William Alwyn was born in Northampton on the 7th November 1905. The only member of his family to show any interest in music, he won a scholarship to study flute, piano, and composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London when he was only fifteen. His father’s early death forced him to abandon his studies and earn a living as a flautist, and it is generally acknowledged that the clarity and effectiveness of his music owes much to his many years’ experience as a member of chamber ensembles and symphony orchestras. In 1926 he was appointed Professor of Composition at the Academy, a post that he held for twenty-nine years.
During this early part of his career, his natural musical fluency enabled him to compose a large number of orchestral, chamber and vocal works. It also facilitated his entry into the world of film music when, in 1936, he joined the pioneering documentary film movement. He went on to compose scores for two hundred documentary or feature films, the best-known of which include Desert Victory, The Way Ahead, The True Glory, Odd Man Out, The History Of Mr Polly, The Rake’s Progress, The Fallen Idol, The Rocking Horse Winner, The Crimson Pirate, The Million Pound Note, The Winslow Boy, The Card, A Night To Remember, Carve Her Name With Pride and Swiss Family Robinson. His contribution to the art of film music was recognized in 1951 when he was made a fellow of The British Film Academy (for many years he remained the only composer to be honoured in this way). He also wrote much incidental music for radio and television.
The technical ingenuity demanded by composing music for films led him to become dissatisfied with the quality of his concert works, and in 1938 he took the extreme step of withdrawing them all. Around this time he also gave up playing the flute in order to consolidate his reputation as a composer. After embarking on another period of study – not at an academic institution, but in the exploration of scores by composers he revered and hoped to emulate – he began again. Works from this ‘mature’ period of Alwyn’s career include his five Symphonies, a Sinfonietta for string orchestra, concertos for flute, oboe, violin, harp, and piano, three concerti grossi, two operas and much chamber and vocal music.
In addition to writing music, Alwyn spent much time in administrative posts and on committees, attempting to increase opportunities for his fellow composers. He was instrumental in forming the Composers’ Guild of Great Britain, serving as its Chairman in 1949, 1950 and 1954, and he was a Director of the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society, a Vice-President of the Society for the Promotion of New Music (S.P.N.M.), and Director of the Performing Right Society. In addition, he was for many years a member of the panel assessing new scores for the BBC.
During the 1950s his orchestral music was championed by the conductor Sir John Barbirolli (1899-1970), who directed the first performances of his Symphonies No.1, No.2 and No.4. But by the end of that decade, the tonal and strongly communicative style favoured by Alwyn (an unashamed Romantic) was beginning to be considered old-fashioned. After composing his last film score, he left London and settled in the Suffolk village of Blythburgh, where for the last twenty-four years of his life he worked at his own pace on projects that were closest to his heart. These included his operas Juan, or the Libertine and Miss Julie, both written to his own libretti (the latter after the play by August Strindberg); the Concerto Grosso No.3, commissioned in 1964 to mark the twentieth anniversary of the death of Sir Henry Wood, and first performed at the Proms that year by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alwyn; the large-scale Sinfonietta for String Orchestra of 1970; and the Symphony No.5 ‘Hydriotaphia’, written between 1972 and 1973.
Alwyn remained obsessed with the act of artistic creation, and when not composing music he spent much of his time painting, drawing, and writing prose and poetry. ‘I always firmly believed that there are some things you can only say in music (in sounds), some things you can only say in visuals, and some things you can only say in words’, he told a radio interviewer in 1979. ‘The desire to express is fundamental to my existence, but expression in the abstract terms of music is not always fully satisfactory.’ In 1978 he was made a CBE in recognition of his many years of service to music.
Alwyn was married twice, first to Olive Pull, then to Doreen Carwithen. Both his wives were composers in their own right.
He died in Southwold, Suffolk on 11th September 1985, two months short of what would have been his eightieth birthday. Since then, the lyrical and accessible style in which he composed has returned to fashion, and there has been a significant growth of interest in his music. All of his major works have been recorded, as has much of his early (pre-1938) music, which had not been performed for many decades.
‘Alwyn holds the view that a composer should express himself in such a way that the musical ideas he has to communicate are readily understood by his audience’, his publishers wrote in 1958. Whether composing music, writing words or painting pictures, his aim was to express the intensity of his feelings. And the emotion that he felt most compelled to capture and communicate was beauty. He summarised his artistic credo in his poem Daphne, or The Pursuit of Beauty, which contains the following lines:
Beauty is my reason for existence,
my day, my night, my all-in-all.
Faithless I should cease to write.
|Date and venue||Title|
Perth Concert Hall (Horsecross)
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Queen's Hall, Edinburgh
|Scottish Ensemble: Sinfonia Concertante with Lawrence Power|
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