William Alwyn volunteered to be an Air Raid Warden on the outbreak of the Second World War. He was sent on the required training course before taking up his duties in the Capital. He decided to evacuate his family away from the Blitz. At the start of the war the Royal Academy of Music was closed, (although it later reopened and composition classes were resumed) and much of the musical life in London temporarily ceased. Alwyn was at this time heavily involved with the Ministry of Information and the Army Film Unit in the making of propaganda films. These productions were shewn at home and abroad. The composer mentions the fact that these films were so successful and so aroused the ire of the Nazis that his name was on the list of people who were to be arrested were Hitler to invade Britain. It was something that he was quite proud of.
Soon Alwyn was spending many nights at the A.R.P post in London. He was involved with fire watching and with patrols presumably to ensure that people had 'put that light out.' This active service was usually hectic but sometimes involved hanging around waiting the bombing to start. It was out of these activities that the piano piece Night Thoughts was born.
This is quite a short piece lasting just under five minutes. It is divided into four clear-cut sections. The score is prefaced with a quotation from Walt Whitman, 'By the bivouac's fitful flame, A procession winding around me, solemn and sweet and slow…' from the poets great cycle 'Drum Taps.' It is worth quoting the whole poem here for it is apposite:-
By the bivouac's fitful flame,
A procession winding around me, solemn and sweet and slow
- but first I note,
The tents of the sleeping army, the fields' and woods' dim outline,
The darkness lit by spots of kindled fire, the silence,
Like a phantom far or near an occasional figure moving,
The shrubs and trees, (as I lift my eyes they seem to be stealthily
While wind in procession thoughts, O tender and wondrous thoughts,
Of life and death, of home and the past and loved, and of those that
are far away;
A solemn and slow procession there as I sit on the ground,
By the bivouac's fitful flame. (1865)
There is no way that this short piano piece is an attempt to mirror the sentiments of this great poem. It is simply that the poem has provided an intellectual support for the moods of the music. Yet in many ways the key line seems to me to be 'O tender and wondrous thoughts, Of life and death, of home and the past and loved, and of those that are far away.' This is what this piece seems to say to me. It was dedicated to Peter Latham.
The opening of the work is instructed to be played 'Andante, thoughtful and expressive.' This is quite uncomplicated music - although there are hints of little trumpets with 'horn passages' (elf-land again?) these are hardly militaristic. There is absolutely nothing avant-garde here - this is simply Alwyn writing music from the heart. It is really quite impossible to categorise this work. It is certainly not 'light' music yet neither is it neo-classical. In some ways the opening theme is so simple - it reminds me at times of a hymn tune arranged for piano. As the music develops, however, there is a degree of complexity introduced. Suddenly there is an almost orchestral feel to this - it is possible to differential two strands of musical material working - more than just counterpoint. There are a number of interesting key changes in the middle section; it would not be too hard to spot a few Delian progressions.
The Agitato section is at first quite romantic - yet still we hear the trumpets. There is no doubt that John Ireland lies behind these faster passages. There is a touch of aggression in the last bars of this fast section before the music returns to the 'hymn tune.' The piece ends quietly and almost ambiguously.
The listener cannot fail to be pleased with this music. The composer has satisfied their expectations; this is a nocturne, it does help us to understand thoughts provoked through the watches of the night. It is surely one of the best of Alwyn's miniatures and deserves to be played much more. It is a truly attractive piece that is straightforward, unpretentious and downright beautiful. It is Alwyn simply being himself.
Originally part of of a larger article on MusicWeb International, with thanks.
Hear Night Thoughts on either Chandos or Naxos