Composing in Words: William Alwyn on his Art (Musicians on Music: Volume 9)
Edited by Andrew Palmer
Toccata Press, hardback, 366 pages
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 Winged Chariot. 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 musical journalism.
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 Dance by Adrian Wright and William Alwyn: The Art of Film Music 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 future.
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.