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ClassicsOnline Home » ALWYN: Sonata impromptu / Sonatina / Ballade / Rhapsody / 3 Winter Poems / Songs
William Alwyn composed prolifically in virtually all genres, orchestral, chamber, vocal and instrumental. Like his contemporary Samuel Barber, Alwyn was an unashamed Romantic who preferred his music to appeal to the heart rather than to the head. The works presented here, five of which are recorded for the first time, cover a period of fifty years from the Two Songs for Voice, Violin and Piano of 1931 to the Chaconne For Tom for recorder and piano dating from 1982. In each of these pieces Alwyn’s compositional gift and technical mastery of his chosen medium are immediately apparent.
By Steve Schwartz
William Alwyn (1905-1985)
Chamber Music and Songs
William Alwyn was a prolific composer writing music in the majority of mediums, orchestral, chamber, vocal and instrumental. Amongst his orchestral works are five symphonies, concertos for flute, oboe, violin, piano and harp and several shorter descriptive pieces. In the field of vocal music there are four operas, five song cycles and smaller individual songs. There are also many pieces for chamber ensemble and instrumental works in particular for the piano. In addition to this there are almost two hundred film scores, which include some classic British films, including Odd Man Out, The History of Mr Polly, The Winslow Boy, The Way Ahead, A Night to Remember, Carve Her Name With Pride, The Rocking Horse Winner, and The Swiss Family Robinson. Alwyn also wrote poetry, a short autobiography entitled Winged Chariot and a diary, which he called Ariel To Miranda, that documents his daily routine between September 1955 and August 1956. In between all this he found a further creative outlet in producing many paintings. Alwyn was also an art collector, at one point owning a collection of Pre-Raphaelite originals, which he acquired at a time when they were not in vogue. Some years later he sold these paintings just before they became highly collectable and valuable.
Alwyn's serious musical studies began at the age of fifteen when he entered the Royal Academy of Music as a flautist. Six years later, aged 21, he was appointed Professor of Composition, a position he held for the next thirty years. Alwyn served on many committees including three terms (1949, 1950 and 1954) as Chairman of the Composer's Guild of Great Britain, which he was instrumental in forming. He was a Director of the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society, a Vice-President of the Society for the Promotion of New Music and Director of the Performing Rights Society. In recognition of his services to the film medium Alwyn was made a fellow of The British Film Academy, the only composer until very recently to have received this honour. A CBE was awarded to the composer in 1978 in recognition of his services to music.
Alwyn's prowess on the flute made him much in demand as a soloist and orchestral player. In 1924 he was appointed to a position in the London Symphony Orchestra, playing under the baton of Sir Edward Elgar at the Three Choirs Festival in performances of The Dream of Gerontius, the Violin Concerto (with Albert Sammons as soloist), Second Symphony, Overture Cockaigne and The Music Makers. Alwyn also appeared on the recordings that Elgar made with the London Symphony Orchestra in the late 1920s for the HMV record company. As well as giving the first British performance of Roussel's Joueurs de Flûte he also took part in the first London performance of Ravel's Chansons madécasses along with Reginald Kell (clarinet), Maria Korchinska (harp) and the Griller Quartet.
The works presented here, five of which are recorded for the first time, cover a period of fifty years from the Two Songs for Voice, Violin and Piano of 1931 to the Chaconne For Tom for recorder and piano dating from 1982. In each of these pieces Alwyn's compositional gift and technical mastery of his chosen medium are immediately apparent.
The Rhapsody for Piano Quartet begun in 1938 was completed in London during March 1939. The piece begins with a very rhythmic theme announced by the piano, which dominates the work. The music gradually becomes more rhapsodical and builds up to an energetic re-statement of the opening theme on all the instruments. This subsides, giving way to a more pensive lyrical section that reaches a passionate climax, after which a repeat of the vigorous opening theme leads to a dramatic coda.
The Sonata Impromptu for Violin and Viola was written in November 1939 and revised in March 1940. The piece is dedicated to the violinist Frederick Grinke (1911-1987) and the distinguished viola-player and teacher Watson Forbes (1909-1997) who gave the first full performance in March 1940 as part of a BBC broadcast. An earlier performance (first and third movements only) by George Stratton and Watson Forbes was given in a BBC recital in November 1939. The sonata is in three movements: the first a Prelude, which after the twelve-bar introduction leads into a fugal section with a return to the opening idea concluding the movement. The second a Theme and Variations of which there are seven (the first six are to be played without a break) the last variation, entitled Intermezzo, leads directly into the third and final movement marked Finale alla Capriccio. Again, this movement consists of fugal writing based on ideas first presented in the Prelude, leading to a brilliant conclusion.
The Ballade for Viola and Piano composed in May 1939 was written for Watson Forbes and Myers Foggin. It forms one of three works written for this combination: the other two being a Short Suite (1941) left incomplete and a Sonatina in four movements dating from 1944. The piece begins with a softly sustained piano chord over which the viola weaves a melody that forms the main idea of the work. The piece develops rhapsodically with a lyrical central section rising to a climax before the opening idea re-appears in the viola, accompanied this time with a somewhat troubled figure in the piano. Then the tempo gathers momentum leading to a fortissimo climax that then subsides to a variation of the opening idea, which gradually accelerates to a dramatic close. The Ballade was first broadcast on the Home Service on 31st August 1940 in a performance given by Max Gilbert (viola) and Joan Davies (piano).
The Two Songs for Voice, Violin and Piano, Wood Magic and Lament of the Tall Tree, were composed in December 1931. The same year saw the completion of settings from Blake's Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience and also the Piano Concerto No. 1. Both songs are musical settings of poems that the composer had previously written in May and October 1931 and, as the titles imply, are evocations of nature. The first is gentle and serene with the interplay of violin and piano accompanying the voice enhancing the tranquil mood of the song. The second is more turbulent conveying the stormy mood and unrest of the poem.
Three Songs to words by Trevor Blakemore, Nocturne, Illumination, Harvest, for voice and piano, were composed in London during April 1940 and dedicated to the musicologist, writer and critic Peter Latham, husband of the artist Angela Latham. Alwyn's sensitive settings of these poems by the Anglo-Irish poet Trevor Blakemore (1879-1953) show at once his rapport with the written word, enhancing the poet's message with deft assurance. The first song reflects the poet's longing for a lost love in the midst of a calm night. In the second, the poet imagines his lover appearing in the form of a religious apparition and in the third the lovers lament the passing from summer into autumn and winter.
The three-movement Sonatina for Violin and Piano was written in London between May and June 1933. The work received its first performance in the Duke's Hall of the Royal Academy of Music on 10 October 1935 as part of the Royal Academy of Music's New Music Society series of concerts. On this occasion the performance was given by Elsie Owen (violin) and Harry Isaacs (piano). The three short movements comprise a free flowing melodic first movement, an introspective sombre slow movement and a lively finale, incorporating a slower melodic middle section before a return to the original tempo for a joyous conclusion.
The Three Winter Poems for String Quartet were composed between January and February 1948 and are dedicated to Alwyn's former teacher John B McEwen. This work pre-dates his first numbered quartet ( String Quartet No. 1 in D minor ) by five years although in fact he had composed thirteen string quartets while still a student at the Academy. Each of these three short atmospheric pieces, Winter Landscape, Elegy – ‘Frozen Waters' and Serenade – ‘Snow Shower', are self-explanatory and convey the wintry mood most perfectly. It would seem that the work was never performed at the time of composition and did not receive a first performance until the centenary year of the composer's birth on 1 June 2005 when the Maraini String Quartet gave the première at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester.
The final work included here, Chaconne for Tom, for recorder and piano, was especially written for the recorder player John Turner who says of the work: "The Chaconne for Tom was Alwyn's penultimate work, composed in December 1982 as a tribute to his fellow composer/artist Thomas Pitfield. Alwyn had been very ill and told me his composing days were over, but his wife Mary persuaded him to write this short piece for an eightieth birthday album of pieces that I was compiling in secret for Pitfield (other composers who contributed included Alan Bush, Gordon Crosse, Anthony Gilbert and John McCabe).
"The original manuscript sketch and fair copy were both marked for treble recorder, but the ageing composer (who in fact knew the instrument well and had written beautifully for it in his previous work Seascapes ), now misjudged its range. I pointed this out to him, tactfully, and asked him if he would care to write the piece out suitably transposed (we were publishing in facsimile and in any event it was in the days before quick transposition on a computer), but the task proved too much for him and he said "play it on the descant". So it was on the descant that I gave the première, with Stephen Reynolds, at Eddisbury Hall, Macclesfield, on 30 April 1983. However, the high tessitura of the descant recorder does not really suit the musical material, and so it is here performed on the treble recorder, for which it was originally intended, transposed up a fourth but of course still using the same fingerings on the recorder.
"The work is actually a set of variations on the well-known tune ' Happy Birthday to You ', and the composition sketch for solo recorder contains just those variations in a single line. When Alwyn added the piano part (it is not clear whether this was intended from the start, or, as Mary intimated to me, was an afterthought) he added an eight-bar introduction as a "false chaconne" bass, which gradually dissolves away, though it informs much of the harmony throughout the piece until its final joyful and very diatonic conclusion. The piece bears the inscription "for John Turner to play", which, coupled with the title, gives it effectively a dual dedication."
© Andrew Knowles and John Turner
Sung Texts can be accessed at www.naxos.com/libretti/570340.htm
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