I have been waiting for this book for nearly forty years. And
when it arrived it is even more impressive than I could have imagined
in my wildest dreams. Back in 1972 I first came across William
Alywn’s music. It was the Symphonic Prelude: Magic Island
and was featured on Radio 3’s Record Review. I remember rushing
out that same day and locating a copy at Cuthbertson’s Record
Shop in Glasgow. The tone poem, which I immediately took to, was
coupled with the Third Symphony. I confess it took me a wee bit
longer to get into this piece, but it soon became a favourite.
In fact, it was probably the first major British Symphony (apart
from RVW and Elgar) that I got to grips with. As a part of my
background reading about Alywn – very limited in those pre-Internet
days - I found a reference to a document called ‘Ariel to Miranda’.
This appeared to be a diary outlining the day-to-day composition
of the Third Symphony. A little further research revealed that
it had been published in a journal called ADAM back in 1967. Search
as I could, I never located this magazine - that is until about
a month ago, when I came across a copy in a second-hand bookshop
in York. I was overjoyed. Back in my music room I quickly read
through it, looked up a reference in the recent Alwyn biography
and was immediately deflated. The ADAM (Arts, Drama, Architecture,
Music) edition was a recension, a heavily edited version, of the
original that muddied the waters of that period in the composer’s
life. For example there were allusions, implicit and explicit,
to the composer’s then lover (later his wife) Doreen Carwithen.
Most of the references to his then wife, Olive Pull, were omitted,
Moreover, there was another hand-written version of the diary
which had been prepared some time before 1967, and the reader/listener
will be aware that this is a complex document and one that could
lay bear traps for the unwary.
Nearly a third of the present book is given over to this ‘journal’.
Andrew Palmer writes that ‘The Text of Ariel to Miranda published
here contains virtually all of Alwyn’s handwritten original dating
from 1955 and 1956, together with additional material from a second
version he made some time before publication of the journal (considerably
shortened) in ADAM. For that publication he wrote an introduction
and further, retrospective entries, effectively creating a third
version of the journal.’ This ‘complete version’ of the diary
includes the originally published foreword to the ADAM version
by Sir Arthur Bliss. It makes for an extremely satisfying read.
The reader can have the confidence that they are truly engaging
with the life situation of Alwyn as he composed what is an undoubted
masterpiece. Palmer provides some footnotes but does not destroy
the flow of the narrative. After half a lifetime I have finally
engaged with this important document twice within the space of
six weeks! Would that other composers had been discerning enough
to have left similar diary/journal projects?
The first part of the book is the short autobiographical work
. I found a copy of this ‘slim volume’ in
a second-and bookshop a number of years ago. Although it has been
helpful to my musing on and writing about the composer, I always
felt that it was somewhat superficial. Many important compositions
are given only a sentence of prose. Some of his great works are
omitted altogether: his corpus of early music, which he repudiated,
is barely mentioned at all.
The spur to Alwyn to write this privately published autobiography
was probably a sense of ensuring that the ‘facts’ were not lost
and to enable a new generation of listeners to understand some
of the biographical detail needed to put his music into context.
Moreover, younger listeners may only have known Alwyn’s music
through films (if at all) and would have largely been ignorant
of his achievement in the 1950s. It was written in two parts –
the first in 1978 and the second in 1982. The two were fused together
for Winged Chariot
Another interesting piece of autobiographical writing is the short
pen portrait of his childhood – Early Closing
. Palmer suggests
that it is not uncommon for an adult ‘felled by the consequences
of decisions made in adult life, to reflect on the innocence and
naiveté of their childhood ...’ This short piece was completed
in 1963, but was never published. I suspect that the past is seen
through tinted glasses - certainly not rose-tinted ones - but
the general effect is a charming picture of life in The Shakspere
Stores (his father’s shop) and his early musical aspirations.
The last third of the book is given over to a number of smaller
pieces – some autobiographical and some more formal pieces of
I was particularly impressed with the transcript (and adaptation)
of a talk given at the Cheltenham Festival in July 1970 called
Meet the Composer
. The editor notes how Alwyn was disappointed
that at that time there were no recordings of his music. There
was no way he could have anticipated the age of the CD and the
MP3. Just a few years later, there was the first of the Lyrita
releases of his music. Alwyn considers his method of writing music,
the impact of critics and his musical aesthetic.
In the early nineteen-seventies the composer published a series
of four articles in the Royal Academy of Music Magazine called
The Opinions of Doctor Crotch
. They were originally to
have been the subject of a book, but the proposal was turned down.
Fundamentally, they were a vehicle for the expression of his musical
credo – for example the inability of music to express philosophical
ideas and the arbitrariness of apparently pictorial musical titles.
They are written in an engaging, if slightly ponderous style.
The final tranche of the book is given over to a series of essays.
Perhaps the most important being the composer’s thoughts about
Film Music –Sound or Silence
. There are excursions into
the music of Arnold Bax, Edward Elgar as a Conductor, A New Assessment
of Puccini. Two other autobiographical essays discuss the Background
to Miss Julie
and his Debt to Czech Music
This book presents the majority of William Alwyn’s most important
writings. It has often been suggested that he was something of
a polymath- learning a variety of languages, an interest in and
facility for painting, his writing of poetry and his literature
translations. However the works published here hover between autobiography
and music criticism, with the emphasis on self-expression. No
attempt has been made to republish the literary works.
It is always difficult to estimate who the targeted reader of
this kind of book is likely to be. Out of the ‘set’ of classical
music lovers there are relatively few who specialise in 20th
century British music. There is an even smaller minority who would
claim to major in the works of William Alwyn. However, through
the efforts of Lyrita, Naxos and Chandos there has been a considerable
increase of interest in his music over the past thirty years.
Although there was no recognition of the composer at the Promenade
Concerts in his centenary in 2005, there have been two major scholarly
books published in recent years. These are the The Innumerable
by Adrian Wright and William Alwyn: The Art of Film
by Ian Jonson. The present volume provides the third
corner of the supporting scholarship for the composer. The final
element will be when John Dressler publishes his Bio-bibliography.
I rather hope that Mr Dressler’s book will appear in the near
Meanwhile the book will appeal to anyone who has been impressed
or moved by William Alwyn’s music. It is a book that does not
need a vast apparatus of musical understanding to enjoy or appreciate,
although knowledge of his music is obviously a distinct advantage.
There is no doubt that this is a major addition to musical scholarship.
For one main reason: these are primary documents with a very light
touch of introduction and commentary. Additionally, it provides
a compendium of information that will help listeners and musicologists
ground William Alwyn’s compositions with a degree of intellectual
thought, background information and historical fact. What is not
given here, and this accords with Alwyn’s wishes is any complex
study or analysis of his music. For the composer, this was largely
anathema: he wrote that ‘My works do not need the analytical dissection
and microscopic searching for formal reasons as to why I did this
or that.’ He further suggested that ‘My motive in committing these
thousands of notes to paper is stimulated entirely by the desire
to communicate my feelings to others, in the hope that they will
move the listener as I, the composer, have been moved in writing
them.’ To this end the book is a perfect companion.
Like most academic books it is not inexpensive, although at Ł35
it is considerably cheaper than a number of other volumes on musicological
subjects. The reader will be impressed by the presentation of
this volume. As I have suggested above, the editor has not imposed
himself on the text, but has allowed Alwyn’s voice to come through
both loud and clear. What apparatus there is is essential to render
this volume useful to both listeners and scholars. There are some
27 photographs, many of which have not been published before.
They add to the general intimacy of the book. The quality of the
paper, the legibility of the print and the general feel of this
volume are striking. I guess that it will never be released as
a paperback, so I suggest that all those people- scholars, students,
listeners and institutions get their copies ASAP. It is a book
that is essential and will long be in demand as research in William
Alwyn and exploration of his music continues over the coming years.
As readers of this website will know, MusicWeb International
started life, fifteen years ago, as the William
Alwyn website. I think MusicWeb can claim to have had an
important part in the re-habilitaion of William Alwyn's music.