I first came across William Alwyn’s music
in 1972: it was hearing the Symphonic Prelude: Magic Island
Radio 3’s Record Review. As soon as the programme ended I rushed
into Cuthbertson’s music shop in Glasgow and bought the record
with some hard-saved pocket money. I fell in love with that work and
the coupled Symphony No.3. Apart from the sleeve notes, I could find
no details about the composer. Even a visit to Glasgow’s Mitchell
Library elicited little information beyond what was in the then-current
Grove. It was the start of my appreciation of Alywn’s music, and
I have assiduously purchased releases of his music as they have appeared
on Lyrita, Chandos and Naxos over the intervening forty years.
John Dressler’s William Alwyn: A Research and Information Guide
is the book I would have dreamt about had I known such things existed.
Primarily, this book will appeal to enthusiasts of Alwyn’s music:
people who love his music and want to get to grips with its ‘sitz
in leben’ and to discover possible avenues for further exploration.
A student embarking on a music courses or a putative D.Mus will find
this book essential. Programme-note writers and CD and concert reviewers
who specialise in British music will require this book close at hand.
Performers will be interested to get background information when they
come to prepare for recitals - assuming they want to play Alwyn’s
music. It is a book that will find its way onto the shelves of most
music college libraries and large references libraries around the world.
For many years the only information about William Alwyn (apart from
Grove) was to be gleaned from Craggs & Poulton’s William
Alwyn: A Catalogue of his music
(1985). As Dressler suggests in
the present volume, it was a first attempt at sorting out the composer’s
works. It was prepared with his blessing. I was lucky enough to find
a copy of this book in a second-hand bookshop; I believe that it is
relatively rare. Even the Royal College of Music or the Royal Academy
of Music does not list this book in their library catalogues.
Prior to this Francis Routh - a former pupil of Alwyn - published an
important book Contemporary British Music
in 1972. Included was
an entire chapter devoted to Alwyn. This is available for on-line perusal
along with much
else about Alwyn
For many years the major diary article written by Alwyn for the ADAM
International Review (1967) eluded me. This study elaborated the day-to-day
composition of the Third Symphony. For biographical details the enquirer
was limited to a slim volume entitled Winged Chariot
. This book
was selective in its coverage and discussion of many important works
was omitted. It was published in 1983 and was effectively an ‘essay
In 2005 Boydell Press published the significant study, William
Alwyn: The Art of Film Music
by Ian Johnson. This explored in
depth the composer’s major contribution to the world of the moving
picture. Relatively little information was given about Alywn’s
Three years later, the ‘official biography’,The Innumerable
Dance: The Life and Work of William Alwyn
by Adrian Wright was published
by Boydell Press. This remains the only volume to deal objectively with
the composer’s life and music. The last major contribution to
the Alwyn bibliography was Composing
in Words: William Alwyn on his Art
(Musicians on Music, Volume
9) published by Toccata Press in 2010 and edited by Andrew Palmer. This
is comprehensive collection of texts written the composer, including
the elusive ADAM diary and the complete text of Winged Chariot
with extracts from an essay on Alywn’s boyhood, Early Closing
Additionally, there are a number of pieces of journalism and essays.
This is essential reading for all who wish to understand the composer’s
milieu as it includes the majority of Alwyn’s writings about music.
The present Research and Information guide
is set out in four
major sections preceded by a short preface which outlines the purpose
and scope of the volume alongside an extensive list of acknowledgements.
The first part is largely biographical. This begins with a brief sketch
of the composer’s life and achievement by Andrew Knowles who is
currently archivist and administrator of the William Alwyn Foundation.
This is followed by a short ‘Discovering Alwyn’ by the current
book’s author which presents similar biographical material. The
‘Chronology’ is useful for situating the composer’s
life and works. The references to his compositions are selective: I
would have liked to have seen a full
chronological listing of
all his works - whether by genre or simply in order. For example, exactly
half a century ago, Alwyn was inaugurated as a member of the Isle of
Wight Sailing Club at Cowes; he attended a memorial service for the
poet Louis MacNeice and produced his last film score, The Running
. There is no mention of his Twelve Diversions for Five Fingers
Nearly half of the book is devoted to a ‘Catalogue of Works’.
This is conveniently divided up into genre. Major elements of this catalogue
include the Documentary and Feature Film Scores and the usual ‘art’
music divisions such as Orchestral Works, Instrumental Chamber Music
and Works for Brass and Military Bands. Within these divisions, each
work is presented in alphabetical order.
For example, on Page 141, the Symphony No. 1 is catalogued. The format
includes the work’s instrumentation, the titles of each movement,
its duration and dedicatee. A list of first and early performances is
quoted. The work’s publisher is given. In the case of the First
Symphony there is a detailed description of the manuscript, including
its location at the Alwyn Archive. The last part of the entry includes
cross-references to various biographical or critical notes as well as
The third major division of this Research Guide is the main ‘Bibliography’.
This is divided into eight specific sections. The first considers the
primary sources of material written by Alwyn. This includes details
of articles, essays, letters to publications and even an unpublished
novel. Additionally, there is a selective listing of letters from William
Alwyn to and from a number of correspondents including Arthur Bliss,
Ruth Gipps, Benjamin Britten and Muir Mathieson. Many of these are available
for study in the Alwyn Archive at Cambridge University.
A list of ‘obituaries’ is presented ranging from the Chicago
Tribune to the Northampton Chronicle and Echo.
I was delighted to find an account of material located at the BBC Written
Archives, Caversham. This includes a variety of scripts, films and radio
broadcast featuring the composer. It is a pity that some of these could
not be made available on ‘podcasts’.
I was surprised that comparatively few ‘thesis and dissertations’
have been written about the composer and his music. At 2011 these numbered
only five. The most useful being Ian Carmalt’s William Alwyn
(1905-1985) a Romantic Composer of his Time.
Fortunately this is
and also at MusicWeb
One of the desiderata of Alywn scholars must be to have ‘soft’
copies of the William Alywn Newsletter
. This ran for only eight
issues between January 1996 and December 2000. John Dressler has provided
a convenient listing of the major articles featured in these publications.
Fortunately some of them are available for perusal at MusicWeb International.
There is a listing detailing entries in various dictionaries, encyclopaedias
and overviews of musical history and achievement. This is followed by
general studies dealing with Alwyn’s life and works. These include
articles and books specifically about the composer, and also references
which contain useful information. Omitted from these are CD and record
liner notes, unfinished dissertation projects, brief press notices and
non-western European language materials.
The last major section of the bibliography explores references to individual
works. Dressler has included virtually all William Alwyn’s major
compositions, both film and art music, as well as a good selection of
less important pieces. For example there are 32 references to the opera
. The short Midsummer Night
(c.1930s) has been
given a single citation. As an example, I looked at the Symphonic
Prelude: The Magic Island
. Unfortunately no-one has written a major
study of this work however there are three reviews from the work’s
premiere at the 1953 Cheltenham Festival cited. Other references are
to reviews of CDs and records: in this case the 1972 Lyrita discs and
the later Chandos and Naxos issues. There is a review cited of the miniature
score - although this fact is not noted in the text. I would have appreciated
these listings in chronological order.
The last major division of this book is the extensive ‘discography’.
For most listeners - and enthusiasts - the catalogues currently available
at Arkiv, Crotchet or Amazon are sufficient for their explorations.
Yet much more is available. For The Magic Island
, I was amazed
to discover eight entries. I know of only four releases - the Lyrita
(vinyl & CD), the Naxos and the Chandos. In addition to these, there
is a BBC Sound Archive recording from February 1966 and a Musical Heritage
LP - issued under licence from Lyrita. Interestingly Lyrita have presented
The Magic Island
in Box 1 of the company’s popular 50th
anniversary set. Finally, the work has been included in a sampler of
‘mystic classics’ from Naxos.
The Discography is given by record label, which I am not sure is helpful
- I guess that I would have preferred a chronological order or work
The last part of this Research Guide is ‘Related Materials’.
This includes an interesting ‘selected’ list of ‘Former
First-Study Pupils of William Alwyn’ at the Royal Academy of Music.
Names include Iain Hamilton (sadly neglected), Minna Keal, John Lanchbery,
Steve Race and Francis Routh. Alwyn also attracted a number of musical
dedications with works by Arnold Cooke, John Manduell, Thomas Pitfield
and Trevor Hold. Finally there are two detailed indices - one an ‘alphabetical
index of works’ and the second an index of names.
Unfortunately, there is no information given in the book about the author,
John C. Dressler. He is well-known to British music enthusiasts for
his two important exercises in bibliography. In 1997 Greenwood Press
Finzi - A Bio-Bibliography
. Some seven years later, there followed
a similar book for Alan
. The present volume, although different in format and
presentation, is of similarly high standard. John Dressler is Professor
of Horn and Musicology at Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky.
As well as practical music lessons he has lectured in a number of 19th
century musicological studies. He gained his Masters
and Doctoral degree from Indiana University. In addition to his academic
work he plays horn with a number of ‘local’ orchestras and
is also the organist at Fountain Avenue Methodist Church in Paducah,
is well-presented. It is printed on environmentally
friendly paper: the text is clear and the layout is definitely easy
to use. I have not been able to review the Kindle version: I note that
it is priced at £62:23 on Amazon. I am not convinced that a reference
book like this is quite as effective when presented digitally. I like
to be able to browse across sections, flick between indices and text
and gain inspiration from serendipity. I understand that Kindle will
allow a full search, but the results are not always clear to peruse.
At £95.00 the hardback version of William Alwyn: A Research
and Information Guide
is high-priced. Amazon is offering it for
£88.90 and other sellers for around the £80 mark. It is
a fact of academic life that books of this calibre are expensive, even
by today’s standard. Information does not come cheap in any walk
This book is required reading for all enthusiasts of William Alwyn -
whether they are lay or academic. There is so much information packed
into these 336 pages that will be of strong interest and resilient value
to researchers for many years to come.