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William Alwyn: The Art of Film Music

by Ian Johnson

Published by Boydell Press (London 2005)

357 pp,

ISBN 184383 1597

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I first came across the music of William Alwyn back in the early 1970s when I heard the symphonic poem The Magic Island on Radio 3. I was seriously impressed with this attractive score. To my youthful ears it seemed to combine romanticism with a particularly English sensibility. Furthermore I was convinced that this was music that would have sat well as the background to a swashbuckling Erroll Flynn type movie. It was easy to provide the motion picture inside ones head! It was only after reading the sleeve-notes - I went straight to Biggar's Record shop in Glasgow and bought the LP the same day - that I realised The Magic Island was more to do with Shakespeare and Prospero rather than Hornblower or Long John Silver. The piece has remained one of my all-time favourites and is highly likely to be on my list of Desert Island Discs.

When I received this current book for review I immediately looked in the index to see what the author had to say about this particular work. And ... it is basically nothing. There are a couple of references but no factual comment. And this aspect basically defined my approach to this book – at least on first perusal. I had been led to believe that there was more about the ‘non-film’ opus.

If I am honest, ever since buying the complete set of Alwyn symphonies I have longed for a definitive biography of the composer and a technical study of his music. In fact there was a time I considered writing it myself! Over the years – mainly due to the excellent cycle of Alwyn’s music by Chandos, I have come to know and love most of the composer’s works. I guess that there must be, or have been, some 70% of his catalogue available on disc. Of course, I bought the three film music CDs as they were issued and these impressed me. Incidentally, I found out that Alwyn wrote the music to a few of my favourite films- including Carve her Name with Pride and A Night to Remember – and I did not know it! Yet nothing in these film scores changed my view that Alwyn was essentially a ‘concert composer’ who wrote extremely effective film music over a large part of his career.

What I wanted was an analysis of Alwyn’s symphonic, chamber and instrumental music as opposed to an exposition of his film music. What we have got is a splendid study of the film music which although contextualizing the film scores within the general concert works, gives them scant attention.

Having got over the disappointment I began to explore the book in depth; after all I should not criticise the book for failing to be something it was never set out to be in the first place. It is not a volume that requires to be read from cover to cover – in fact I would advise against. However I would recommend reading the ‘Introduction: Music in the Shadows’ for a basic primer of the subject. From the very opening paragraph one realises that we are in the presence of both a scholar and an enthusiast. This book is absolutely crammed full of information – both referenced and anecdotal. It is a model of how a book should be written insofar as it manages to balance the depths of learning and scholarship with readability.

I noted that it is a book to dip into. So not unnaturally I chose to read about one of my favourite films – Our Country. This is a film that was produced during the Second World War with ‘a moving poetic commentary by Dylan Thomas, captivating photography by Jo Jago and painstakingly apt lyrical musical compositions by [William] Alwyn.’ This was a documentary that was particularly apposite for the wartime years. It was the story of a somewhat ‘impressionistic’ journey across wartime Britain by a British sailor recently arrived back from a two year tour of duty. So in many ways it is as if David Sime, the sailor was seeing the landscape through the eyes of a foreigner – a newcomer to these shores. Yet by and large it has been consigned to the archives. So I was delighted to find out that Ian Johnson devoted some eight pages to a detailed discussion of this one film. It is erudite, it is interesting and it would certainly add considerably to an appreciation of the film. This is a seriously impressive study of one of the more poignant films from the war years. Of course this attention to detail is evident for most of the many the films that Alwyn scored.

The book is beautifully made: it feels good to hold – although with the high quality paper it is rather heavy in the briefcase! There are some ten photographic plates which include pictures of Alwyn and stills from a number of ‘his’ films. A large number of musical examples provide considerable source material for the development and illustration of the argument. Although it is assumed that the ‘average’ reader of this book will be reasonably musically literate, it is still possible to gain a vast amount of information and opinion from this book if these examples remains unheard or un-played – and of course there are always the three Chandos discs to help the reader with their appreciation. Perhaps the most useful aspect is a musical glossary which explains a large number of musical terms. This allows the book to be read intelligently by those who are not acquainted with the technical vocabulary.

Naturally there is an excellent ‘filmography’ that details every film that Alwyn worked upon, including a number of un-attributed scores. This is presented in chronological form also with a special section outlining music composed for the radio. It is neatly keyed into the concert works that were written during the same period. An excellent discography is provided which naturally leans heavily towards those many recordings by Chandos and Lyrita.

This is a great book that explores in considerable depth Alwyn’s contribution to the world of the moving picture. The breadth of these contributions is considerable and covers a wide diversity of film styles. The book does not ignore, but does not concentrate on the concert works produced alongside these film scores. The entire film output of William Alwyn is placed within the context of the British film industry which is perhaps the book’s greatest achievement.

John France

The William Alwyn Website

Alwyn’s entire film output is placed in the context of the British film industry which is perhaps the book’s greatest achievement. A highly detailed and readable study ... see Full Review



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