Thursday, 17 July 2008

William Alwyn: Suite of Scottish Dances

On Classic FM the other day, the ‘disc jockey’ played a single short movement – ‘Carleton House’ - from William Alwyn’s Suite of Scottish Dances. Like most of that radio station’s output there was little comment – in fact the composer was referred to simply as ‘Alwyn.’ There was no suggestion as to when the piece was written, whether the tunes were based on old Caledonian melodies or were just a confection, or to whom the work was dedicated.
The thing that annoyed me most, was that Classic FM played a 48 second extract: hardly enough to form an opinion on this work. However, the composer did not mean these tunes to be excerpted –they are specifically designed to be played as a whole and in the order written. Interestingly, they form a kind of cinematographic image of Scotland in the listener’s mind.
In fact, Alwyn found these tunes in ‘two old books of Scottish airs and dances' which were dated about 1790 – shortly after the death of Robert (Rabbie) Burns.
Andrew Peter Knowles in the programme notes to the Naxos CD quotes the title pages of these books: - “Favourite new country dances as danced at the Assembly” (not the Kirk’s surely!) and "Neil [q.v.] Gow’s most fashionable dances as danced at Edinburgh in 1787 and 1788.” Of course they are not performed in anything like the manner they would have been in Walter Scott’s day. They have been ‘Hollywood-ed’ – in other works they have been re-created in a mid twentieth century guise – complete with symphony orchestra. I guess that this follows in the pattern of Ottorino Respighi’s Airs and Dances and even Philip Heseltine’s Capriol Suite. Of course they are not manipulated in quite as dramatic a manner as Iain Hamilton’s fine Scottish Dances –with an American accent. And finally this works is an antithesis to Malcolm Arnold’s Scottish Dances where the composer has out 'Scottished' the Scots with his pseudo folk-songs which ne’er had touched the real McCoy or was it the Real Mackay?

The Suite of Scottish Dances consist of seven short movements:-
1. The Indian Queen
2. A Trip to Italy
3. Colonel Thornton’s Strathspey
4. The Perthshire Hunt- Reel
5. Loch Earn –Reel
6. Carleton House
7. Miss Ann Carnegie’s Hornpipe.
Rob Barnett at MusicWeb International sums up the work rather well: "The Suite of Scottish Dances is light fare with many antique touches, a dab of Ronald Binge, a splash of romantic mystery, a whiff of heather, a hiccup of whiskey, a Mozartean gurgle and the stomp of the hornpipe. "
The work was written in 1946 and was first performed in that year by the BBC Scottish Orchestra conducted by Guy Warrack. The work is dedicated the redoubtable Muir Matheson –so perhaps it would have made an ideal score for a documentary film about The Land North of the Border?

This work is available on Naxos 8.570707, played by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by David Lloyd Jones.

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