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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


WILLIAM ALWYN - A ROMANTIC COMPOSER OF HIS TIME

by Ian Carmalt

[This article was first submitted by Ian Carmalt for publication in the British Music Society newsletter. It is reproduced here with acknowledgement and thanks to Ian.]

WILLIAM ALWYN was born in 1905 in Northampton, a town renowned far more for making boots than for its artistic life. Thus it came about that his important early contacts with live music included listening to military bands in the local park. He was particularly attracted to the piccolo. His parents bought one and arranged for him to receive lessons from a local cobbler. This was the seed of a successful career as a flautist which included membership of the London Symphony Orchestra and the British premieres of chamber music works by important European composers. The piccolo was the first instrument for which he composed, at the age of eight.

William always had a wide range of artistic interests. Whilst showing a keen interest in music (the only member of the family to do so), he inherited the love of literature from his father, a grocer who named his shop the 'Shakspere Stores' and had quotations from the bard's works printed on his wrappers. In career terms William showed a predilection for French poetry, publishing a few volumes of his own translations. He demonstrated his own skill as a poet not only in short works such as Mirages (which he set as a song cycle in 1974), but also in long, philosophical works in which he set out his ideas about art (Daphne, or The Pursuit of Beauty), life (The World in My Mind) and the things about which most strongly (Winter in Copenhagen).

Alwyn believed that it is a creative artist's duty to express completely in such a way as to communicate to others all the ideas which are genuinely in him. He found that some ideas could be expressed only in sounds, others only in words, and others only in visual images. Within himself he found things which fell into each of these three categories, so painting became a third art of importance to him. He was himself a successful painter who claimed to have been an unofficial student of the 'Slade School' and was proud of the role he played, by collecting their works when they were unfashionable, in regenerating interest in pre-Raphaelites such as Rossetti.

However important his poetry and painting were to him, Alwyn regarded them as subsidiary activities, "tributary streams" or "backwaters where he refreshed himself", to composition. Likewise, he regarded his teaching, notably as Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music from 1926-1955, and his membership of advisory panels and committees - he played a prominent role in founding the Composers' Guild of Great Britain of which he was chairman three times, this contributing to a duty he felt the need to carry out in dealing with fellow musicians' problems - as means of commuting "between the ivory tower and the market place - practicalities of life (which) are the necessary checks and balances against which the concentrated work of composition is done."

By the time William was fifteen, his father was convinced that music was sufficiently important to him to justify twice-weekly trips to the Royal Academy of Music to study the flute. He soon won a scholarship to study not only flute, but also composition with J B McEwen, whom he found to be a "most enlightened and unacademic teacher" who encouraged learning by studying the music of leading contemporary composers such as Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Szymanowski, who introduced his pupils to philosophy and who worked hard on behalf of British music and encouraged Alwyn to do the same with the words "you will only get kicks but ... you will ... die with an easy conscience".

Another guide and inspiration whilst he studied at the RAM was William Wallace who was the model for Dr Crotch, a character created by Alwyn whose "opinions" he published (in the RAM Magazine, 1974-5) as a series of satirical essays on music, and whose ideas included "the genuine creative mind is always creating - ideas spring naturally and inevitably from previous ideas ... great artists ... assimilate and incorporate and mould in (their) own fashion the best contemporary ideas", which is a succinct summary of Alwyn's own creative process.

More contemporary composers of interest to Alwyn came to his attention through the performances of Henry Wood. The two men were mutual admirers: Alwyn played in Wood's orchestras and Wood introduced Alwyn to the music of Sibelius, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Poulenc as well as giving performances of Alwyn's works, for example the 'Five Preludes for Orchestra' at the 1927 Proms.

By the late 1930s Alwyn was regarded as a successful avant-garde composer, performances of whose works included those in London, Paris and Warsaw by the New Music Society, who had won the Michael Costa Scholarship for composition at the RAM, and who in 1938 was awarded by Bax and Vaughan Williams the Collard Fellowship of the Worshipful Company of Musicians for an oratorio setting Blake's 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell'.

One aspect of McEwen's teaching which Alwyn felt retrospectively to be unpropitious was his not stressing the importance of composition technique. By 1939 Alwyn was aware of a significant area of incompleteness in his approach: he felt that he had been neglecting counterpoint in favour of "eartickling harmony", using too many classical formulae, and bringing insufficient intensity and mental control to his romantic inclinations. One work which he had recently completed, the Violin Concerto shows a tendency towards slow, dreamy music even within tempo markings such as allegro ma non troppo, a penchant for loud, brassy climaxes and a harmonic language inclined to veer towards Warlock or Delius, especially early in the finale. The composer's dissatisfaction was such that he disowned all his existing works and made a fresh start, immersing himself in study of the scores of Liszt, Wagner, Debussy, Scriabin, Puccini, Stravinsky and Elgar.

The tendency to write long, slow passages even in predominantly fast movements, often closing works with them, was a hallmark of Alwyn's style which persisted throughout his life. There are two examples in the Third Symphony: they may also be found ending such works as the Sinfonietta (1970) and his last composition, String Quartet No 3 (1984). One thing his new studies enabled him to do was to organise his compositions in such a way that such passages form an integral part of a logical process binding the whole work together, resulting in tauter, more convincing structures.

For the rest of his life Alwyn kept his creative impulses in a constant state of regeneration by experiments in matters such as orchestration and approaches to tonality. He took pains to ensure that these experiments were kept in their proper place, that is to say they were never ends in themselves, but the means of composing music which should be appreciated first and foremost as an enjoyable aesthetic experience. He insisted that in each work he strove to attain an elusive artistic ideal which he felt was best described by the word "beauty": he set out his aesthetic credo in Daphne, or The Pursuit of Beauty, in which he explained what he meant by this. An unfortunate result of this approach is that the originality (as opposed to mere newness) of his music is often overlooked: in fact, as Malcolm Hayes has observed, Alwyn's work is "more radical in artistic attitude than that of most other composers working in a supposedly more contemporary idiom".

Alwyn's first opportunity to compose for films came in 1936, and began a career in which he wrote more than 190 scores for feature films and documentaries. During World War II his work for the Ministry of Information and the Army Film Unit was distinguished enough to earn him a place on Hitler's black list. Whilst he saw composing film music as a way of earning a living, he regarded it as a serious vehicle for dramatic composition, and took every opportunity to develop his technique in orchestration and experiment with the rhythmic relationship and interplay between the spoken word and music: his close collaboration with the director Carol Reed resulted in films such as 'Odd Man Out' in which dialogue, music, sound effects and visual images are completely integrated. Alwyn believed in functional film music which synthesises the powers of the art of music with those of film, and advocated the film maker and the composer understanding each others' work well enough to avoid producing an "inchoate score which drowns the drama with an excess of ill-defined noise".

His theory of orchestration was based (so he explained in an interview) on a principle of working in blocks, treating strings, wind and brass as separate, complete entities - "strong orchestration helps a strong melody to come across". Francis Routh has noted that Alwyn conceived and followed through his ideas in terms of the instruments for which he wrote them, making each instrument's contribution more effective. It is these points, not the use of an exceptionally large orchestra or extravagant range of percussion, which give power to the characteristic expansive, very loud climaxes in his orchestral works.

The first fruits of Alwyn's renewed studies of 1939 may be described as his neo-classical period: they include a virtuosic Divertimento (including a three part fughetta written on two staves) for unaccompanied flute and two Concerti Grossi (1943/8). Whatever classical inspiration lies behind these works, Alwyn never allowed anything, to act as a straitjacket to his romanticism, which he developed more richly and lyrically in concertos for oboe (1944-5) and harp (Lyra Angelica, mid-1950s). His method of ideas growing from each other was not yet fully developed: as important unifying features, his works of the 1940s often close with recapitulations of material from their opening movements.

By the mid-1950s Alwyn was again dissatisfied with his style, specifically with his lyricism which, notwithstanding its importance as an expression of his romanticism, he felt was becoming, too effusive and in need of greater discipline. He derived his answer to this problem from Indian classical music, which gave him the idea of organising the notes of the chromatic scale in modes other than major and minor scales. He had already discovered some more exotic sounds and more convincing ways of allowing his ideas to grow, as shown in the second movement of 'Lyra Angelica', where a motif consisting of five parallel tenths rising scalically expands into two sets of parallel triads moving simultaneously.

Alwyn set himself some interesting problems by inventing modes consisting of between three and eight notes and not allowing himself transpositions or inversions whilst using his modes within the framework of major and minor keys. Thus one of the factors governing the Third Symphony is large scale harmonic tension generated by a search for a perfect cadence, because the composer sets the work in E flat major, but chooses a mode which includes the dominant note but excludes the other notes of the dominant seventh chord. The four notes of the chromatic scale which do not appear in the first movement are the only notes used in the first four minutes of the slow movement, after which a process of integrating the two modes begins. When writing his next symphony in 1959, his belief in and need for experimentation impelled Alwyn to find a different way of generating tension between two modes: in that work a four note mode is used throughout as a generator of conflict against the other eight notes.

By 1955 when he set about writing the Third Symphony, Alwyn's method of deriving ideas from previous ideas. relating them to each other and transforming them had become a mature and convincing process. He acknowledged that it originated in Liszt's and Wagner's thematic metamorphoses, which he preferred to forms such as sonata whose "long winded" recapitulations he found inhibiting to romanticism, and invoked the influences of Berg, Debussy and Puccini, attributing to his alter ego Dr Crotch the theory that genuine creators such as those three create forms to suit their ideas, the ultimate shape evolving through pure creative urgency. When he embarked on his first symphony in 1949 (only then did he feel his technique had become strong enough to sustain a symphony) his plan was to write a cycle of four symphonies on the same thematic material: he later stated that there is a motto in the opening bars of the First Symphony which is found in various guises throughout, reaching its apotheosis at the conclusion of Symphony No 4. This apotheosis is not evident in the score, even though the aural impression suggests that the theme is present, cleverly concealed. It is unwise to take this too seriously: Alwyn was too intelligent a composer to not adjust an idea which was not working well, and the best approach is to appreciate each work in its own right.

There was no place in Alwyn's style for atonality or Schoenbergian serialism, which he realised would inhibit not just his romanticism but, more importantly, communication with the musical public. As observed above, he found his own alternatives to diatonicism and his own ways of using all twelve notes of the chromatic scale, finding the new colours he discovered refreshing and stimulating. This does not mean it was impossible for him to devise and use a tone row (he acknowledged Berg as an antecedent in adjusting serialism to fit a romantic framework): in 1963 he composed his String Trio, using a row consisting of three pairs of notes a semitone apart, followed by three pairs a minor third apart. The work begins with a declaration of intent not to apply the row strictly: a loud, aggressive, arco statement of the first eleven notes is followed by a quiet, slower, pizzicato counter-statement of their retrograde before the twelfth note is introduced as a bass pedal. Alwyn uses no transpositions or inversions and, if he feels required to do so by the development of his ideas, unhesitatingly exploits the suggestion of F major and minor tonality in the row's last four notes, omits a few of its notes or abandons it altogether (in a passage in the finale following an outburst of its retrograde). In the central movements he reverts to using restricted modes, usually of five notes: the first two modes in the cavatina are taken from the row.

For Alwyn, dissonance was a colouristic device: he revelled in the piquant or exotic sounds which may be produced by semitones, augmented seconds and tritones used melodically or included in chords. Examples abound and may be found throughout such a work as the Third Symphony, as may instances of what would otherwise be a common chord being made more interesting by the addition of a dissonant note: Symphony No 5 opens with a chord consisting of E (bass) + F minor and closes with E major + C - it could be argued that this note makes the conclusion effectively the dominant of the opening. The scherzo of the String Trio (mode of C major triad + F# + A flat) exploits some Stravinskian clashes and arpeggiated ideas, while the opening of the cavatina dwells on the augmented second B flat-C# and the blue note effect of A in the melody against B flat in the harmony.

The inspiration for most of the works already mentioned appears to be purely musical, but Alwyn did not always openly reveal extra-musical influences if they were indirect. He wrote that his third symphony voices a passionate protest against the cruel futility of war: in order to find this out, it is necessary to consult a note which he wrote in 1982 to accompany a recording of his first string quartet, suggesting that it was important to him that the symphony be appreciated as pure music.

It is not surprising that a composer who was also a practising poet and painter should write music inspired by works in other art forms. Autumn Legend (1955) for cor anglais and strings, was inspired by the composer's favourite Victorian pre-Raphaelite paintings and poetry, whilst Lyra Angelica and the Fifth Symphony (1973) illuminate lines from respectively Fletcher's 'Christ's Victory and Triumph' and Sir Thomas Browne's elegy on Norfolk's sepulchral urns 'Hydriotaphia: Urn Burial', in which Alwyn had been interested for at least eighteen years. Descriptive titles such as these and The Magic Island (an orchestral evocation of the island of Shakespeare's 'The Tempest') are generally direct references to the source of inspiration: Dr Crotch denounced titles as "catchpenny devices to attract the public, lifebuoys for non-musical listeners".

In the last two decades of his life he fulfilled his ambition to compose opera, completing two ('Juan, or The Libertine' and 'Miss Julie') and the libretto of a third. It was inconceivable that, given his concern for the total integration of all the art forms involved, anyone other than Alwyn himself could provide suitable libretti. In 'Miss Julie', he derived from Strindberg's one act play a two act scheme which preserved the claustrophobic atmosphere created by the author and was convincing musically as well as dramatically. His belief was that the action of an opera should be self-explanatory, the drama should not be interrupted by long soliloquies, and the vocal line should reflect spoken rhythms and inflections.

© Ian Carmalt


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