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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    

Just a Silver Screen Confection or a Serious Contribution to the 20th Century British Symphonic Catalogue? William Alwyn's First Symphony

The first performance of a 'First Symphony' is an important event in the life of any composer. The 1950 Cheltenham Festival played host to two such premieres - those by Peter Racine Fricker and William Alwyn. Reading the contemporary reviews it seems that the music critics were enthusiastic about the rough-hewn work of Fricker and considerably less complimentary about Alwyn's contribution. In fact one reviewer, Donald Mitchell, in the Musical Times, does not deem Alwyn's Symphony to have any musical worth; he does not deign to discuss it. He mentions Fricker's work and the Richard Arnell String Quintet Op.60. However he does consider Alwyn's work in a similar review in Music Survey. He is damning. For the record, Anthony Collins’ forgotten Second Symphony and Bax's late Concertante for Orchestra with piano solo (left hand) were similarly ignored.

Mary Alwyn claims in the CD cover notes for the Hickox Chandos disc (CHAN 9155) that the work was enjoyed by audience and critics alike. Apparently they responded to the 'imagination, eloquence, brilliant scoring and wealth of good tunes.' However this optimism seems to be overstated when compared to the actual reviews.

It is appropriate to quote the relevant reviews here in full - both for future reference and as a starting point for consideration of this work.

The name of William Alwyn is well known to all discerning filmgoers. His success as a composer for the screen however, is something of a sore point, and understandably so, since his concert and chamber works have been much neglected.

Alwyn's Symphony No 1 in D, which had its first performance in Cheltenham, is rather disappointing. Though it strikes one as being more finished, more fully realised, perhaps, than Fricker's new work, it lacks a comparable symphonic impulse.

As Mosco Carner pointed out, 'Alwyn's mistake was to apply the loose style and technique of film music to a medium which demands a different and more intellectual approach.’

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the opening movement, described by the composer as 'the most elusive formally,' and 'an extended introduction to the symphony as a whole.' This, surely, is a dangerous conception of first movement form; and it certainly reduces the stature of the complete work. When in the remaining movements, Alwyn more nearly 'follows the familiar and thorny path of tradition', he offers us pleasing material and fine musicianship. I look forward to hearing a Symphony No. 2. Hugh Ottaway - Musical Opinion, October 1950.

Mr Ottaway's review assumes that the composer is well known to film enthusiasts - he shows a certain bias against accepting that films and serious music can co-exist in a composer's mind. To be fair he realises that Alwyn has lost out in the concert hall in spite of his success in documentary and feature films. He takes the line of least resistance and declares that the Symphony is effectively a series of connected scenes from a film that will never be shot. He is at pains to note that the style of film music does not work when applied to the architecture of a symphony. In fact he goes as far as to say that Alywn has failed to reach the intellectual stature required to claim to be a symphonist. Perhaps the most damning part of this review is Ottaway's quotes from William Alwyn's own words.

Yet another new symphony is Alwyn's which lasts 42 minutes and seems longer, in its rather torturous lightweight way. The thinking doesn't stand up to the length, though the finale stands up well. W.R. Anderson - Musical Times, Volume 81, No. 1290, August 1950 p.305.

One is curious to know what Anderson was listening to when he wrote this brief notice. Certainly the symphony is generally happy and often quite boisterous; there is no way that it could be called ‘torturous'. However it most definitely cannot be described as lightweight! Once again there is a presumption that the structure is not symphonic.

'William Alwyn's Symphony in D bore too many features of a film score to impress one as a serious symphonic essay. Four mood pictures do not make a symphony and while his technique is highly expert his conception lacks an intrinsically symphonic character. (M.C.) Mosco Carner - Musical Times, Volume 81, No. 1290, August 1950, p.317.

Once again this critic compares the symphony to a film score. He claims that the parts do not add up to a whole. In fact they are really four 'mood pictures' strung together. At least he recognises the composer's ability in composition and orchestration.

Donald Mitchell, in Music Survey gives a list, which I reproduce below, of first performances from around the time of the 1950 Festival at Cheltenham. It is interesting to note that, of the three symphonic works only Alwyn's 'first' is in the current or recent CD catalogue.

Arnold Bax Concertante for Orchestra with Piano Solo (left hand)

Peter Racine Fricker Symphony No. 1

Richard Arnell String Quintet Op.60

William Alwyn Symphony No.1 in D

Anthony Collins Symphony No.2 for strings

Frances Baines Concerto for Trumpet & Strings

Mitchell writes about Alwyn's work:

The Alwyn Symphony both disappointed and dismayed: if the Arnell Quintet was deliberately eclectic the Alwyn was distressingly, indiscriminately and probably unintentionally so. Strauss flirted with Sibelius quite informally in the most impolite meaning of the word. No one was surprised to find the symphony un-symphonic: indeed only the reverse would have caused a stir. But that such commonplace stuff should have issued forth from a by no means commonplace musical mind was astonishing. To say stick to film music will be considered abominable bad taste: but that’s my advice to Mr Alwyn. Why stop doing what you do better than most others, in order to try your hand at something where you fail as badly as the worst of the rest? Donald Mitchell - Musical Survey, autumn 1951, Volume 4, Number 1

Mitchell's concerns are that the symphony is eclectic. He implies fairly and squarely that Alwyn has mined a variety of composers for his confection. He mentions Sibelius and Strauss as being the two main culprits. Others have divined the music of Bax, Walton, Moeran, Elgar and Bliss in these pages. Mitchell does not regard this work as being a symphony. And rather disparagingly he states that it would have been a surprise if it had been a truly symphonic work - no doubt a side-swipe at composers of film scores. He rather nastily suggests that Alwyn stick to what he does best - film music. This review is a definite pan.

So, summing up the criticism, there are three strands: -

  1. There is no formal or perhaps traditional symphonic structure here. This is simply glorified film music - so many 'scenes' joined together
  2. It is eclectic - so many styles rolled into one.
  3. A certain preconception that a film music composer cannot write 'symphonic works.' The two are mutually exclusive!

William Alwyn was 45 years old when his First Symphony was performed and it is always instructive to consider what qualifications he had to compose a large work in this form. Some ten years previously he had a major hiatus in his composing career. In 1939 he had virtually cast aside all his previous works and made a fresh start. According to his autobiography he needed to forge his own unique style – ‘Each work must be polished and re-polished, until every join, every flaw was eliminated.’ Winged Chariot: An Essay in Autobiography, The William Alwyn Foundation, Southwold Press p.9

Ottaway in the New Grove quotes the composer as saying, 'I realised that my technique was not to be matched with my great contemporaries, and from then on technical perfection and virtuosity became my main concern.' He felt that he had neglected the contrapuntal line in favour of 'ear-tickling harmony.' Alwyn turned initially to neo-classicism. This period resulted in a number of fine and interesting works: the Rhapsody for Piano Quartet and the Divertimento for solo flute being two excellent examples. The Concerto Grosso No. 2 in G was perhaps the last work to show the neo-classical style to any great extent. Pastoralism of a previous generation was represented by the 1944 Concerto for Oboe, Harp and Strings which is a masterpiece of its genre and deserves to be well known.

Of course it is not fair to assume that all his pre-1939 works are in some ways worthless. The First Piano Concerto is a good example of Alwyn's technique and inspiration. There was a Violin Concerto, a suite based on the story of Peter Pan and a setting of William Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

Just prior to his stylistic reappraisal he had begun to write film scores - at first for documentaries and then for full length feature films. This was to result in the honing of his compositional skills to a high degree - especially his use of the orchestra. By the time he came to write his Symphony he had completed scores for a number of important films, including Desert Victory, The Winslow Boy, Odd Man Out, and The Fallen Idol. In 1949 he was just finishing work on the adaptation of H.G.Wells’ story The History of Mr Polly.

Finally William Alwyn had himself played flute in the London Symphony Orchestra. He participated in such works as Elgar's Dream of Gerontius and The Music Makers, Holst's Hymn of Jesus and Delius's Cello Concerto. All this exposure to these varied orchestral sounds and timbres must have made a considerable impression on the mind of the composer. He had a fine understanding of how an orchestra worked and sounded. Certainly none of Alwyn's critics dared to condemn his orchestral technique or his use of harmony and counterpoint. It was the formal processes that caused the major and often negative and disparaging criticism.

William Alwyn had a grand conception for his symphonic corpus. He conceived a cycle of four such works. Of course he eventually gave a fifth essay in this form, Hydriotaphia and the Sinfonietta for Strings is, in spite of its diminutive title, of symphonic proportions.

He imagined four symphonies as a sequence - almost like four separate movements in one great construction. They were to be arranged as follows:-

    1. Symphony No.1 - This was to be the exposition
    2. Symphony No.2 - This was to be the slow movement
    3. Symphony No.3 - This was to be the march, scherzo with coda
    4. Symphony No.4 - This was to be an epilogue.

Alwyn claimed that all the material that was to be subsequently used was to be found in the First Symphony. Although the four works were to be cumulative in their effect they had to stand alone as separate works of art. Each symphony was to be an entity in its own right.

The composer started work on the First Symphony at a time of a serious illness. He had an appointment for a major throat operation, which in those days gave him only a 50/50 chance of survival. It is certainly difficult to detect any of the worry and fear that must have been in Alwyn's mind as he began to write this rather happy work. Fortunately, Alwyn survived this operation. However, there was another lucky break for the composer with this work.

In 1947 the City Corporation of Manchester had commissioned an important corporate documentary film called The City Speaks. Alwyn was asked by Paul Rotha, the director, to compose the music. He agreed. Naturally any music for a Mancunian film would have had to be recorded by that most famous of musical institutions, the Hallé Orchestra. Alwyn relates that at the first recording session Sir John Barbirolli was 'very much aloof … he quite obviously regarded me as yet another hack film composer and unworthy of his attention.' Winged Chariot p.13.

But after working on the recording for a week, Barbirolli's mind was changed. He was so impressed with the score that he called the composer to the rostrum and told him in front of the orchestra that it had been a privilege for the Hallé to play his music. Later that evening the conductor, director and composer were having dinner together. As part of the conversation Barbirolli asked Alwyn what his current musical project was. The composer told him that it was his First Symphony. 'When will it be finished?' the conductor asked. Alwyn told him by the end of the year. 'Then,' said Barbirolli, 'I shall give it the first performance at next year's Cheltenham Festival.' Winged Chariot, p.12ff

The score was completed in July 1949 and carries a dedication to Sir John Barbirolli. The first performance was given by the conductor and the Hallé as promised in Cheltenham Town Hall on 6 July 1950.

The formal plan of the First Symphony was classical - there were four movements:

  1. Adagio - Allegro - Adagio
  2. Allegro Leggiero
  3. Adagio (ma con moto)
  4. Allegro Jubilante (originally Allegro Trionfale)

It is scored for full orchestra with harp and percussion with a prominent role for the cor anglais.

Although the composer states that he has adopted a classical plan of work, he is adamant that he has not produced a neo-classical work. He does not utilise sonata form as such. It was his use of the 'germinal seed' that sets this work apart. There are four such seeds used in this work.

The symphony opens with a statement of the first motif - a 'solemn phrase' on cellos and basses. There follows the second motif played first on the woodwind and then on the strings. Lastly a third 'germinal seed' is heard played on muted brass and strings played over a pianissimo drum roll. This is the basic material for the first movement and for the work as a whole.

Once this material has been defined in this opening statement the movement soon gets into its stride with an exciting ‘allegro ritmico’. Here there are some precursors of the musical images of the sea, which were to inspire much of Alwyn's work. After some fine orchestral writing and interplay of figurations the music dies away. It comes to almost a dead stop. Then there is the equivalent of the 'second subject' - but actually a reworking of the third motif. This is an ‘andante espressivo’ - a long breathed melody on the strings. This is a fine tune with definite hints of Wagner about it. The tension builds up, becoming more and more passionate. The music reaches a climax with a strategic return of the first motif - played on full orchestra and pointed up with trombones. The movement is closed down to a 'niente' over eight bars. William Alwyn has likened these closing pages of the first movement to 'a momentary vision of a mountain peak glimpsed through clouds'.

The second movement, the ‘allegro leggiero’ is actually a rather good scherzo. There is a feel of exploration here - of evolving music. I accept that the basic framework of the classical scherzo is apparent, but somehow it seems to be just a little more complex. In some ways it reminds me of the scherzo from Arthur Bliss's great Colour Symphony. The music for the 'minuet' section is derived from the opening motif of the symphony. There is, as Alwyn has remarked, a 'roistering tune' on the horns. This is 'putting to sea' music - a definite film cliché! There is some extremely busy and intricate writing here, and a sense of suppressed energy. Suddenly the mood changes and the composer presents a 'lilting and graceful tune for strings'. This is a significant but unintentional nod towards Malcolm Arnold with its subtle accompaniment that acts as a kind of commentary on the tune. It is one of the loveliest things in this symphony. Then the boisterous music re-affirms itself; the typical Alwyn fingerprint of repeated notes and chords is prominent. The 'trio' music is quite introspective. Alwyn introduces the fourth motif accompanied by muted horns and celesta. The whole pace is slowed down, once again to an almost dead stop. Much of the thematic material is derived from the opening motif of the symphony. Just when one is beginning to imagine we are listening to a slow movement, the scherzo material reappears followed most satisfyingly by the 'big tune'. There is a fine coda based on material from both the 'minuet' and 'trio'.

The third movement is the heart of the symphony. In many ways it has echoes of Elgar - not so much in detail and design as just in general impression. It is written as a standard A-B-A form and is really song-like in character. However even here we are conscious of Alwyn's departure from the 'classical' text book form. It is much more an exploration rather than a 'working out' of thematic material. The movement is based on two tunes - the first is taken by the cor anglais after a few bars of soft horn chords. The second theme is given to the violas. It is this second theme that generates much of the melodic content of this movement. In many ways the working out of this music is straightforward. We are given much lovely, reflective music that can be quite moving. There is a short ‘agitato’ section, which disturbs the flow of the ‘adagio’. However it soon resolves back into restatements of the movement's main themes. The adagio ends in total repose.

William Alwyn regarded the last movement of this symphony as the most extrovert piece of music he had written up to that point. It is marked ‘allegro jubilante’. The composer points out that if he were to be true to Italian musical language it would be - 'giubilante'. However the original intention was to call it ‘allegro trionfale.’

There is little conventional development in this movement - it is much more metamorphosis. Each idea generates a new rhythmic or melodic idea that in turn creates more material. There is much pent-up energy here, highlighted by excellent use of brass and percussion, especially the figuration on the glockenspiel and xylophone. There is occasionally a baroque feel to some of this music - especially the subtle use of sequences. The brass writing predominates in this movement and a fanfare theme provides much of the interest. Once again the Alwyn fingerprints of reiterated notes are obvious.

Suddenly out of all the busy-ness, there emerges a big tune. This is chromatic and has a restless edge to it. After building up for a few bars it is pushed aside by the fanfare theme and some possible references to the second movement. Slower and quieter material predominates; there is a gorgeous moment for cor anglais and strings with a kind of 'water lapping against a pier' accompaniment. Once again the music builds up; the composer uses huge 'piled up' brass chords before propelling the music toward the coda. The pace relaxes with some very sustained writing. Soon, however this is all brushed aside with a massive and compelling climax in the coda. There are surely hints here of the 'roistering' horn tune from the scherzo. The work closes suddenly with a ‘molto adagio’ and brief reference to the third motif.

We will revisit the three major adverse criticisms levelled against this work, the lack of symphonic structure, a concatenation of different styles and allusions and the preconception that a film music composer cannot write symphonic works.

Firstly then, is this work constructed as a symphony?

Well perhaps not in the Ebenezer Proutian (great pedagogue that he was) sense of a formally constructed symphony in some idealised text book classical style that probably generated very few actual works of art. But this is not a problem. Very many composers have had a go at redefining the structural content of a symphony; certainly many of them have abandoned sonata or modified sonata form prior to William Alwyn taking up his pen. Ever since Liszt developed the symphonic poem as a form composers have pushed the boundaries in their works. Surely no one would analyse that Hungarian’s great 'Faust Symphony' and expect to find 1st and 2nd themes and bridge passages and recapitulations in the correct key.

The Second Viennese School had changed the way that music was considered - motif manipulation became important (although it was in Palestrina’s day too): Strauss had written his tone poems and had shown how drama and history can be reflected in music whilst still retaining purely musical interest. Don Quixote can be enjoyed without reference to Cervantes’ masterpiece.

So in Alwyn's First Symphony it was his use of the germinal seed that gave cohesion and structure. Of course the motifs can be manipulated and Alwyn does this. However he is not obsessed by finding out where this manipulation will lead him. He controls the musical development, not allowing the music to lead him where he does not want to go. The listener cannot always discern the various twists and turns of these 'seeds' - yet they give a sometimes obvious and often unconscious structure to the piece. The ear is satisfied by hearing material already heard in one guise or another.

Ottaway's quotations of Alywn describing the first movement may not seem to be helpful to my argument. He states that 'the most elusive' formally', and 'an extended introduction to the symphony as a whole.' However I would argue that this was to a certain extent hyperbole on the composer's part. When he came, some twenty years later to write the programme notes for the Lyrita recording (LP: SRCS 86; CD: SRCD 227) he seems to emphasise the structural importance of the motifs. Whether this was as a result of mature reflection or sensitivity to criticism we shall probably never know.

Alwyn had approximated to a classical symphonic form - his motifs may well represent the themes of sonata form. However it is perhaps in his development of these themes that he departs most from tradition. The composer himself suggests that it is like a structure moving from event to event - each idea generating a new platform for departure. Yet it is the fundamentally referential nature of this work that gives it structure and cohesion. It can in no sense be described as having a 'loose style'.

It is possible to find hints and allusions to a dozen composers in this work. No doubt this led some of the contemporary reviewers to see it as eclectic and derivative - as if Alwyn had deliberately mined the works of many other composers.

My reply to this has always been: take a look at Bach. He absorbed the style of Pachelbel and Buxtehude to name but two composers. He managed to produce a synthesis of his own - it was derived from music that was in the air.

Alwyn lived in London at this time and must have been very conscious of the wealth of symphonies written since the Great War. We have mentioned Bliss's Colour Symphony, there was Walton's First and Moeran's G minor. Vaughan Williams had delivered his aggressive Fourth just before, and his glorious Fifth just after the war. The list is considerable. But William Alwyn has not copied Elgar, Bliss or anyone else. He was able to create an edifice from a small amount of basic material. His orchestral skill was second to none and the resulting instrumental colour is stunning - especially in the scherzo. For a first essay in the form his First Symphony is a fine work

It is the easiest game for a critic to play ‘hunt the influence’. However it is a fruitless game. Alwyn wrote in a style that was openly post-romantic and was only loosely influenced by the rising tide of Serialism. Repeated listening to this work reveals considerable originality that waits to be discovered.

The worst allegation made against William Alwyn was that he was good at composing film music and would have been best to have stuck at what he was good at rather than turning his hand to the more sophisticated and intellectually challenging formal constructions.

In many ways this is a very easy argument to dispose of. We have the benefit of more than half a century of musical and cinematographic development. We have seen composers come and go. Many have resisted the silver screen. Some have been dominated by it. Often there has been a hiatus between a composer's film style and his symphonic style. We need only think of Benjamin Frankel - no one would imagine that his symphonies came from the same pen as did the Trotties Romance, The Carriage and Pair or the Lily Watkins theme. On the other hand Malcolm Arnold's film and concert music is often totally interchangeable. How much like film music are passages from the Fifth Symphony for example? Vaughan Williams, Walton, Bax, Richard Rodney Bennett, Georges Auric and Arthur Bliss have all contributed to the corpus of film music. Some of these composers are best remembered by the musical public for their contributions to that genre. Yet each of them has written convincing concert hall music. Each of them can justify their considerable achievement with chamber, choral, piano and orchestral masterpieces.

We can look at Alwyn's subsequent career. He lived for another 35 years after completing his First Symphony. There were to be many fine concert works from his pen. Four more symphonies, song cycles and a good corpus of chamber music. Yet his last film score was penned in 1963. So for nearly 20 years he only composed concert works.

Fortunately the few listeners who know William Alwyn as a composer will be aware of his contribution to both genres - the concert hall and the cinema. Many listeners will never have heard of the composer; however, they may know one or two of his film scores or have played a few of his piano pieces as a child but be unaware of his identity. It is one of the tragedies of musical education that so few British composers are well known to the musical public. In many ways it is a national disgrace that our heritage is not better appreciated. Unfortunately, the Alywn Society has folded: one source of advertisement for his music has disappeared. It is difficult to see what forum there will be to further the works of this considerable composer. At least the Alwyn archive is now being assembled in Cambridge.

Perhaps the greatest boost for the composer of film music has been the relatively recent rehabilitation of Erich Wolfgang Korngold. From being almost unknown thirty years ago he is widely regarded as being an all round composer. Post- romantic, big tunes, lush harmonies and on the other side - nods toward the Second Viennese School dominate his music. Yet in Korngold's music we find ourselves enjoying it because of its diversity and inherently cinematic feel. This has become the prevailing attitude, especially as much film music by mainstream composers is being recorded.

In conclusion, it is fair to say that Alwyn's First Symphony is well constructed, albeit using a methodology that he was to refine in later works. It does have stylistic references to contemporary music - but it is not pastiche and is not a confection. It is simply a response to music that was in the air. Not every composer can be wholly innovative and invent a totally new sound or form or harmony. Some of the best music ever written has summed up what has happened in the past.

There are film overtones in this work, I concede that. There are times when one feels that one is in the middle of a 1940s 'weepy'. Yet these moments are few and far between. For the most part we are conscious of a creative mind at work, historically aware, well versed in the musical skills and able to write a flamboyant work that both inspires and quite frankly moves.

Alwyn’s First Symphony may not be one of the major highlights of the British Symphonic Tradition, yet it is an important work that has transcended the time in which it was written. It well deserves our attention.

John France



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