Wednesday, 8 April 2009

William Alwyn: Five By Ten (1952)

In 1952 Lengnick published what is a remarkable set of graded teaching pieces. In fact it is actually wrong to suggest that they are purely educational. Virtually all these pieces make fine recital numbers for pupils ranging from about grade 1 to grade 6. The series was edited and graded by the redoubtable Alec Rowley. What is superb about these volumes is the eclectic group of composers commissioned by the publisher to write these miniatures. The list is worth giving in full:-Edmund Rubbra, Madeleine Dring, Bernard Stevens Malcolm Arnold, Julius Harrison, Charles Proctor, Elizabeth Maconchy, William Wordsworth, William Alwyn and Franz Reizenstein.

In many ways we have a conspectus of musical composition in Britain at the beginning of the 1950s. Some were already rather famous such as Alwyn and Rubbra. Others were on their way up, such as Malcolm Arnold and Elizabeth Maconchy. A number of these names are now perhaps forgotten to most listeners, even British music specialists. However the music of Reizenstein, Wordsworth and Stevens, although probably little known nowadays urgently needs to be rediscovered.

For the record my favourite piece in this series is by Malcolm Arnold and is called - The Buccaneer. It has all that composer's trademarks and is a fine piece that could be played at any recital.
William Alwyn contributed nine pieces to this series. All of them are fun to play and all prove that the composer could turn his hand to writing attractive and well written music that is relatively easy to play. The titles of the pieces are evocative and no doubt were given to appeal to the children of the day. Although this series is still in print one cannot help feeling that today's child would find the titles rather tame.
The first piece, 'The trees are heavy with snow' is very short - only 20 bars long. It is made up of varied four bar phrases that reiterates the main theme. This theme definitely has a 'dropping' feel to its progress.
What the mill wheel told me opens with the left hand imitating the water wheel slowly revolving -'not too fast and rather wistful. There is a motif given on the right hand and then repeated - is this the tale? Or is the real story in the left hand?
The first fast piece is The Village Bell Ringers that ought to be played lively. Basically it is a pedal fifth chord where the pianist is invited to keep the pedal down throughout the entire piece. There is a little four bar theme given and then with variations.
Hunting Scene comes complete with a little 'programme' written by the composer. Along with many 'hunt' pieces it is probably not politically correct nowadays. It is a fast piece in 3/4 time. The hunting horns call - echoed by the left hand (pp). The horn call and its echoes get shorter and shorter until there are only two notes are left. There is a distinct pause. Then we are off at a gallop - louder and faster. It builds to a climax with a dissonant chord, where presumably the fox is nearly caught. But the trail goes cold.
The fifth piece, The Sun is Setting is much longer than the preceding tunes. It is to be played slow and expressive. Major, minor and augmented triads in the left hand support a diatonic melody in the right hand. There is some interesting chromatic figuration in this piece. The harmony here is effective and quite involved.
The Sea is Angry is a fast and stormy little tune. It is unusually written in 12/8 time. Even this miniature displays Alwyn's expertise at writing music depicting seascapes and water. There is much unison wiring underpinned by a pedal note in the bass. The storm certainly rises and falls; the composer makes subtle use of chromatic figuration to emphasises the progress of the storm. Ends in solid d minor.
In my opinion 'Bicycle Ride' is the best of these pieces - at least it is the most fun. It is highly descriptive of pedalling up and down hills in the countryside! It is nearest to the light music genre of the 1940s and 50s. Given a fair old pace at Allegro leggiero there is a little 'cycling' theme in the right hand. This theme gets slower or faster depending whether the bike is going up hill or down. There is a good modulation given when coasting down hill. There is a slow climb and almost a dead stop. Then off we go with the cycling theme again. Ends neatly.


Water Lilies is actually quite a complex piece for educational purposes. It has echoes of a seemingly endless list of precursors. In many ways it is quite a varied little piece with a number of ideas and themes. The composer indicates that both pedals ought to be depressed. This leads to a blurred, impressionistic effect with the left-hand third chords with added notes. The melody is constantly varied, with echoes back to the opening four bars.
Cinderella is a recital piece. This is the last work in the five volumes of Five by Ten and is almost certainly the most difficult to play and to interpret. It is also one of the longest. The form of the piece is interesting. On first play through the impression is given of constant change of melody and accompaniment with no obvious unifying material. It is composed as a waltz and is written in 6/8 time. It is only after study that one realises the piece is actually very cleverly constructed. It is as if the music is reminiscence by Cinderella after she has returned from the ball. There is constant change of tempos, figuration and even tune. Nothing ever seems to be tied done – it is a work of fleeting images. Yet there are snatches of theme that are presented and re-presented which lead to a sense of unity. A truly lovely miniature and well worth learning.


Alas, these pieces are not presently availabel on CD. They are worth of recording and would make an attractive pendant to those pieces fromthe same volume by Sir Malcolm Arnold, which are availabel on Koch.
The sheet music, Five by Ten in six volumes can be picked up in second-hand music shops and are generally well worth investigating.

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