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Doreen Carwithen (1922-2003)

To recent generations Mary Alwyn was known as the devoted wife of the composer William Alwyn. When in 1997 Chandos Records brought out the first of two CDs of the music of Doreen Carwithen, younger listeners sat up with astonishment: the woman whose life seemed to have been devoted to easing that of her husband was revealed to be a substantial creative personality in her own right.

Doreen Carwithen was born in 1922, in Haddenham, Buckinghamshire. Like her sister Barbara, three years her younger, she showed considerable music promise – both girls had perfect pitch – and they had their first lessons from their mother, a music teacher. Doreen was four when she began both piano and violin, continuing under her mother’s tutelage until a Bucks. County Scholarship took her to the Royal Academy of Music in 1941. While still a schoolgirl, she also played the cello in a domestic string quartet and in local orchestras, and was good enough to have lessons from Peers Coetmore, shortly to become the wife of the composer E. J. Moeran.

Circumstances reinforced Doreen’s natural facility, particularly after the outbreak of World War II. Since there was no family gramophone, she got to know the orchestral repertoire through broadcasts on the BBC Home Service, following them with scores so that she could see what was going on in the orchestra. Her awareness of the practicalities of music-making was enhanced by playing piano duos and duets and cello-and-piano duos with her sister Barbara – who had followed her to the Royal Academy, also on a Bucks. County Scholarship – in a breathless succession of competitions, festivals and concerts, especially in wartime entertainments for the troops organised by ENSA.

The first stirrings of her compositional urge had come at sixteen, when she set Wordsworth’s "Daffodils" for voice and piano. At the Royal Academy she entered the harmony class of William Alwyn who, observing her gift, began to teach her composition. Barbara was intrigued to observe that, although her harmony lessons were usually mid-afternoon, Doreen’s composition classes were always the last thing of the afternoon so that Alwyn could give her a lift to wherever she had to go. But there was no outward sign of any deeper relationship at this point; indeed, there may not yet have been one.

It was in 1947 that Doreen Carwithen’s career took off in a big way. Her Masefield-inspired overture ODTAA ("One Damn Thing After Another"), written two years earlier, was the first score to be selected by the Music Advisory Committee of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and in March, in Covent Garden, Sir Adrian Boult gave the work its premiere. Meaty, confident and muscular, with busy inner parts that suggest the influence of Moeran, ODTAA proved a considerable success, and enjoyed a series of performances and broadcasts. It was also the work which opened the first of the Chandos CDs of her music.

Also in 1947, Carwithen was the first student to be selected from the Royal Academy to join an apprenticeship scheme set up by J. Arthur Rank to train young composers in the writing of film music. It was to prove a fateful choice: over the next fifteen or so years she was to write the scores of some 35 films, including Harvest from the Wilderness (1948), Boys in Brown (1950), Mantrap (1952), Man in Hiding (1953), East Anglian Holiday (1954) and Break in the Circle (1955). She wrote the music for Elizabeth is Queen in 1953, the official film of the coronation, and her other documentaries included Teeth of the Wind (1953), a study of locusts. In The Stranger Left No Card (1952) and On the Twelfth Day (1956) her music took the place of dialogue.

In the studios her woman-of-all-trades training came into its own. In a conversation recorded by Jan Swinnoe in July 1997 and reproduced in her book The Best Years of British Film Music, 1936–1958 (The Boydell Press, 2002) she gave an indication of what her apprenticeship involved:

Practically every week of the year I’d be attending recording sessions – to see, and to listen to how they coped with these things, how I could use it for myself, how I’d learn by it. […] I’d start by copying parts, putting the parts on the music stands, and then, say they wanted a piece altered – they frequently had to be altered to fit the film – the composer would jot it down, and I would come along and jot it into the score and parts.

She also did some ghost-writing for a number of better-known names:

People pressed for time would say ‘Oh, come along, would you write my music, do this reel for me – this is the theme I’m using’. And I’d do it, they would pay me for it.

She could be feisty, too:

I was at the studio one day when Malcolm [Arnold] was there – they were recording one of his [film scores]. ‘A lot of work for ninety pounds’, he said. I said, ‘do you get ninety pounds? I get seventy’. I was not going to sit down under this, so I went and I said, ‘Are you pleased with my work? ‘Oh, delighted with it, yes.’ ‘I understand Malcolm Arnold is paid ninety pounds. I get paid seventy.’ ‘Don’t you think you are doing very well for a woman?’ – my money didn’t go up, but they didn’t sack me. […] I thought it was wicked.

On another occasion she stuck to her guns:

I couldn’t get an agent to fight my battles for me. […] you had to make sure your performing rights were covered. They tried to take them away from you – I had enormous battles. ‘You’ll never get another film if you don’t sign this contract’, which would give everything away. I said, ‘I’m not signing it’ – I won. […] I was not going to be bullied, and my fee went up […].

Hardly surprisingly in view of her substantial output of film music, her tally of concert pieces remained small. Rudolf Schwarz chose her overture Bishop Rock of 1952 to open the Birmingham Proms that year; in the same summer, at the Henry Wood Prom Concerts in London, her Concerto for Piano and Strings was given its first public performance – she was the only woman composer to be performed in that Proms season.

But she found it next to impossible to interest a publisher in music composed by a woman, and when, in 1961, she set up house with William Alwyn in the seclusion of Blythburgh, Suffolk, Doreen Carwithen went into retirement, and Mary Alwyn (Mary was her middle name, and she hated ‘Doreen’ anyway) became the public persona the world saw. She worked tirelessly on behalf of her husband, acting as his secretary and amanuensis, and generally keeping an importunate world at bay.

Only after her husband’s death, in 1985, did she slowly resume interest in her own music. Her First String Quartet, written in 1945, had won a composition prize in 1948 (and excited the admiration of Vaughan Williams), and the Second Quartet gained a Cobbett award in 1952 – both were recorded by the Sorrel Quartet for the second Chandos CD of her music. Now, four decades later, she began to draft a Third Quartet, and there was even talk of a symphony – though, as ever, her own music took second place to her promotion of her husband’s. Hopes that there might be a second phase to Doreen Carwithen’s career were dashed in 1999, when a severe stroke left her paralysed down one side. Her spirit, though, was unbowed, and she took pleasure in the knowledge that Chandos is planning a third CD, this time of her film music.

Martin Anderson

Mary Alwyn (Doreen Carwithen), born Haddenham, Bucks., 15 November 1922; married William Alwyn (d. 1985), died Forncett St Peter, nr Norwich, 5 January 2003.

"A shorter version of this obituary appeared in THE INDEPENDENT"


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