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First published in Music Parade Volume 1 Part VII 1947-48 p7-9 Transcribed, with endnotes by John France 13th November 2002.
"William Alwyn's music would probably be meaningless if taken out of its film context."
This was my remark that started it all; other people before me had made the same observation.
William Alwyn, perhaps to a greater extent than any other composer in this country, has embraced the art of film background music.
With him, the picture on the screen is the master, and he writes his music so that it becomes not just "incidental" but a real, living, vital part of the film.
In the same way as the photography, the sound recording, and the art direction must all be subordinate to the main task of telling a story, so Alwyn's music never intrudes, never forces itself to the front as so often happens in the case of less experienced writers.
To films such as Odd Man Out, Captain Boycott, Take my Life and The October Man, he has given many subtle touches of underlying drama and emotion, yet in seeing these pictures for the first time one is not aware of the existence of the music at all, so cleverly is the integration of the picture and its soundtrack. It is on account of the complete efficiency and skill used in preparing these scores that the casual observer is led to think that the music would be "meaningless out of context."
"I never write meaningless music," said the usually reticent composer when I saw him about it; "and what is more, I feel very strongly about this suggestion! You go to see one of my films more than once and make a point of listening closely to every section of the music."
And, in fact it is perfectly true. Alwyn's film scores are simply full of lovely tunes and the finest musical effects which have made him the most sought-after composer in British studios today.
This situation however has not always been true, for Alwyn's success has been built up slowly as a result of many years experience and hard work. Forty three years old, he comes from Northampton, and studied music at the Royal Academy of Music where he is now a Professor of Composition.
In 1936 he wrote his first film music for a Strand documentary called The Future is in the Air and this was followed by a whole series of short films in which Alwyn gradually built up his reputation until, as he puts it, "I finally broke into features in 1941 with a British National production Penn of Pennsylvania."
There followed a whole series, too numerous to mention in detail, which included They Flew Alone, Squadron Leader X, Escape to Danger, The Way Ahead, On Approval, The Rake's Progress, I See a Dark Stranger, Green for Danger, Desert Victory, The True Glory, as well as the group of pictures mentioned earlier. His latest scores were written for So Evil my Love and Escape (both produced at Denham).
Bespectacled, strangely nervous in the presence of his own music, alternately very enthusiastic and rather shy, Alwyn has never indulged in personal publicity; rather does he let his music speak for him, and in the recording theatre, it is odd at times to see this quiet figure standing alongside Muir Mathieson's rostrum while the orchestra produces the most moving sounds; the music displays emotions the composer keeps within himself, being content to communicate his thoughts through his score and not through idle words.
He is far too modest, one feels about his other compositions - a piano concerto, string quartets, songs and piano, all of which deserve a very much wider hearing than they at present receive; in this connection the composer has recently completed a symphony which should prove most interesting.
Among the films that Alwyn himself liked, Odd Man Out comes high on the list. For he is a great lover of the cinema and the secret of his success perhaps lies in the fact that to him the film and its music is really important. As he puts it "The art of film music is a young art, younger than the film itself. One of its fascinations to me is the vast field for experiment still unploughed. None the less it is an Art - an art that one day will take its place in its own right alongside Opera and Ballet in the realm of dramatic music."
In Odd Man Out, something of these sentiments was put into operation. "My first job," says Alwyn, "was to sketch out a theme for the central character of the story. I played it to Carol Reed, the director at his flat, while he paced up and down, visualising 'Johnny's Walk.' For the moment, Carol saw himself as Johnny MacQueen, the hunted chief of an illegal organisation, mortally wounded and struggling through the city to inevitable death. I made a first quick orchestration and from Carol Reed's mind the film character of Johnny sprang into being and James Mason walked and stumbled through the long weeks of production to the great final climax of the finished picture in time to the slow relentless rhythm of the music. Here then is a film in which the music was conceived even before it went into production."
As Alan Dent, the dramatic and film critic remarked, "I put it to the supreme and crucial test one applies to any suspected masterpiece, whether in the cinema, the theatre or the concert hall: I sat through it twice within five days. It emerged triumphant. On the second occasion I paid particular attention to William Alwyn's strikingly fine musical score. This begins at the film's outset with a stark and ominous ascending phrase of three sustained notes culminating in a mighty chord for full orchestra."
For Captain Boycott, Alwyn went to Ireland specially to gather local colour before preparing his score, and took many of his themes from phrases heard while touring County Mayo and Connemara. The actual work of writing down his music is done in the pleasant atmosphere of a delightful house in Hampstead Garden Suburb, where he lives with his wife and two sons (including Jonathan who is already a keen film man and runs the film society at his school just outside London).
Incidentally, Mrs Alwyn very rarely visits the film studio but she is nevertheless a film fan and often pops in the local Odeon during an afternoon's shopping to see one of her husband's pictures.
Alwyn has in many ways created an entirely new musical form in his specialised technique of film writing, not only through the musicianly approach he has brought to films but also in his enjoyment of the cinema in itself.
"We have progressed a long way from the pianist in the Picture Palace," he says: "we have gone a long way forward from my early days of film composing, when the composer was called in at the last possible moment and asked to have the score ready to record the following week. The composer is now consulted in the early stages and the director realises the extremely important part that music can play in his film - it can make or mar.
We owe much to the pioneer work of the Documentary film makers for their early realisation of the importance of the soundtrack and for the opportunities they gave to composers of the calibre of Benjamin Britten (Night Mail) and Walter Leigh (Song of Ceylon)
We also owe a large dept to that genius of film music, Muir Mathieson, whose knowledge of films and film making, quite apart form his musical attainments is unsurpassed in this country.
The film demands from the composer first and foremost a dramatic instinct, exceptional versatility of style (the ability of a composer to turn his hand from Symphonic Music to the Dance Band - from Tragedy to the lightest of Comedy) and a sure and flexible technique."
Thus the composer sums up his ideas of the ideal film music writer; I would go further and say that William Alwyn is just such a man.
From: "Rob.Barnett" <Rob.Barnett1@btinternet.com>
Looks good to me
MusicWeb is grateful to John France for confirming that
Mr Hiuntley has given permission for this article to be used on the site.
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