About this Recording
8.557648 - 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 7th November 1905. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where, at the age of 21, he was appointed Professor of Composition, a position which he held for nearly thirty years. Amongst his works are five symphonies, concertos for flute, oboe, violin, and harp and two piano concertos, various descriptive orchestral pieces, four operas and much chamber, instrumental and vocal music. In addition to this Alwyn contributed nearly two hundred 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 the following: Desert Victory, The Way Ahead, The True Glory, Odd Man Out, The History Of Mr Polly, The Fallen Idol, The Rocking Horse Winner, The Crimson Pirate, The Million Pound Note, The Winslow Boy, The Card, and A Night To Remember. In recognition of his services to the film medium he was made a Fellow of the British Film Academy, the only composer ever to have received this honour. His other appointments include serving as chairman 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 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 Rights Society. For many years he was one of the panel reading new scores for the BBC. The conductor, Sir John Barbirolli, championed his first four symphonies and the First Symphony is dedicated to him.

Alwyn spent the last 25 years of his life in Blythburgh, Suffolk, where, in those tranquil surroundings, he concentrated on two operas, Juan, or the Libertine and Miss Julie. 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 on the centenary of his birth in 1964 and first performed at the London Promenade Concerts 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. When not writing music he spent his time painting and writing poetry and an autobiography entitled Winged Chariot. He died on the 11th September 1985 after various illnesses just two months before his eightieth birthday.

“My Symphony No. 1 is dedicated to Sir John Barbirolli, who conducted its first performance at the 1950 Cheltenham Festival. Although the work adheres to the traditional four-movement symphony its use of germinal seeds already hints at the new symphonic paths I was to tread in the three symphonies which followed within the same decade.

The first movement begins pianissimo with a solemn phrase (motif A) on cellos and basses. Two mysterious notes (motif B) ascend on the woodwind and resolve into a more extended version on the strings. Almost immediately this groping fragment is interrupted by a sustained drum-roll and, over a steadily mounting chord on muted brass the strings repeat a four-note figure with an upward lift of a ninth (motif C). These are the seeds from which the movement evolves. The Adagio tempo gradually accelerates to Allegro ritmico. The repeated notes, which inaugurate it, are obsessional and a recognizable ‘thumb-print’ in a number of my works. The Allegro dies away and, after a pause, is followed by motif C (Andante espressivo) now extended to a long rising tune on the strings, and further extended by the horn over a pulsing base. The music becomes more and more passionate and reaches its climax with a return of the Adagio-motif A proclaimed by the trombones against the background of the full orchestra, which quickly fades a niente, like a momentary vision of a mountain peak glimpsed through the clouds.

The Scherzo (Allegro leggiero) stems from a twobar phrase on the woodwind (a variant of motif A of the first movement). Suddenly it plunges into a roistering tune fortissimo on unison horns followed by a more lilting and graceful theme on the high strings. This is soon abandoned for a tumultuous section where the brass blare out their version of motif A and which gradually subsides into a Trio section (again a variant of A). A new sequential idea (D) follows, then, after a momentary hesitation (muted horns and celesta) the Scherzo abruptly returns, to finish with a brilliant Coda based on motif D and inverted fragments of A.

The third movement (Adagio ma con moto), which starts with quiet horn chords and a phrase of the main theme on cor anglais, needs no analysis. It is in simple ABA form and is essentially song-like in character, but notice the unusual repeat of the initial theme in the minor mode after its statement in the major key.

Finally the Allegro Jubilante (giubiliante to the purist). What can I say about it except that it is probably the most extrovert piece I have ever written? As is my practice I spend little time on development; each idea spontaneously generates a new idea, rhythmic or melodic (e.g. the long undulating chromatic tune which takes possession of the middle section). Great play is made of a fanfare-like theme on the brass (one 3/4 bar followed by three 3/8 bars). This theme dominates the movement and reaches its climax Allegro molto in the tear-away coda, only to be stopped in its traces by a restatement (Molto Adagio) of motif C which brings the symphony to a dramatic close.

So ends, or rather begins, a new chapter in my musical life.”

Symphony No. 3 was commissioned by the BBC in 1954 and completed in 1956. The work is dedicated to the then controller of the BBC Richard Howgill. The work received its first performance on 10th October 1956 at the Royal Festival Hall given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham. Sir John Barbirolli, who had previously given the first performances of Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2, should have conducted the première but, owing to illness, was unable to do so. The composer says of the work:

“In my Third Symphony I use a new kind of twelvenote system, the twelve notes used in a different way – in a tonal manner. I retain the concord and discord and relate them to key and tonality – the work has a strong tonality of E flat major, with C major as a secondary key, and I also use the twelve notes in a more vocal way. I have divided the twelve notes into two groups - eight semi-tones only are used in the first movement - the remaining four in the second movement. In the third movement the two groups are used in opposition, but are combined in the final pages of the symphony as a comprehensive whole. Harmonically I rely entirely on the semitones contained in the separate groups: thus the slow movement, through almost its entire length uses only four notes (D, E natural, F and A flat) for both melody and harmony, though there is a brief reference to the eight-note group in the middle of the movement as a reminder of the symphony’s tonal centre of E flat. This all sounds very complicated, but I don’t think you will find it a difficult work to listen to.

The thematic ideas on which the whole symphony is based are stated clearly and I hope concisely in the first few pages. It is a stormy and passionate work, strongly rhythmic in the outer movements but finding tranquillity and repose in the middle movement and in the closing pages of the symphony.”

Note compiled by Andrew Knowles with extracts by William Alwyn
Reprinted/reproduced with permission of the William Alwyn Foundation and the Syndics of the Cambridge University Library.


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