William Alwyn's Concerto Grosso No. 3 – A Half Century Retrospective
by John France
I first came to the music of William Alwyn by way of the Symphonic Prelude: The Magic Island and the great Third Symphony. I can still remember hearing this ‘new’ Lyrita record (SRCS 63, 1972 reissued on CD: review ~ review) being reviewed on Radio 3’s Record Review programme. I was living in Glasgow at the time, and it was with great hope and excitement that I went into ‘town’ that morning to secure a copy at Cuthbertson’s Music Shop in Cambridge Street. I was successful, and was suitably impressed by this (for me) discovery. However, it left me wanting more. Lyrita continued to release a number of works by the composer, including all the symphonies. In the early 1990s Chandos began to publish what was effectively a retrospective of Alwyn’s music including a number of ‘first recordings’. In the new millennium the mantle was taken up by Naxos who issued a wide variety of music including many scores that were thought lost.
Genesis and Background
William Alwyn composed three examples of Concerti Grossi: the first in B flat in 1943, the second in G in 1948 and the present example in 1964. Glancing at the composer’s catalogue for that year reveals a fairly sparse workload with only a Fanfare of Welcome and the present work listed. The previous year or so had seen the Clarinet Sonata and Twelve Diversions for piano as well as the score for the film The Running Man, which was his last contribution to the big screen. His previous major orchestral score had been the Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1960.
William Alwyn’s Concerto Grosso No.3 was completed at the composer’s Blythburgh residence in May 1964. The work had been commissioned by the BBC to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the death of Sir Henry Wood (1869-1944). Alwyn has written that ‘throughout the years between the wars Sir Henry Wood was the focus of my musical world. I played in his orchestras and he performed my music – the first at a ‘Prom’ in 1927.’ The last ‘novelty’ to be rehearsed at the Queen’s Hall before the disastrous air-raid destroyed so much musical history was Alywn’s Overture for a Masque. So this Concerto Grosso is a genuine tribute from the composer to the conductor.
Charles Searson writing on MusicWeb International has given an interesting anecdote: ideas for this work were ‘immediately sketched by Alwyn on the back of the envelope which carried the commissioning letter from the BBC.’ The completed score was dedicated ‘To the ever-living memory of Sir Henry Wood’.
The genre of Concerto Grosso was an important Baroque form. It was devised by Alessandro Stradella. The actual name was first used in a series of ten works (1698) by Giovanni Lorenzo Gregori followed by examples from the Italian composer Arcangelo Corelli. The form is characterised by the use of a small group of solo instruments called the ‘concertino’ or ‘principale’ against the full orchestra, which was defined as the ‘concerto’, ‘tutti’ or ‘ripieni’. In the Baroque era the ‘concertino’ often consisted of two violins, a violoncello (thorough-bass) and a harpsichord – the same forces as constituted the Trio Sonata. The ‘ripieni’ was typically a string orchestra, although later examples of the form may have included trumpets, oboes, flutes and horns. Early exponents of the Concerto Grosso included Giuseppe Torelli and Pietro Locatelli. The developing form had a considerable influence on George Frederic Handel, Antonio Vivaldi and on the Brandenburg Concertos of J.S. Bach.
In the 20th century the Concerto Grosso was ‘rediscovered’ by a number of composers keen to move away from the romantic violin concertos of the romantic age. These included Ernest Bloch, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Heitor Villa-Lobos and more recently Philip Glass and Krzysztof Penderecki.
William Alywn shied away from the traditional concept of the Concerto Grosso: he makes no use of the group of soloists. What he has done is to use sections of the orchestra as a ‘de-facto’ concertino. In the first movement the brass dominates, in the second it is the turn of the woodwind, whilst the final ‘elegy’ is led by the strings.
The Concerto Grosso No.3 is in three movements: - Maestoso - moderato e ritmico (rhythmic), Andante con moto-vivace and Andante con moto. The scoring is for large orchestra: 3 flutes (+ piccolo), 3 oboes, 2 clarinets, bassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, strings and harp.
The work opens with six commanding chords (motto theme) before progressing into an ‘energetic’ tune given by the full orchestra. The second subject or ‘idea’ is derived from the opening theme, but is presented by quiet unison strings and is answered by the woodwind. The brass comes to the fore in this movement with the horns playing a louder version of this second theme, immediately followed by the trumpets and trombones. There is a slightly more relaxed string passage followed by a short ‘development’ before a fanfare-like climax leads to a reprise of the opening theme. The movement ends quietly except for the final ‘fortissimo’ chords.
The second movement is effectively a scherzo, however the ‘gigue-like’ exuberance is preceded by an ‘andante’ based on the opening theme of the first movement. The lower strings are not used in the latter ‘vivace’ section of the scherzo.
The finale is effectively the slow movement of the Concerto Grosso. According to the composer’s programme notes, the theme continues from where the ‘andante’ of the scherzo left off. There is an ‘extended’ tune for cellos that is reminiscent of the main theme from Elgar’s First Symphony. This theme is heard again on ‘full strings’. The movement and the work concludes with a ‘final threnody’ which brings together woodwind, brass and strings.
The composer wrote that although the work is a tribute to Henry Wood, it is not ‘a morbid ‘in memoriam’, but is composed on broad, vigorous lines’. Alwyn believed that Sir Henry would not have wanted anything too solemn.
Performance and Reception
The premiere of William Alwyn’s Concerto Grosso No.3 was given at Prom 22: Twentieth Anniversary of the Death of Henry Wood on Wednesday, 19 August 1964 at the Royal Albert Hall. The composer conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Other works, which were all conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent, included J.S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor in Wood’s own orchestral arrangement, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music and Jean Sibelius’s great Symphony No. 5 in E flat major. The concert concluded with a performance of William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast.
Mary Alwyn wrote that after the first performance, the composer received a letter from Sir Henry Wood’s widow: ‘Well do I know how pleased Henry would be. Please know how deeply I feel your homage to your old friend.’
The Times reviewer (20 August 1964) considered that the Concerto Grosso was ‘a concise, deftly scored piece in three movements saving up its main emotional weight for the final threnody.’ He felt that it was in this last movement that Alwyn ‘truly mourns the loss of a friend’. The two preceding movements are ‘extrovert’ and the composer ‘deliberately turns his back on grief in order to pay tribute to the robuster virtues of the musician he so greatly admired.’ Clive Barnes writing in the Daily Express (20 August 1964) was a little less enthusiastic: ‘Unhappily the work missed just that musical character, vigorous and resilient, which Wood himself possessed in abundance.’
The Daily Mail (20 August 1964) reviewer noted that the work suffered by being programmed just before Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. He felt that the ‘comparison was too telling ... Alwyn [makes] no great demands on the listener, employed such a disjointed manner of writing that I could derive no satisfaction from his first and second movements, and the threnody in the last lacked sufficient eloquence.’ (20 August 1964, Michael Reynolds).
Ronald Crichton (Financial Times, 21 August 1964) stated that the work was written ‘in an English neo-classical style with strongly Waltonian terms of phrase until, at the beginning of the final slow movement, cellos muse nostalgically and seem to be on the point of quoting the motto theme from Elgar’s First Symphony.’ Crichton concludes by suggesting that this passage ‘strikes a genuinely elegiac note in a piece which otherwise makes a decent if unadventurous impression.’ This ambiguous view was echoed by Arthur Jacobs in the Sunday Times (23 August 1964) who felt that the work was ‘conscientious’ but written in ‘a between-the-wars idiom which seems [stale]’.
Christopher Grier in The Observer (23 August 1964) submits that the Concerto Grosso was ‘easy of access, robust and effectively laid out’. Once again the final movement is recognised as being ‘elegiac’ and the emphasis on string writing ‘made the deepest impression’.
In William Alwyn’s autobiographical writing Winged Chariot (Southwell Press, 1983) he recalls that the Concerto Grosso No. 3 was included in the last radio concert of music that he conducted. The 75th Birthday Concert recorded by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Glasgow during October 1980 also included the Overture: Derby Day, the Concerto for oboe, harp and strings and the Symphony No.2. It was broadcast on Radio 3 on 7 November 1980.
In 1992 Chandos issued a recording of all three Concerti Grossi coupled with the Concerto for oboe, harp and strings. Ivan March reviewing this CD in The Gramophone (September 1992) noted how much the Sinfonia of London under Richard Hickox enjoyed playing these ‘inventive … [and] robust’ works. Considering the Concerto Grosso No.3 he identifies the ‘full-blooded’ opening movement signifying ‘strength of character above all else’. After the ‘swirling scherzo’ the final movement appears as a ‘beautiful soliloquy that is almost, but not quite, a funeral march, with a powerful brass-laden climax which flares up again before the end, leaving a passionate sense of loss.’ Nearly a decade later Naxos issued the Concerto Grosso No.3 with David Lloyd-Jones conducting the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Jeremy Dibble (Gramophone Awards 2011) regarded this as a ‘colourful’ work which is more like a ‘sinfonietta’ in its fuller orchestration.’
Looking back on the Concerto Grosso No.3 which was first performed fifty years ago, it is easier to place it in the context of its time. I agree that the sound-world of this work does owe more to the ‘inter-war’ years. When one looks at other works being produced at this time which include music by Peter Maxwell Davies, Bo Nilsson, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Hans Werner Henze, the work may well seem ‘dated’ or at least a little old-fashioned. Yet, other composers in 1964, such as Kenneth Leighton, Alun Hoddinott and Malcolm Williamson were all writing music that could also have been condemned as ‘lacking modernity’. William Alwyn never experimented with the avant-garde although he made limited use of a personalised serial technique and a constructive use of dissonance in much of his music. Many of his works have been accused (for better or worse) of being ‘filmic’ and it is true that this media in which he excelled did cross over into his ‘art’ music. However, Alwyn produced a considerable body of works which balance approachability and challenge. There is little in his music to repel the listener. As a final thought, the nature of the commission of this Concerto Grosso No.3 was a commemoration of Henry Wood whose great achievement was made in the pre-Second World War years. It is hardly surprising that William Alywn used a musical vernacular that would have appealed to the elder statesman of music, rather than bemused him. From a personal point of view, I feel that the Concerto Grosso No.3 is one of Alwyn’s minor masterpieces: it is certainly an accomplished work that has stood the test of half a century.
Alwyn, William, Programme Notes for First Performance (1964)
Sleeve-notes to Chandos and Naxos recordings (see below for details)
Dressler, John C. William Alwyn: A Research and Information Guide (Routledge Press, 2011) (review)
Ed. Palmer, Andrew, Composing in Words: William Alwyn on his Art (Toccata Press, 2009) (review)
Craggs, Stewart and Poulton, Alan, William Alwyn: A Catalogue of his Music (Bravura Publications, 1985)
Wright, Adrian, The Innumerable Dance: The Life and Work of William Alwyn (The Boydell Press, 2008)
Richard Hickox/Sinfonia of London. 1992. CHANDOS CHAN 8866 (review) (with Concerto for oboe, strings and harp and Concerti Grossi Nos. 1 and 2)
David Lloyd-Jones/Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. 2011. NAXOS 8.570145 (review) (with Concerto Grosso No. 2, Seven Irish Tunes, Dramatic Overture: The Moor of Venice and Serenade)
William Alwyn resource page