement, with which the symphony ends, is in the form of a free passacaglia. It takes up where the second movement left off; with both theme-groups side by side,
and the music making use of the characteristics of each; the phrases begin with those of the first group, and end with those of the second. There are two points of climax; the first, built round a passage of Elgarian luxuriance, leads up to [N], where a quickening of the pace recalls the rhythm (3+3+2) of the scherzo, and the brass once again blare out the second-group tonality in an attempt to pull the rest of the orchestra away from that of the first group. The attempt this time is unsuccessful, and the music flickers away and reverts to the mood and pace of the opening.
The second climax maintains the pace of the opening, but builds a gradual crescendo, while the violins start the theme in E flat minor, an augmented second lower than the first time, at [S]. The intensity increases, but when all the strings change to the second-group tonality, after an allargando at [U], the conclusion of the symphony is felt to be inevitable.
Alwyn's four symphonies form a musical unity. The first represents the introduction, the second the development, the third the climax, and the fourth the finale. They epitomise what might be called the romantic principle of composition; ideas are conceived, and freely followed through, in terms of the instruments for which they are written. Orchestral climaxes, often of shattering proportions, are the result of an increase of nervous and emotional tension, and are usually marked by a variation of speed and dynamics. As the composer's style is both tonal and thematic, the listener's attention cannot but focus on to the themes themselves, which carry most of the weight of the musical argument; and Alwyn is entirely unafraid of the big line, the broad sequence, the grandiose gesture. That such a style is in danger of becoming cliche-ridden is obvious.
The most positive feature of Alwyn's style is his mastery of the orchestra. His study of orchestration, both as conductor, performer and composer, has been wide-ranging, his most recent being an analysis of Berg's Wozzeck. His acquaintance with the symphonic and operatic repertoire is very wide. He is preoccupied with orchestral technique, the layout of instruments, the distribution of an orchestral climax. Three parts, he feels, give a clearer effect than four. Each must be heard effectively, each instrument so placed as to make its best contribution to the orchestral tutti. Alwyn's brass climaxes sound louder and more brilliant than in other composers' scores not because he uses more instruments, nor because the players blow harder, but because the layout of the chords is such that each instrument is heard to contribute in the most telling way to the overall effect, like the upper harmonics of an organ mixture-stop.
Another not-so-positive feature is the general lack of counterpoint. This results in a high proportion of writing that is filling-in, repetitive, or purely accompanimental. There is an absence of that dynamic, inner growth that only comes from contrapuntal writing, and for which mere loudness is no substitute. In a sense, the use of ostinati, or repetition of a figure, coupled with an unwavering ear for orchestral colour, goes some way to compensating for this, and to providing the music with that momentum and drive that would otherwise be obtained by means of counterpoint; but too frequent a use of the pedal-point, or ostinato pedal, tends to halt the harmonic movement. A theme which evolves and unfolds over a static bass-note is one of the commonest features of Alwyn's style. But for him symphonic orchestral technique is all important; in particular the development of symphonic structure. This holds his attention more than counterpoint, which he considers has become gradually less important since Bach's day.
Analysis and description of a score give, in the case of most composers, only a partial view of the nature of the music. This is particularly so with Alwyn, whose artistic personality is compounded of many parts, and is somewhat enigmatic. What is unusual today, he holds to a personal ideal of artistic beauty; what is practically unknown today, he admits to such an ideal. His view is Platonic; beauty exists as an ideal goal to which art approximates to a greater or lesser extent. It follows that the two basic requirements of the artist are, first, that he should express what is in him, and only what is in him; second, that his technique should be good enough to enable him to communicate fully and adequately. Integrity is essential, which means that the artist can give the listener only what he himself has heard and experienced. Thus he differs from the avant-garde composer, who gives the listener what is new, or what he thinks he (the composer) ought to be experiencing. Moreover, the artist must aim at the complete expression of his ideas, and this for Alwyn is not possible with musical means alone. Literature and the visual arts can express and describe in a way that music cannot. Alwyn's artistry is versatile. He is acquainted with many fields of writing, particularly French poetry and novels, such as the work of Nathalie Sarraute, and different schools of painting. He is himself a painter; he has also selected and translated an anthology of 20th century French poetry. (published by Chatto & Windus, 1969)
His literary bent and his composition have combined with his dramatic sense in his biggest venture yet, his only opera The Libertine, which so far has taken four years to write, and is only awaiting the chance of performance for its final completion. Alwyn has never set poems to music (N.B. this article was written in 1972); his fondness for poetry may have something to do with his reluctance to add another dimension to a poem, which, if it is a good poem, is an already complete artwork. But word-setting is something he enjoys; he had already written a radio opera Farewell Companions; it was a logical continuation to write a full-length work for the theatre.
Two great figures of literature, which almost amount to archetypal images, have always dominated his imagination; one is Don Juan, the other is St. Joan. He is well-read on each, and in selecting the first as the subject of his opera, his reason was that Don Juan was a theme about which he felt he could write an individual interpretation, which would be relevant for today, yet which had an age-long connection with both the theatre, and literature generally - to say nothing of opera itself. St. Joan, on the other hand, had been the subject of powerful interpretations by Bernard Shaw and Jean Anouilh.
So he decided to use the Don Juan story, and set about writing his three-act opera The Libertine. The libretto, which took him a year to write, is in verse, some of it rhyming, and is based on James Elroy Flecker's play Don Juan, as well as on Byron, Baudelaire, Molière, Shaw and Nietzsche. The plot, in the true operatic tradition, is more than slightly ridiculous, and is set in 'the not too distant future'. What is implied is just as important as what is said. Don Juan returns from hell to this country, where he pursues his ideal life of happiness and pleasure, and proceeds to kill the prime minister, who was contemplating a war. The prime minister had two daughters, Anna and Isobel, both of whom, needless to say, are the recipients of Don Juan's attention, and both of whom he also eventually murders. A statue of the prime minister had been put up by an admiring and grateful nation, much to the convenience of the story, and as an integral part of the Don Juan legend; and this not unexpectedly comes in to pronounce judgement. Don Juan is then banished for ever whence he came.
The opening caused the composer much thought. Originally he visualised a Prologue depicting a storm at sea, and shipwreck; this idea then evolved into an orchestral Prologue of storm-music; but finally both these possibilities were discarded in favour of a much more direct and simple beginning; the curtain rises to the grey of a spring dawn over the sea. A very short introduction leads to a climax, in bar 10, which contains the 'magic' chord of the opera (Eb and A major combined), to depict Juan's ability to cast spells over people.
The first scene (the first act was completed in April 1968) is set on the rocky coast of Cornwall. Haidie, a young girl, comes down the cliff and stands naked, ready for her morning swim, when she sees two bodies washed ashore on the beach, after the storm of the previous night. They are Juan and his servant Owen Jones. This first scene is one of innocent, idyllic love, simple and dreamlike; a background experience; Byron tells (Don Juan Canto 2) how Juan recalls his meeting with Haidie as something far-off, ideal, visionary. Over an ostinato figure, Alwyn gives Haidie a simple folk-like tune, while the music leads forward to the climax of the 'magic' chord. A romantic duet, lyrical and simple, marks the innocence of this idyll; then, as the sea comes in, Haidie and Owen carry Juan's body up the cliff.
The next scene takes place a month later, in early summer. The love affair of Juan and Maidie has flourished as it should, but selfishness has asserted itself. Simplicity proved boring, and a note of bravado is soon to spoil it. The dream motif recurs in Haidie's music, but the first discordant note is struck when workmen rush in who are on strike, and in pursuit of one of their workmates, whom they call a 'traitor' and 'blackleg'. The violins have a 12-note theme at the word 'traitor', and the more chromatic writing, over a ground, breaks into and destroys the love-idyll. The men want to kill Lord Framlingham, the President of the English Republic, for political reasons. But the carefree Juan was a close friend of Framlingham, and so he turns the workmen's argument on to himself, and allows the blackleg to escape. 'What of the poets?', he asks; 'what of our dreams?' The 'magic' chord recalls us to the beginning-point once more.
A swaggering line accompanies his words 'blow up parliament', and a hint of a fugal section works up to a climax, with shouts of 'blackleg'. This gradually dies away as the crowd disperses, and we see Juan left pointing his revolver not at the crowd but at his own father, Don Pedro, the Spanish Ambassador in London, who suddenly appears. The 'father' theme dominates the music of this next section. Juan meanwhile has forgotten Haidi - but then he remembers her. His father, however, urges him to leave Haidie and go to London. This he decides to do; he is driven, as we know, by a force stronger than his own will. The only explanation he can give Haidie is that, however much he values her love, he values his own freedom more. So he chooses to leave the dreamiike innocence of the love-idyll for the selfish course which is to lead to his own destruction.
The second act takes place in late July two months later, in Juan's London flat. Framlingham is planning to declare war, to general popular acclamation; and this necessitates intervention by the individual, if disaster is to be averted. A dance is in progress; we hear a tango off-stage, but the dance band is interrupted by orchestral interjections. Juan and Framlingham's younger daughter Isobel dance to a quick, scherzando waltz, symbolising their passionate relationship. Inevitably the music culminates in a love duet. Anna, the other daughter, enters to a slow waltz. As the windows shut, the dance band is shut out, just as the political action of this scene shuts out the background of Juan's amorous activities. Anna, we learn, beneath a cold and passionless exterior is in fact on fire with love and jealousy for Juan. After Juan and Isobel go out there is a moment of repose - that dramatically essential calm before the next stormy moments of action.
Framlingham enters with the other guests, and announces war; whereupon Juan entreats him against this course, in a biting dialogue: 'In war no man is free'. When Framlingham is deaf to all arguments, Juan plans to murder him; and so he arranges to meet him 'by the cool of the river, by Cleopatra's Needle'. The scene closes; meanwhile, as before he had forgotten Haidie, so now Juan forgets Isobel. But Anna is told that Juan has gone out, and thinking, not entirely unreasonably, that he has made yet another amorous assignation, follows him angrily.
At this point in the opera Alwyn had originally inserted another scene, as Juan shoots Framlingham by the river. This however was discarded because he felt it would be too melodramatic, 'too operatic', and not really necessary for the understanding of the story.
The third act (the scoring of the third act is incomplete) takes place a year later. Once again it starts with the dawn, and the 'magic' chord marks Juan's soliloquy. The rising sun evokes memories of Haidie and a lost innocence. When Owen enters, their dialogue hints at mystery, and the murder of Framlingham. Owen, the strange servant, alias Leporello, tries to hypnotise Juan, who gradually comes under the spell. 'Who was your mother? Who are you?' asks Owen (quoting Byron). The climax is reached with the words 'I am Don Juan', and Haidie's first folk-song theme is heard through the haze, like the voice of Juan's conscience. Suddenly the sun is blotted out, and, as if from the past, Haidie appears; but her voice is dull, meek; all joy has gone out of her; and the retrospective scene recalls earlier phrases. Their duet moves to a climax of intensity, and as Owen leads Haidie away, the scene closes with Owen's strange promise about 'the night of the falling stars'. Thereupon the sun reappears, as the curtain falls.
A short intermezzo takes us back to the purity of Haidie's love scene, before the final scene. The statue is an integral part of the legend; it occurs in both Da Ponte and Moliere; Alwyn gives a fresh twist to the tradition by making the statue that of the hero, Juan's friend. A chromatic orchestral figure represents the crowd and after the opening dialogue between Don Pedro and Juan there is a knock at the door which reduces Don Pedro to terror. We expect the statue - but instead Anna comes in. Her theme returns, and the ensuing duet becomes gradually more passionate and retrospective. Juan is shown to evolve in the course of the opera, as his power, which is his undoing, gradually increases. The climax of this duet occurs with a swaggering tune for his words 'Then I am God', which prove too much for Anna, who succumbs to him -a s she had all along intended to do.
Enter Isobel, to a nagging, persistent accompaniment theme. The love theme of Juan and Isobel dominates the next section as Juan denies Anna, until, at the very point of climax, when Juan says, somewhat unconvincingly, 'I have always been loyal', Anna breaks in, to reveal what she saw that night a year before, at Cleopatra's Needle. Mad with jealousy, she puts on Juan's cloak - the one he wore for the murder - and dances round to a macabre, distorted waltz. At the climax of her narrative, with the words 'I was there', pistol shots sound in the orchestra. So Isobel realizes that Juan has murdered her father. There follows the only explanatory part of the opera, as Juan tells why he killed Framlingham. This is spoken, for the uniquely special effect, after the climax of the previous section.
Now Anna has nothing to live for; but too afraid to kill herself, she asks Juan to do it for her. Having murdered once, it is easier for him to murder twice; and he shoots Anna.
What now of Isobel's love? Eventually, even in spite of the two murders, her passion proves stronger than her reason. The music now becomes more lyrical, and they eventually kiss and embrace. Can guilty love endure if innocent love was rejected? 'Put out the light, then we can see the stars.' The room is now in darkness, with only a glimmer of light from the window. 'What care we for the stars?' they say. 'Are they falling? Let them fall-they cannot destroy our love.' Gradually, inevitably, strange music; footsteps; a knocking at the door-three times, unrhythmic. Then at last the statue of Framlingham does enter, eerie and luminous. Juan shoots-but kills Isobel instead. There follows a duet in fugue, based on Framlingham's theme, as the statue pronounces judgement and punishment, and Juan attempts to explain himself. Juan goes out, to a rain of fire. A pedal D in the orchestra sustains a violently clashing and imitative passage, based on the Framlingham theme. Then the door closes, and the statue disappears. Only the starlight remains - 'the night of the falling stars' - as Don Pedro nervously comes in, turns on the light. Just one chord sounds, as he whispers to himself in horror, 'Santa Maria'.
Alwyn's opera is conceived in line with the grand operatic tradition of Debussy and Puccini, just as his symphonies continued the romantic orchestral tradition. His romanticism knows no half measures; in this lies its strength. Moreover, his stagecraft is calculated down to the finest points of action and movement. Details of production are as important as the music. Film work was the best possible training in this respect. But the impact of this work is due to two main factors; first, the inevitability of the plot's development and growth; second, the use of an archetypal image, which the composer has originally and successfully realised in contemporary terms. The Don Juan theme is not only one of the most basic of all stories; it is also highly relevant to the present day, in the hands of an understanding interpreter. Thus Tippett interpreted Paris in King Priam, and Berg interpreted Lulu. As far as English opera is concerned, the opera nearest in mood to Alwyn's, though their idiom differs widely, is Delius's A Village Romeo and Juliet. Both operas introduce symbolism; in both the business of the world is contrasted with the function of the individual, dreams with reality, innocence with self-interest. In both the place of the individual is shown to be supremely important; in both there is a certain carefree quality, as the lovers journey to where human corruption cannot touch them in their spiritual exile; their goal is the same, whether it be 'towards the setting sun-the Paradise Garden' of Delius's imagination, or 'beyond heaven and hell', as Isobel says in The Libertine.
Alwyn's instinct not to portray the murder of Framlingham on the stage is a true one; also to leave out the storm at the beginning of the opera. It would have been inconsistent to introduce such realism. Operatic action is suggestive and symbolic, not realistic and representative, as numerous composers have pointed out. (for instance, Peter Warlock in Delius, and Busoni in Entwurf einer neuen Aesthetik der Tonkunst) The libretto of The Libertine never explains events; but opera as Alwyn sees it is closely akin to drama, and so he avoids melisma or word repetition, and aims instead to achieve a flow of words as if they were spoken, while the orchestra supplies the lyricism.
But you cannot avoid convention in opera, particularly in romantic opera. If you do not, to some extent at least, accept the conventions, you should not write an opera. Alwyn's work is more in the line of Berg and Tippett than of Britten. The Libertine is a complex, composite work, uniting many facets of the composer's many-sided romantic personality. His imaginative experience is a collective and traditional one, in the sense that the material of a Greek tragedy was collective and traditional; he is keenly aware of contemporary drama and literature, and so his development of the Don Juan theme is markedly original. All of which suggest that, although the work is still not completely scored, when it is eventually produced it will make a remarkable impact in the theatre.
(This article was written before Alwyn started work on his opera Miss Julie. Don Juan, the Libertine remains incomplete)
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