Friday, 25 April 2008

William Alwyn: Green Hills

William Alwyn composed Green Hills in 1935 just before he began his major involvement with the film industry: it was conceived whilst on an examining board tour abroad and is dedicated to Paul Anson who was a pianist and a composer. It can almost certainly be regarded as Alwyn's 'Home thoughts.' It is, perhaps, homesickness or maybe just a response to memories of England's 'Green and Pleasant Land' seen through the lens of sunnier climes. 
This piano piece is actually one the relatively few works to have survived his clearing out if so called ‘juvenilia.’ Although a number of the early works have begun to appear on CD – so the cull maybe was not as extensive as has been imagined.
Green Hills is a minor masterpiece. It is a miniature tone poem lasting less than three minutes; there is not a note too few or too many. Yet it manages to successfully create an idealised landscape in considerable detail. The work was published in 1936 by Oxford University Press with an attractive woodcut of hills and harebells. It has been re-published by Braydeston Press in 2005.

For such a short piece there is much mood and tempo change - Andante molto e tranquillo: Poco pui mosso: Poco agitato: Tranquillo e dolce. In fact the general impression of this piece is a seeming inability to establish a tempo and a tonality. It is as if it were a painting with all the colours running into each other. The heart of the piece is the 'Poco agitato' that then becomes 'Con passione.' This mood is emphasised by octaves with added thirds against left-hand arpeggios. This climax is followed by a reprise of the opening material. There is a gorgeous heart easing spread chord near the end. The piece dies down to a 'niente.'
This music cannot really be deemed to be English Pastoral in any accepted sense of the term - except perhaps for a tentative allusion to George Butterworth's Shropshire Lad Rhapsody in the last bars. The harmonies are bittersweet; often having a sense of polytonality. The tonal structure of the piece seems to be constantly shifting; there are a number of parallel chords with gently biting discords

Andrew Plant has alluded to the mystical 'horns of elf-land' that were to be a major feature of the composer’s Third Symphony written some twenty years later. There is certainly nature mysticism in Green Hills - whether it derives from Arthur Machen's dreams of Pan in the English landscape, Arnold Bax's Celtic twilight or Houseman's Land of Lost Content. It may be that this imagery has been filtered through the piano works of John Ireland, especially the enigmatic Spring will not Wait which was written some eight years previously.

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