ALWYN: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 5 / Harp Concerto, 'Lyra Angelica' (David Lloyd-Jones/ Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/ Suzanne Willison) (Naxos: 8.557647)
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William Alwyn (1905-1985)
Symphonies Nos. 2 and 5 Lyra Angelica (Harp Concerto)
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 which heheld for nearly thirty years. Amongst his works are fivesymphonies, concertos for flute, oboe, violin, and harpand two piano concertos, various descriptive orchestralpieces, four operas and much chamber, instrumental andvocal music. In addition to this Alwyn contributed nearlytwo hundred scores for the cinema. He began his career inthis medium in 1936, writing music for documentaries. In1941 he wrote his first feature length score for Penn ofPennsylvania. Other notable film scores include thefollowing: Desert Victory, The Way Ahead, The TrueGlory, Odd Man Out, The History of Mr Polly, TheFallen Idol, The Rocking Horse Winner, The CrimsonPirate, The Million Pound Note, The Winslow Boy, TheCard, and A Night To Remember. In recognition of hisservices to the film medium he was made a Fellow of theBritish Film Academy, the only composer ever to havereceived this honour. His other appointments includeserving as chairman of the Composers' Guild of GreatBritain, which he had been instrumental in forming, in1949, 1950 and 1954. He was a Director of theMechanical Copyright Protection Society, a Vice-President of the Society for the Promotion of New Music(S.P.N.M.) and Director of the Performing RightsSociety. For many years he was one of the panel readingnew scores for the BBC. The conductor Sir JohnBarbirolli championed his first four symphonies and theFirst Symphony is dedicated to him.
Alwyn spent the last 25 years of his life inBlythbough, 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 writingmusic he spent his time painting and writing poetry andan autobiography entitled Winged Chariot. He died onthe 11th September 1985 after various illnesses just twomonths before his eightieth birthday.Andrew Knowles
Symphony No. 2, the second of my cycle of foursymphonies, was in complete contrast to No. 1. Allvestige of classical form was abandoned. I conceived itin one continuous movement only broken by amomentary pause before Part II where the musicplunges into a tumultuous Allegro in contrast to thequietly ecstatic section that preceded it. The symphonyconcentrates on the development of a single main motif,accompanied by ominous triplet interjections on thetimpani, building to a huge climax which finallyresolves into a tranquil, almost modal pianissimo coda. Iwish I could say that the work (first performed in 1953)was an immediate success but, although warmlyreceived by the audience, it met with considerableopposition from the critics who were all at sea whenfaced by my symphonic innovations, neitherunderstanding my harmonic frankness (steadfastadherence to the basic essentials of tonality and melody)or the new freedom of my formal design ... [the SecondSymphony] is my favourite of the five.
(from Winged Chariot: An Essay in Autobiography
by William Alwyn)Symphony No. 5 was commissioned by the Arts Councilfor the 1973 Norfolk and Norwich Triennial Festival. Agap of fourteen years had elapsed since the compositionof my fourth symphony; a period almost totallyoccupied in the composition of my two operas, Juan, orthe Libertine and Miss Julie. During that time myattitude to symphonic writing had radically changed.
My aim now was to compress the inordinate length ofthe late-romantic four-movement symphony into a shortone-movement work while still preserving the dramaticcontrasts of the traditional symphonic form butconfining it to four brief sections.
This fifth symphony is dedicated, appropriately 'tothe immortal memory of Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82)', physician, philosopher, botanist and archaeologist,Norwich's most famous citizen, whose great elegy ondeath was first published under the title ofHydriotaphia: Urn Burial, or a Discourse of theSepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk (now moregenerally known by its sub-title: Urn Burial), and whoseown mortal remains lie buried in the magnificent churchof St Peter Mancroft in the heart of the city.
Although each section is headed by a quotationfrom the book, the symphony is not intended as'programme music'; Browne's wonderful prose sets themood of each section and is an expression of mypersonal indebtedness to a great man whose writingshave been a life-long source of solace and inspiration.
The upward-thrusting three-note figure of theopening Allegro on which the entire symphony is basedcan immediately be linked with the quotation: 'Life is apure flame, and we live by an invisible sun within us.'After a momentary silence, the second section isintroduced by the sinister sound of tubular bells, mutedstring harmonics and an insistent reiterated harp note:'But these are sad and sepulchral pitchers, which haveno joyful voices; silently expressing old mortality, theruins of forgotten time.' The close of this section sinksto a whisper of sound--a high trill on the solo violin,brutally interrupted as the music plunges into a briefscherzo section: 'Simplicity flies away, and iniquitycomes at long strides upon us.' This resolves into areturn of the initial crescendo, the three-note figure ofthe opening section. Then the distant tolling of tubularbells (pianissimo) initiates the solemn tread of a funeralmarch based on a final majestic quotation: 'Man is anoble animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous in thegrave.' A long and expressive melody builds to afortissimo climax (maestoso). As the climax fades, themotto theme is heard for the last time, and the symphonysinks to rest in a mood of serenity, only disturbed at thelast by the dissonant accent of muted horns.
'Lyra Angelica' (Angel's Songs) was inspired bymy intense love of the seventeenth-century Englishmetaphysical poets, George Herbert, Richard Crashaw,Henry Vaughan, John Donne and Thomas Traherne, ofwhom Giles Fletcher is probably the least known today,although his masterpiece, the epic poem Christ'sVictorie and Triumph (1610), was the direct inspirationof Milton's Paradise Lost. My Concerto for harp andstrings is a cycle of four elegiac movements, eachillustrating a quotation from Fletcher's text: