The Innumerable Dance

The Life and Work of William Alwyn

Adrian Wright

The Boydell Press

William Alwyn was born in Northampton in 1905, an exact contemporary of Michael Tippett, Constant Lambert and Alan Rawsthorne. By 1920, he was travelling from Northampton twice a week to attend the RAM. Flute was his principal study.

Alwyn was clearly an outstanding flautist:

"I remember a concert at Hull when the lights failed in the hall at rehearsal. 'Bring candles', called Sir Henry [Wood]. But there was a shortage in the city, and the concert took place without rehearsal. The first flute part was missing from the Schumann Piano Concerto, but I knew the work so well that I played from memory."

By the time he was in his early twenties Alwyn was a member of the London Symphony Orchestra. As a soloist he introduced Roussel's Jouers de Flûte to Britain. He took part in the first performance in London of Ravel's Chanson Madecasse, and performed the Ravel Septet alongside clarinettist Reginald Kell and the Griller Quartet.

Alwyn the flautist is forgotten today, though he can still be heard piping away in the 1927 recording of Elgar's Dream of Gerontius. How close Alwyn came to being appointed as the Principal of the RAM, how he was overlooked for a knighthood, and how an approach about becoming the Head of Music for BBC Television came to nothing are all recounted in this spellbinding biography. The tale gains piquancy with the account of Alwyn's illicit romance with his talented student, the highly-regarded but now neglected composer Doreen Carwithen. They met when she was eighteen. He was thirty-six. Their relationship 'overshadowed' Alwyn's marriage to his wife Olive for the next sixteen years.

Alwyn and Carwithen met in 1941. By that time Alwyn was a prominent name in documentary film music, enjoying his greatest hour during the golden age of British cinema. He composed prolifically. The films for which he provided music give a summary of his era. Familiar faces of the time - David Niven, Jimmy Hanley, William Hartnell - appear frequently. Steam-hauled trains billow through apple-dangled acres. Horse-drawn harvesters gather grain beneath dazzlingly white clouds. Soldiers are welcomed into thatched cottages for cups of tea. A young girl catches a mariner's eye; the schoolteacher calls out 'Good morning, sailor.' How times have changed. 'Sixty years later, the open-hearted sailor would have found himself being taken away in a police van,' observes Wright!

Inexplicably, the 2005 Proms ignored Alwyn's centenary. Such neglect reflects no credit on the British musical establishment. About this, composer Ruth Gipps is forceful and unreserved:

"...the only time I ever heard Sir Arthur Bliss really angry was when he was talking about Bill, who at that time had not yet had a single performance at Aldeburgh in spite of living so near. I have been told that Britten was personally responsible for having the careers of possible rivals ruined if he could; those who suffered from his jealousy (all of course normal married men) included Walton, Finzi, Howells, Berkeley, and a number of other genuine composers. With his works framed in nothing but the avant garde Britten was able to shine - and went to his death a millionaire, complaining that he didn't get enough performances."

Clearly, a new evaluation is due. Let us hope that The Innumerable Dance initiates a reappraisal of Alwyn's work.

John Robert Brown

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