ALWYN: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3
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William Alwyn (1905-1985)
Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3
William Alwyn was born in Northampton on the 7thNovember 1905. He studied at the Royal Academy ofMusic in London, where, at the age of 21, he wasappointed Professor of Composition, a position whichhe held for nearly thirty years. Amongst his works arefive symphonies, concertos for flute, oboe, violin, andharp and two piano concertos, various descriptiveorchestral pieces, four operas and much chamber,instrumental and vocal music. In addition to this Alwyncontributed nearly two hundred scores for the cinema.
He began his career in this medium in 1936, writingmusic for documentaries. In 1941 he wrote his firstfeature length score for Penn of Pennsylvania. Othernotable film scores include the following: DesertVictory, The Way Ahead, The True Glory, Odd Man Out,The History Of Mr Polly, The Fallen Idol, The RockingHorse Winner, The Crimson Pirate, The Million PoundNote, The Winslow Boy, The Card, and A Night ToRemember. In recognition of his services to the filmmedium he was made a Fellow of the British FilmAcademy, the only composer ever to have received thishonour. His other appointments include serving aschairman for the Composers' Guild of Great Britain,which he had been instrumental in forming, in 1949,1950 and 1954. He was a Director of the MechanicalCopyright Protection Society, a Vice-President of theSociety for the Promotion of New Music (S.P.N.M.) andDirector of the Performing Rights Society. For manyyears he was one of the panel reading new scores for theBBC. The conductor, Sir John Barbirolli, championedhis first four symphonies and the First Symphony isdedicated to him.
Alwyn spent the last 25 years of his life inBlythburgh, Suffolk, where, in those tranquilsurroundings, he concentrated on two operas, Juan, orthe Libertine and Miss Julie. In addition to chamber andvocal music, he composed his last major orchestralworks there, the Concerto Grosso No. 3, commissionedas a tribute to Sir Henry Wood on the centenary of hisbirth in 1964 and first performed at the LondonPromenade Concerts that year by the BBC SymphonyOrchestra conducted by the composer, the Sinfoniettafor String Orchestra in 1970 and the Symphony No. 5'Hydriotaphia' during 1972-73. When not writing musiche spent his time painting and writing poetry and anautobiography entitled Winged Chariot. He died on the11th September 1985 after various illnesses just twomonths before his eightieth birthday.
\My Symphony No. 1 is dedicated to Sir John Barbirolli,who conducted its first performance at the 1950Cheltenham Festival. Although the work adheres to thetraditional four-movement symphony its use of germinalseeds already hints at the new symphonic paths I was totread in the three symphonies which followed within thesame decade.
The first movement begins pianissimo with asolemn phrase (motif A) on cellos and basses. Twomysterious notes (motif B) ascend on the woodwind andresolve into a more extended version on the strings.
Almost immediately this groping fragment is interruptedby a sustained drum-roll and, over a steadily mountingchord on muted brass the strings repeat a four-notefigure with an upward lift of a ninth (motif C). These arethe seeds from which the movement evolves. TheAdagio tempo gradually accelerates to Allegro ritmico.
The repeated notes, which inaugurate it, are obsessionaland a recognizable 'thumb-print' in a number of myworks. The Allegro dies away and, after a pause, isfollowed by motif C (Andante espressivo) now extendedto a long rising tune on the strings, and further extendedby the horn over a pulsing base. The music becomesmore and more passionate and reaches its climax with areturn of the Adagio-motif A proclaimed by thetrombones against the background of the full orchestra,which quickly fades a niente, like a momentary vision ofa mountain peak glimpsed through the clouds.
The Scherzo (Allegro leggiero) stems from a twobarphrase on the woodwind (a variant of motif A of thefirst movement). Suddenly it plunges into a roisteringtune fortissimo on unison horns followed by a morelilting and graceful theme on the high strings. This issoon abandoned for a tumultuous section where thebrass blare out their version of motif A and whichgradually subsides into a Trio section (again a variant ofA). A new sequential idea (D) follows, then, after amomentary hesitation (muted horns and celesta) theScherzo abruptly returns, to finish with a brilliant Codabased on motif D and inverted fragments of A.
The third movement (Adagio ma con moto), whichstarts with quiet horn chords and a phrase of the maintheme on cor anglais, needs no analysis. It is in simpleABA form and is essentially song-like in character, butnotice the unusual repeat of the initial theme in theminor mode after its statement in the major key.
Finally the Allegro Jubilante (giubiliante to thepurist). What can I say about it except that it is probablythe most extrovert piece I have ever written? As is mypractice I spend little time on development; each ideaspontaneously generates a new idea, rhythmic ormelodic (e.g. the long undulating chromatic tune whichtakes possession of the middle section). Great play ismade of a fanfare-like theme on the brass (one 3/4 barfollowed by three 3/8 bars). This theme dominates themovement and reaches its climax Allegro molto in thetear-away coda, only to be stopped in its traces by a restatement(Molto Adagio) of motif C which brings thesymphony to a dramatic close.
So ends, or rather begins, a new chapter in mymusical life."Symphony No. 3 was commissioned by the BBC in1954 and completed in 1956. The work is dedicated tothe then controller of the BBC Richard Howgill. Thework received its first performance on 10th October1956 at the Royal Festival Hall given by the BBCSymphony Orchestra conducted by Sir ThomasBeecham. Sir John Barbirolli, who had previously giventhe first performances of Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2,should have conducted the premi?¿re but, owing toillness, was unable to do so. The composer says of thework:"In my Third Symphony I use a new kind of twelvenotesystem, the twelve notes used in a different way -in a tonal manner. I retain the concord and discord andrelate them to key and tonality - the work has a strongtonality of E flat major, with C major as a secondarykey, and I also use the twelve notes in a more vocal way.
I have divided the twelve notes into two groups - eightsemi-tones only are used in the first movement - theremaining four in the second movement. In the thirdmovement the two groups are used in opposition, but arecombined in the final pages of the symphony as acomprehensive whole. Harmonically I rely entirely onthe semitones contained in the separate groups: thus theslow movement, through almost its entire length usesonly four notes (D, E natural, F and A flat) for bothmelody and harmony, though there is a brief reference tothe eight-note group in the middle of the movement as areminder of the symphony's tonal centre of E flat. Thisall sounds very complicated, but I don't think you willfind it a difficult work to listen to.
The thematic ideas on which the whole symphony isbased are stated clearly and I hope concisely in the firstfew pages. It is a stormy and passionate work, stronglyrhythmic in the outer movements but finding tranquillityand repose in the middle movement and in the closingpages of the symphony."Note compiled by Andrew Knowleswith extracts by William AlwynReprinted/reproduced with permission ofthe William Alwyn Foundation andthe Syndics of the Cambridge University Library.