About this Recording
8.557649 - ALWYN: Symphony No. 4 / Sinfonietta
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William Alwyn (1905–1985)
Symphony No. 4 • Sinfonietta for String Orchestra

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 Blythbough, 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. In 1978 he was awarded a CBE in recognition of his services to music. 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 just two months before his eightieth birthday.

Symphony No. 4, completed in 1959, forms the epilogue to Alwyn’s projected cycle of four symphonies which he had begun in 1948, and had taken him a decade to complete. Another symphony (No. 5, Hydriotaphia) was to follow in 1973, but is not connected in anyway with the earlier works in this medium. A ‘motto-theme’ with the leaping interval of a seventh, which is first introduced at the beginning of the First Symphony and appears in various guises in all four works, reaches its apotheosis in the final section of the Fourth. The composer says the following of this work:

“Scored for a normal classic orchestra, the Fourth Symphony is cyclic in form; the thematic material exposed in the first movement is subjected to constant transformations and utilized in all three movements. An unusual feature is that the Scherzo is the central and most substantial movement. The work was first performed by Barbirolli and the Hallé Orchestra at a Sir Henry Wood Promenade concert in 1959.

“It begins pianissimo with the simultaneous statement of the two principal ideas, using the twelve semitones divided into two groups – a woodwind threenote ascending figure founded on a D major scale with and added G sharp, while the basses and pizzicato cellos play a slow counter-subject (F natural, B flat, C natural and E flat) thus giving an impression of dual tonality – D major and B flat major – the two key centers of the whole Symphony. The music slowly rises to a new lyrical subject sung by the whole orchestra which sinks to a quiet repetition on the strings. Gradually the tempo quickens with the bass subject stated chordally on the horns followed by the D major subject on trombones and cellos. This builds with ever quickening pace to the first orchestral climax at the Allegro. Now the lower strings and drum maintain a throbbing rhythm while a new melodic theme is heard on violins and oboe. Heralded by muted trumpet fanfares this builds to a bigger climax, then, after a misterioso passage for divided strings the music again hurries on to a return of the maestoso tempo – the brass blazing out a fortissimo motive against a long expressive melody on the high strings and woodwind. The movement slowly ebbs away with the drum persistent to the end.

“The second movement is an extended Scherzo. It plunges at once into a basic re-iterated rhythm on the note D, then strings and woodwind clothe the rhythm with a repeated D major scale passage while the trumpet insist on the four-note B flat counter-subject. Scale, rhythm and counter-subject continue to dominate the movement until a further modification of the scale passage is played as a lilting giocoso tune by the oboe against a strumming pizzicato accompaniment and soft staccato chords on the trombones. After further transformations a climax is reached then the music subsides on the rhythm now repeated on the note E flat. A pause introduces the Trio section – a variant of the Symphony’s opening motives quietly stated on the violins and then on two bassoons and developed until a direct re-statement of the opening bars of the Symphony leads back to a vigorous re-capitulation of the Scherzo. The movement closes with the rhythm – furioso and fortissimo.

“After the relentless energy of the Scherzo, the last movement forms a calm epilogue. The violins sing a serene melody derived from the preceding ideas which are now resolved into a theme and series of variations building to a climax when the basses pound out the Scherzo rhythm. This dies again to the long-drawn melody molto tranquillo on clarinet, horn and high violins. The final climax is reached maestoso, and the Symphony ends with horns, trombones and drums triumphantly proclaiming the four-note subject in B flat.”

William Alwyn’s Sinfonietta for String Orchestra, completed in February 1970, resulted as a commission from the Arts Council of Great Britain, and had been originally intended for the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra which was due to give the first performance during its British tour the same year. The tour, however, never happened, so the first performance took place at that year’s Cheltenham Festival on 4th July given by the English Chamber Orchestra. At the time of the commission Alwyn was at work on his four-act opera Juan, or the Libertine, and saw the Sinfonietta as welcome relief from that undertaking. Of the Sinfonietta the composer says the following:

“The Sinfonietta centres round a quotation from Act I of Alban Berg’s opera Lulu, a phrase which has haunted me since I heard it and studied the score. But this is not a ‘twelve tone’ piece, nor is it intended as a tribute to Berg, though any composer who is honest acknowledges the debt he owes to genius. The reason for its inclusion is a personal one – a common bond of admiration for Berg shared with my friend, Dr Mosco Carner, who was much in my mind while I composed the work, and to whom it is dedicated.

The first movement is alternately vigorous and lyric; the second is simplicity itself – muted and reflective (the bars from Lulu follow a short canonic passage for solo violin, viola and cello); and the last movement, after a brief impetuous opening, develops into a complex fugue in varying tempi. All the fugal subjects derive from material heard in the previous movements and the interval of a major 7th is a characteristic feature. The Sinfonietta, culminating in a final passionate outburst, ends peacefully and diatonically.”

Note compiled by Andrew Knowles with extracts by William Alwyn

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