Composing in Words. William Alwyn.

Edited by Andrew Palmer

Toccata Press. £35.00

ISBN 978 0 907689 71 3

Like Malcolm Arnold and Edmund Rubbra, William Alwyn (1905-1985) came from Northampton. At 15 he entered the Royal Academy of Music on two scholarships: flute and composition. Before he was twenty-one he was playing the flute with the LSO. He performed under Elgar, Holst, Vaughan Williams and Sir Henry Wood. He premiered new works by Roussel, Riegger and Ravel.

Alwyn, a talented composer, and a pioneer within the British Documentary Movement, was a polymath. He owned the world's finest private collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, and was knowledgeable on the subject of Victorian woman novelists.

He refused offers to become a Hollywood composer. Expected to be offered the post of Principal of the Royal Academy of Music, the offer never came. In 1956 he was offered the post of Head of Music, BBC Television, at three thousand pounds a year. He declined. Critical of many aspects of music making of the time, Alwyn described the National Youth Orchestra as: "One hundred and twenty-odd players all playing out of tune." Of the woodwind in the RPO he said: "The bassoons and clarinets sound like over-sensitive saxophones, being mostly the fault of that eccentric individual Holbrooke", referring to bassoonist Gwydion Brooke.

Palmer's account is strong in quoting Alwyn's opinions and aphorisms: "No great composer is ever reticent." "I would rather see a composer read Keats than Tovey." "Composing should be all heart." "Prettiness galls." Alwyn was perceptive on the subject of song: "The secret of writing words for music is the use of liquid vowel sounds and the avoidance of sibilants." "The musical expression of words should follow as closely as possible the rhythm of speech." "The creative imagination can only be expressed through technique." About his contemporaries he held Copland's Clarinet Concerto to be "innocuous". Bloch's Symphony in Eb was: "An unsatisfactory work". Rejoice in the Lamb was: "Set coyly and perversely by Britten".

Composing in Words offers a delightful, valuable view of the classical music world as seen by an important musician of the mid-twentieth century, an informative and hugely enjoyable book.

John Robert Brown

Review first published in Classical Music, February 2010. Reproduced by kind permission of the editor.

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