William Alwyn (1905-1985)
You loved the broad horizons married to light,
the slow gesture of clouds above the marsh,
the glitter of sunlight on mudflats,
the timeless sound of bells from Blythburgh church.
Your music grew from all these things,
your Naiades in their world of reeds,
our queen of moonlight drifting on the sea
and the song you wrote for Undine when she smiled and beckoned.
-- Michael Armstrong, 1986
Alwyn's major works for the voice were all composed during the latter part of his career over a fifteen-year period between 1965 and 1980. These include two operas, Juan or the Libertine (1965-1971), Miss Julie (1973-1976) and four of the five works recorded here: Mirages (1970), Six Nocturnes (1973), Invocations (1977) and Seascapes (1980). The same period also saw the completion of the song cycle A Leave Taking for tenor and piano, Sinfonietta for string orchestra, Symphony No. 5 (Hydriotaphia), Naiades (a Fantasy Sonata for flute and harp), String Quartet No. 2 (Spring Waters) and a Concerto for flute and eight wind instruments. By the time these works were composed Alwyn had left London for the Suffolk village of Blythburgh where the tranquil surroundings provided an added inspiration to the composer's creative work. Alwyn's earlier works involving the voice include settings of William Blake – Songs of Experience, Songs of Innocence, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell for soloists, double chorus and large orchestra, and also two operas, The Fairy Fiddler and Farewell Companions, the latter composed during 1954 and 1955 to a commission from the BBC.
The earliest work recorded here is 'Slum Song' dating from 1947. This is one of three songs that Alwyn set to the poetry of the Irish born poet and playwright Louis MacNeice (1907-1963). The other two were 'Carol' and 'The Streets of Laredo'. 'Slum Song', however, was the only one to be published by Oxford University Press in 1948. MacNeice joined the BBC in 1941 as a writer and producer, remaining there for twenty years providing them with many radio plays. Alwyn was prevailed upon to provide the incidental music to five of these: Four Years at War (1943), City Set on a Hill (1945), London Victorious (1945), Threshold of the New (1945), and The Careerist (1946). All of these received a broadcast at the time by the BBC either on the Home Service or the Third Programme. Alwyn's haunting setting of 'Slum Song' provides an appropriate elegiac mood for MacNeice's nostalgic evocation of a Dublin long past. The work is dedicated to the poet's wife, Hedli Anderson, and is here receiving its world première recording.
The six songs that make up the song-cycle Mirages, for baritone and piano, were composed between September and October 1970. They are a musical realisation of a group of poems by the composer which were first published together with a long narrative poem entitled Winter in Copenhagen and illustrated by his own surrealist line drawings. The composer says the following of the cycle:
"1. 'Undine' – for ever condemned to a watery element but ever seeking earthly love – appears, naked as truth, in a storm of rain. She calls to me but vanishes from my grasp – a mirage, a recurring dream vision of immortal beauty. 2. 'Aquarium' – I am alone in my room, isolated. The world beyond my window is stilled to an aqueous and silent illusion. 3. 'Honeysuckle' – illustrated in my drawing as male and female intertwined, is a mirage of indivisible beauty. The music mirrors the rhythm of the title. 4. With 'Metronome'the mood changes. The remorseless tick of the metronome is the pulsing of my heart. When I am dead will time still beat, or is the universe itself a mirage? 5. To crave for 'Paradise' after death is to live in a fool's paradise. We beat our wings vainly against the confines of earthly existence. 6. In the epilogue, 'Portrait in a Mirror', I stare at my reflected image, ravaged by time's relentless progress (the piano distorts by inversion the initial phrase of the music). But what I see is not the whole truth. The eye, which in my drawing pierces the dual shapes of both observer and reflected image, still gazes on the world with pristine innocence. The music fades away in a mood of calm resignation."
Mirages was written for the baritone Benjamin Luxon and is dedicated to his then accompanist David Willison, who gave the first performance of the work at the 1974 Aldeburgh Festival.
The remaining song-cycles on this recording are settings of poems by Michael Armstrong (1923-2000), born in Newcastle upon Tyne, but from 1957 onwards living on Jersey in the Channel Islands, where he derived much inspiration for his poems, many of them inspired by the sea and surrounding landscape. Armstrong was to become a good friend of the composer after hearing a broadcast performance of the Third Symphony under the composer's direction in 1972, which compelled him to write to Alwyn to tell him how much the work had moved him. They both maintained a regular correspondence until Alwyn's death in 1985. In 1986 Michael Armstrong wrote a short and very apt poem in Alwyn's memory, 'For William Alwyn', which is quoted in full above.
The Six Nocturnes, here receiving their world première recording, were completed on 4 May 1973 and are dedicated to Benjamin Luxon. Alwyn says the following of this cycle:
"The first song: 'Everything is Now' – is a love song. Hands clasped together in the darkness, the sensation of joined fingers is all that matters at this brief moment in time – 'everything is now.' No. 2: 'Summer Rain' – again a love song. The poet wonders in the gathering darkness, whether the rain will cause the stones to blossom, whether the raindrops are tears shed in absence, tears that have driven them apart. 'This rain could be your tears / watering the buds of stones.' 'Visitation' – the third song is a hallucination. The poet is staring into a mirror. Time is suspended. He hears silent footsteps approaching, but he wills himself not to turn round after the knock, and the door swings open. And 'Instead I'll stare ahead deep into the mirror / and watch its reflection / drain slowly from the glass.' No. 4: 'Summer Night' - the darkness is saturated with the maddening scent of honeysuckle, and moths with quivering antennae brush the lovers' flesh, electric flesh that is hypersensitive to the charged atmosphere of a summer night. No. 5: 'Circle' – is a nightmare; a Dantesque vision. The poet sees himself, outside himself; dying yet alive and sharing his double's pain. His love is his hate; his future is his past: 'We both will end / when we begin.' The final song of this cycle of nocturnes is entitled 'Response' – a vision of the sea in the moonlight. An anthropomorphic vision – the poet sees, ocean and moon responding as lovers clasped in close embrace."
The first performance of the Six Nocturnes was given by Benjamin Luxon and David Willison in a BBC broadcast from the Pebble Mill Studios, Birmingham, in 1975.
Invocations, for soprano and piano, was completed on 12 December 1977. The work was written for and is dedicated to Jill Gomez as a gift for her insightful reading and inspired singing of the title rôle in Alwyn's opera, Miss Julie. BBC Radio 3 relayed this in a BBC Studio performance on 16 July 1977, which was then followed by a recording that appeared on the Lyrita label. Alwyn remarks:
"In this cycle the poet invokes both the spirit of love and the spirit of nature. The first two songs, 'Through the Centuries'and 'Holding the Night' are both love songs. The third, 'Separation'is the expression of the poet's frustration. The music reflects the words in the form of a nocturne. The fourth, 'Drought' is a nature poem – a memory of the long summer drought of 1976. The fifth song, by contrast depicts musically the patter of rain. The sixth song, 'Invocation to the Queen of Moonlight'is again a nocturne, a sustained melody with a gently pulsing accompaniment and tells of the moon's 'Drift on the breast of the sea,' encrusting 'the dim landscape with marble,' The song cycle ends in a joyful mood – 'Our Magic Horse' – a love song in which the poet exclaims: 'Where can we find our magic horse to take our journey among the stars…' The galloping rhythm of the piano brings the cycle to a brilliant close."
Invocations received its first performance in a BBC Radio 3 broadcast on 18 December 1979 when it was given by the dedicatee Jill Gomez accompanied by John Constable.
The song-cycle, Seascapes, for soprano, recorder and piano, was written for and is dedicated to the recorder player John Turner who says the following of the piece:
"Having since my childhood enjoyed numerous holidays at Southwold on the Suffolk coast, I was intrigued on one such occasion to find in the local paper shop a self-published volume of poems by Alwyn, decorated with his own idiosyncratic line drawings. Wishing, on my next trip to Southwold, to acquire one of his drawings to decorate my music room wall, I was given an introduction by our local composer/artist/poet Thomas Pitfield, who had known Alwyn well through the Composers Guild, and on ringing up I was invited for afternoon tea at Lark Rise, his house in nearby Blythburgh. Alwyn was at the time putting the finishing touches to his Concerto for flute and eight wind instruments, and when I suggested that he should compose a recorder work for me he told me that the concerto was to be his final work, as he felt he was now too old to compose any more music. I bought off him a sketch of buildings in Exmouth (dated May 1980) and he very kindly gave me a small oil painting of his beloved Blythburgh Church.
When I arrived home, I wrote thanking him and his wife Mary for their hospitality, and asked him again to write me a piece, but once more I was turned down. I wrote again following the BBC broadcasts for his 75th birthday, with the same result, but tried again at Christmas, when I had just been offered a recital with the soprano Honor Sheppard at the Bowden Festival (which in the event never transpired), and he replied that he had started a song-cycle with recorder obbligato, to words by his friend Michael Armstrong, whose words he had also set in his cycles Six Nocturnes and Invocations. He must have completed the work very quickly as the manuscript is dated 24 December 1980. The work was given its first performance at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester on 14 October 1982 as part of a recital of "sea music", to coincide with an exhibition of nautical paintings at the Gallery (and the work's publishers Forsyth Brothers Ltd., who had coincidentally published some of Alwyn's early piano music in the 1930s, put on an exhibition of his paintings in their shop to coincide with the recital). When the work was published, I managed to persuade him, with the connivance of Mary, to execute a small drawing of hovering seagulls to decorate the volume.
The composer's note for the first performance was as follows: 'The hauntingly beautiful poems which inspired these songs are by my dear friend Michael Armstrong. Michael and I have much in common: we are both poets and painters and we both live close to the sea – Michael in Jersey and I on the Suffolk coast; so we both know the sea in all its moods and ever-changing colours.' The music of the four short songs is overtly pictorial, depicting various aspects of the sea. The listener will hear the putter of a boat's engine on a breezy dawn, the eerie sound of bells reverberating through a sea-fret, the sensual internal swell of the waves, and the cry of gulls in a tugging wind."
William Alwyn, Andrew Knowles and John Turner
William Alwyn's writings and poems are reprinted with permission of the William Alwyn Foundation and the Syndics of the Cambridge University Library.
Sung texts can be accessed at www.naxos.com/libretti/570201.htm