ALWYN: Concerto for Oboe, Harp and Strings / Elizabethan Dances / The Innumerable Dance
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William Alwyn (1905–1985)
Elizabethan Dances • Oboe Concerto • Aphrodite in Aulis
The orchestral music of William Alwyn spans a period of fifty years from the Peter Pan Suite of 1923 to the Fifth Symphony (Hydriotaphia) of 1973 and as such forms a large and important part of his compositional output. Amongst his works in the genre are five symphonies, concertos for flute, violin, oboe, harp, piano and many descriptive shorter pieces. In addition to these are four operas, vocal, chamber and instrumental music. He was also a linguist, poet and painter. His mastery of orchestration is evident in every piece included here and in part comes as a result of an in-sider's experience. Alwyn entered the Royal Academy of Music in 1920 at the age of fifteen as a flautist (with piano a second instrument) and from 1922 was playing in the Academy orchestra and later under the baton of Sir Edward Elgar with the London Symphony Orchestra, where he gained immeasurable knowledge of the orchestra. He spent much time studying the scores of Debussy, Richard Strauss, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Szymanowski. The latter three had been introduced to him by his composition teacher John B. McEwen (himself a composer of a large number of works) and thus opened up a new colourful world of possibilities to the young composer. Further experience was gained from his involvement with writing music for the cinema, composing some two hundred film scores between 1936 and 1963 for both documentary and feature films. Here he was able to experiment to the full on the many varied subjects presented to him for a suitable musical background to enhance the pictures' message and mood. It was the only medium in which he could see very quickly whether he had been successful in trying out some new way and or idea of scoring. A film score had to be provided fairly quickly, as it was nearly always the last process to be added before the film's release, and Alwyn threw himself into the task wholeheartedly. One week he would be composing the score to the film, the next he was able to hear the result, an event which he always looked forward to. Amongst Alwyn's film scores are some classic British films, including The Way Ahead, Desert Victory, Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol, The History of Mr Polly, The Winslow Boy, The Rake's Progress, The Rocking Horse Winner and A Night To Remember.
Alwyn's first major work for orchestra, the brief and imaginatively scored Five Preludes, dating from 1927, were first performed the same year at the Promenade Concerts at Queen's Hall under Sir Henry Wood and started him on the road to perfecting his orchestral technique. The Elizabethan Dances date from thirty years later, composed between 1956 and 1957. Although the BBC had commissioned a work from him for their Light Music Festival of 1957, the idea for the piece had been first suggested to him by his friend and publisher Bernard de Nevers, director of Alfred Lengnick & Co Ltd. The score bears a dedication to de Nevers.
The BBC Concert Orchestra gave the première of the work at the Royal Festival Hall under the direction of the composer on 6 July 1957. Scored for a standard size orchestra with the additional percussion instruments of castanets, wood blocks, maracas and also harp and celesta, the six dances alternate the times of Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II, thus providing contrasting moods. The first dance portrays the pipes and tabors of Elizabeth I employing the full orchestra. The second is a beguiling lilting waltz with the main theme announced by the strings. The third is a Morris Dance with the main theme first stated by a solo bassoon, which is then taken up by the flute before finally being presented by the strings. The fourth is a somewhat 'bluesy' dance with the main theme announced by the violins and later presented by the full orchestra. The fifth, a quiet Pavane, suggests a consort of viols and recorders with the strings carrying the main idea embellished by flutes clarinets and harp. The sixth, employing the full orchestra, alternates between a hornpipe and rumba and brings the set to a lively and jubilant close.
The Innumerable Dance – An English Overture was completed in November 1933 and received its first broadcast performance on 8 December 1935 given by the BBC Orchestra (section C) conducted by Aylmer Buesst. A standard orchestra is employed with the addition of celesta and harp enhancing the colour of the piece. The title of the work is derived from a line of verse from the second book of William Blake's Milton. The score is prefaced with the following lines from the poem:
First e'er the morning breaks,
joy opens in the flowery bosoms,
Joy even to tears, which the suns rising dries:
first the Wild Thyme
And meadow sweet, downy and soft waving among the reeds,
Light springing in the air, lead the sweet dance;
The honeysuckle sleeping on the oak,
the flaunting beauty
Revels along upon the wind; … every tree
And flower and herb soon fill the air with an
Yet all in order sweet and lovely.
A tone poem in all but name this evocatively scored work is the perfect evocation of spring. From the hushed opening with tremolando divided strings followed by muted horns to the gradual addition of more instruments to the full orchestra once the sunrise is reached and the lively dance that follows Alwyn immediately draws you into Blake's vision of nature.
This première recording gives us the chance to hear a work that has not been heard for almost seventy years. This was not Alwyn's first work to be inspired by the poetry of William Blake as in 1931 he had made settings for voice some with the accompaniment of string quartet and others with just piano of the Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. Also between 1933 and 1938 he worked on setting Part 1 of Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell for soloists, double chorus and large orchestra. The work still awaits a hearing.
The Concerto for Oboe, Harp and String Orchestra was composed in London and Welwyn between 1943 and 1944. The first performance was given by Evelyn Rothwell, the wife of John Barbirolli who was later to become such a champion of Alwyn's music, with the London Symphony Orchestra under Basil Cameron at a Promenade Concert at the Royal Albert Hall on 12 August 1949. There are two movements which follow without a break, the first pastoral and nostalgic in mood, the second a lively dance with the main idea from the first movement returning towards the end of the work.
Aphrodite in Aulis – An Eclogue for small orchestra was completed in London during June 1932. The inspiration for the work comes from the Homeric novel of the same name by the Irish writer George Moore (1852-1933), first published in 1930. Esther Waters (1894) is probably his best known novel. The story is an historical romance about two brothers, Thrasillos, an architect, and Rhesos, a sculptor, in the time of Phidias. Rhesos falls in love with a woman Earine as she has the most desirable rump suitable for his sculpture of Aphrodite. This brief exquisite miniature beautifully scored for flute, two horns, harp and strings, encapsulates the vis