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ClassicsOnline Home » ALWYN, W.: Chamber Music - Sonatas / Suite / String Trio / Conversations (Plane, Gould, Francis, Bradley, Wakeford, Rahman, Hermitage String Trio)
Among British composer William Alwyn’s large body of work, including five symphonies, concertos for flute, oboe, violin, harp, piano, and many shorter orchestral works, there is a significant amount of chamber and instrumental music. This disc presents six works which were composed between 1934 and 1962. During this time, Alwyn’s style developed from the easy flowing melodies exemplified in the Oboe Sonata, Viola Sonatina (here receiving its world première recording), and Suite for Oboe and Harp to the more astringent and darker language of the Clarinet Sonata and String Trio. Conversations, originally named Music for Three Players, comprises eight short descriptive pieces.
By Robert R. Reilly
Catholic News Agency
By Edward Greenfield
William Alwyn (1905–1985)
William Alwyn was born in Northampton on 7 November 1905. He began his musical studies at the Royal Academy of Music in 1920 studying flute, piano and composition. In 1926 at the age of 21, he was appointed Professor of Composition at the RAM, a position that he held for almost thirty years. His prolific output is close to 300 works that include music in the majority of genres, opera, ballet, orchestral, chamber, instrumental, and song. In addition to this Alwyn contributed nearly 200 scores for the cinema. He began his career in this medium in 1936 writing music for documentaries. In 1941 he wrote his first feature length score for Penn of Pennsylvania. Other notable film scores 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, and Carve Her Name With Pride. In 1951 in recognition of his services to the film medium he was made a Fellow of The British Film Academy, the only composer until very recently to have received this honour. There is also much incidental music for both radio and television.
Alwyn’s other appointments include serving as Chairman for the Composers’ Guild of Great Britain, for which he was instrumental in forming, in 1949, 1950 and 1954, 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. Also, for many years Alwyn was one of the panel reading new scores for the BBC. During the 1950s his music was championed by the conductor Sir John Barbirolli, who gave many first performances of his works, amongst which are Symphonies No. 1 (dedicated to Barbirolli), No. 2, and No. 4.
Alwyn spent the last 25 years of his life in Blythburgh, Suffolk, where in those tranquil surroundings, he found the necessary inspiration to compose two operas, Juan or the Libertine, in four acts to his own libretto, and Miss Julie, in two acts after the play by August Strindberg. In addition to chamber and vocal music, he composed his last major orchestral works there, the Concerto Grosso No. 3, commissioned as a tribute to Sir Henry Wood to mark the twentieth anniversary of his death in 1964 and first performed at the Proms that year by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer, the Sinfonietta for String Orchestra in 1970 and the Symphony No. 5 (Hydriotaphia) during 1972–73. In 1978 Alwyn was awarded a CBE in recognition of his services to music. When not writing music he spent his time painting, and writing, which includes much poetry and perhaps most fascinating of all, a diary he kept between September 1955 and August 1956 whilst completing his Symphony No. 3. Entitled Ariel to Miranda, it documents his daily routine, composing for the cinema and concert hall; there is also a short autobiography, Winged Chariot. Alwyn died in Southwold, Suffolk on 11 September 1985 just under two months before his eightieth birthday.
Amongst Alwyn’s large corpus of work that includes five symphonies, concertos for flute, oboe, violin, harp, piano, and many shorter orchestral works, there is a significant amount of chamber and instrumental music. The present recording includes six works which were composed during the years 1934 and 1962. During this time Alwyn’s style developed from the easy flowing melodies exemplified in the Oboe Sonata, Viola Sonatina, and Suite for Oboe and Harp to the more astringent and darker language of the Clarinet Sonata and String Trio.
The Clarinet Sonata was completed in Blythburgh, Suffolk in August 1962, and arose as a result of a commission from the clarinettist Thea King, who gave the first performance on 3 November 1962 at Leighton House, Kensington, London, accompanied by Celia Arieli. The composer says of the work: “As with the late instrumental works of Debussy, my Sonata abandons the conventional three or four movement work for one in a single movement and so is in the nature of a fantasy-sonata full of dramatic contrasts but unconfined by strict, formal design. The work is based on two major ideas—the first a brusquely iterated semiquaver figure, heard first low in the bass of the piano; and second, a long flowing cantilena sung by the clarinet over a chattering piano accompaniment, again based on the semiquaver motif. It is a virtuoso piece which makes equal demands on both players.”
In December 1933 Alwyn began composing a work for piano and orchestra entitled Sonatina. A piano score of this work with the instruments cued in at various points in the score resides in the Alwyn Archive at Cambridge University Library. At some point Alwyn must have become dissatisfied with the work as it was never fully scored. In January 1934 he began the Sonata for Oboe and Piano and much of the thematic material of the Sonatina found its way into this Sonata, but more fully developed. The work is dedicated to the British oboist Helen Gaskell (1906–2002), who gave the first performance with her sister Lillian accompanying at a New Music Society concert on 24 May 1934 at the Royal Academy of Music in London. The first movement’s structure is based on the opening idea first presented by the piano and echoed by the oboe. This idea is developed and goes through a number of permutations before arriving at a tranquil conclusion in the form of echoing phrases between the two instruments. The second movement’s chorale-like mood is immediately followed by a lively waltz culminating in a hushed coda bringing a peaceful conclusion to the work
The Sonatina for Viola and Piano (here receiving its première recording) was written in January 1941. Originally this brief four movement work was entitled Short Suite, but Alwyn later scored through this title on the original manuscript, and replaced it with Sonatina. The work begins with a solemn Prelude
followed by a delicate Dance (viola muted throughout), then a graceful and expressive Aria, concluding with a dramatic and exciting Finale.
The brief but charming Suite for Oboe and Harp was completed in London in February 1945. The work was especially written for Léon and Sidonie Goossens who gave the first performance on the 11 November 1945 in a BBC Broadcast on the Home Service. A further performance with the same artists took place on 25 August 1946 as part of a Sunday Afternoon Concert which featured Joseph Szigeti and Gerald Moore, from the Concert Hall of Broadcasting House. There are three short movements: a Minuet imbued with a feeling of regret and nostalgia, a lilting Valse Miniature and to conclude a lively Jig, which incorporates a slow melancholic middle section before returning to the joie de vivre of the opening. For many years this work was thought to be lost until it was discovered in the Léon Goossens bequest of his musical repertoire to the British Library.
The String Trio was composed during 1959 and belongs to the period when Alwyn was experimenting with short scale groups as in the Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4, and the Twelve Preludes for piano solo. The work is dedicated to the Oromonte Trio, Perry Hart (violin), Margaret Major (viola) and Bruno Schreker (cello), who gave the first performance on 23 October 1960 at the Falmouth Arts Centre. A BBC broadcast would follow by the same artists on 13 March 1962. The composer says the following about the work:
“The first movement is constructed on a 12-tone row given here complete but divided into smaller groups in the following three movements. The work begins with a short energetic passage, which is immediately followed by a tranquil lilting theme using the whole twelve notes and developed in canon by each instrument in turn. This drifts away on the high upper register of the violin. The rhythmic opening phrase abruptly intervenes but quickly dissolves to a pianissimo ending. The second movement is a Scherzo based on a 5-note group derived from the 12-note row but with a strong tonal centre of C. This short note group is fully developed both in rhythm and melody and reaches a fortissimo conclusion. The Trio of the Scherzo, which forms the middle section of the movement, is a re-statement of the 12-note theme announced by the violin with a spiky persistent accompaniment. The Trio section ends with a fortissimo chordal statement, which resolves into a complete repeat of the Scherzo. There is a short coda in which the movement fades away into the distance. The third movement Cavatina is as indicated by its title a slow movement of a song-like character in complete contrast to the Scherzo which precedes it. The mood is quietly reflective and gradually works up to a fortissimo climax with the violin (molto intenso) high above the rapid arpeggio accompaniment of the other two instruments. The movement ends as it began, quietly and reflectively. The fourth movement plunges into the rhythmic finale. The pace quickens then changes to a slower and more lyrical mood alternating between quick and slow. This section, which ends with sforzando pizzicato chords, is followed by a brief coda where an augmented version of the twelve-note theme brings the work to a tranquil close.”
Conversations, or to quote the original title on the manuscript, Music for Three Players was completed in London during November 1950. The work was especially written for the Claviano Trio, Arthur Pennington (violin), Reginald Kell (clarinet) and Richard Farrell (piano). This group of eight short descriptive pieces, Prelude, Romanza, Chorale, Fughetta, Arioso, Carillon, Intermezzo, and Capriccio, was designed to be played without a break. In effect, as the revised title Conversations implies when the work was first published in 1996, they are rather like a discussion between friends. The piano holds court throughout most of the work with the violin and clarinet adding their comments.
© Andrew Knowles 2010
William Alwyn’s notes are hereby reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.
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