Saturday, 19 July 2008

William Alwyn: Suite ‘Manchester’ for orchestra.

It is good that Naxos have brought out the Five Preludes for orchestra and some of the other early music by William Alwyn. However, the true enthusiast is never completely satisfied. There is another desideratum. In 1946 Paul Rotha directed a major documentary film for Manchester City Council - ‘A City Speaks’. This production was designed to promote the city in the days of austerity following the Second World War: it was an attempt to showcase the local government’s plans for the wholesale redevelopment of the city.
Interestingly the screen play was written by Walter Greenwood of ‘Love on the Dole’ fame. From the musical perspective, the score was by William Alwyn and the Hallé Orchestra was conducted by John Barbirolli. 

Alwyn’s only major non-film work at his time was the Scottish Dances which were a kind of ‘Hollywood-isation’ of some original Scottish dance tunes from the time of Rabbie Burns. However, Alwyn was busy in the film industry. For example he produced the score for the classic ‘Odd Man Out’. But the main effort was with documentaries and public service films such as 'Approach to Science', 'Captain Boycott' and 'Your Children and You'.

The imagery of ‘A City Speaks’ initially considers the reality of 1946 – for example the opening shots present an aerial view of rows of terraced houses, factories and chimneys. Bomb damage was an ever present feature. People who know Manchester today will be amazed at the ‘jet black outline’ of Alfred Waterhouse’s stunning Town Hall. Of course a city is more than the buildings and infrastructure: Lowry-like scenes of men, women and children at work and play are presented to the viewer.
The main point of this film is to present the Corporation’s plans for the future. It was to be a major task to try to modernise a city that was fundamentally Victorian, had suffered considerable bomb damage and had poor housing stock. There were proposals for slum clearance, new housing estates and designs for social spaces. Perhaps one of the most impressive parts of the film is Manchester having fun. Great footage of Belle Vue, Old Trafford and the Speedway are enhanced buy Alwyn scherzo like music.

Recently, the musicological journal ‘Manchester Sounds’ produced a DVD of the film as supplement. However, both the sound and the picture quality leave a lot to be desired. In spite of that, it is well worth struggling with: the imagery is, as suggested above, impressive and the optimism totally infectious. In many ways it is so sad that some of plans and proposals did not quite have the results that the City Fathers hoped for. Yet there is no doubt that Manchester is a brighter, cleaner and more vibrant place than this 1946 film reveals. Manchester was then, as now, a great city.
The Suite was derived from the soundtrack of the film and was presented in five movements:-
1. Prelude
2. March
3. Interlude
4. Scherzo
5. Finale

It is a reasonably substantial work, lasting some fourteen minutes and scored for a large orchestra. If the score of the film is anything to go by, in spite of the poor sound quality, the music is an essential part of Alwyn opus and the Suite promises to be thoroughly enjoyable. Unfortunately the score remains unpublished; however Sir John must have used a copy of the original manuscript to give the first performance at the Kings Hall, Belle Vue, Manchester on 30 November 1947. So perhaps there is a possibility that the piece could be revived?

I will be sitting in the Midland Hotel in a few days time, enjoying a glass of wine. This is one of my favourite places in the city- close to Deansgate, Forsyth's Music Shop, the old Free Trade Hall and of course the Bridgewater Hall. I will think of this film, of the changes that I have witnessed over forty years and of my father, a Mancunian, who returned to this city from the army in 1946. I wonder what he would make of Manchester now? I would like to think that typically he would be impressed. I do know that he would enjoy a glass of wine in the Midland Hotel, though.

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