Friday, 4 April 2008

William Alwyn: Festival March

I recently posted about the new DVD that showcases the film Festival in London 1951 and noted the musical score was by Willam Alwyn.
Alwyn’s Festival March was composed as part of Festival of Britain celebrations. The Festival itself was held some six years after the end of the Second World War when the country was still in a period of considerable austerity. Furthermore the date was exactly one hundred years after the Great Exhibition of 1851. The concept of the Festival of Britain was to showcase the nation’s achievements both at home and abroad, scientific, artistic and manufacturing. 
It was at this time that the modernistic Royal Festival Hall as inaugurated by King George the Sixth and other members of the Royal Family and VIPs.
William Alywn was commissioned by the Arts Council of Great Britain to compose a celebratory march in the same genre as those of Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance and William Walton’s Crown Imperial Marches. Mary Alwyn, the composer’s wife, suggests that at first the composer struggled with this commisison and notes that the original sketches for the march were scored in 4:4 times. However, after much effort the music began to take shape after he restructured the piece in 12:8 time. The work remains a minor masterpiece of its kind. 
The Festival March opens with the usual fanfares and strong chords before it quietens down to allow the march to begin. Interestingly this material is presented more as a procession with a number of tableaux rather than a straight forward march. The music soon reaches an impressive climax before settling down to the 'trio.' This theme is introduced by unison violins and cellos before being repeated ‘grandioso’ by the full orchestra. After a brief bridge passage the powerful march theme is reprised. Naturally, in like manner to his exemplars, Alwyn brings back the 'trio' theme in all its glory. The work ends impressively.

No one listening to this march could be unimpressed. It surprises me that it is so little known amongst British music enthusiast who will readily admit to an appreciation of Walton's and Elgar’s marches. Critics were impressed at the time of its first performance but suggest that Alwyn had a lighter touch in his scoring and generally produced a march that was “more sprightly, and less grand and martial” than his predecessors. Another reviewer noted that Alwyn had managed to avoid the “conventional and wilful.” Yet a march designed for a 'Festival of Britain' or such event is surely largely redundant if it is not “broad and swaggering,” and complete with a "damn good tune.”

This work is available on Naxos, Lyrita and Chandos

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