Sunday, 24 July 2011

William Alwyn: Prelude and 'Derrybeg Fair' from The Fairy Fiddler (1925)

In 1985 I acquired a copy of the Stewart Craggs’ and Alan Poulton’s catalogue of William Alwyn’s music. This was before the days of the Chandos and Naxos cycles of the composer’s works. At that time there were only a handful of Lyrita LPs of the symphonies, a song cycle or two and the Derby Day Overture. On turning to the ‘orchestral’ section of that book I was overwhelmed by the number of works that had not been recorded: I believed then that most never would be. Furthermore, a generally accepted axiom at that time stated that Alwyn had destroyed virtually every work written prior to the Rhapsody for String Quartet of 1939. I remember spotting the first two works in the catalogue: Derrybeg Fair and the ‘Prelude’ from the opera The Fairy Fiddler. The entries suggested that the editors had been ‘unable to trace’ the manuscripts.

The Fairy Fiddler was the first attempt that William Alwyn made at writing a ‘stage-work’: it was composed between 1924 and 1926 when the composer was in his late teens. The work was never quite finished. In fact, the present pieces would appear to be the only extracts that came near to completion.

Andrew Knowles has provided a short synopsis of the opera plot: - ‘Terry, the Fiddler has lost his art of playing, and Clodagh, whom he loves, has been stricken dumb by the evil machinations of the Witch of Roona. The fairies come to their aid, and by a magic spell Terry gives his voice to Clodagh, and though dumb himself now, is able to play on his fiddle again.’ Not a profound scheme perhaps, but a good, satisfying fairy tale with a ‘happy-ish’ ending. The libretto was written by the Irish poet and dramatist Gertrude Hind (1877-1951)

The music for the Prelude is a minor masterpiece. It can be listened to as a ‘tone-poem’ without having to read into it a programme derived from the opera. It is a truly beautiful work that shows considerable promise and invention. Derrrybeg Fair is a prelude to the last scene of the opera and describes a typically lively Irish fair in County Donegal. The work is in ternary form with vigorous music opening and closing the extract. However the middle section, which introduces the lovers’ theme, is bewitching. Interestingly, the Derrybeg Fair music was performed as a standalone work in 1926 and then again in 1936. I guess it has lain dormant since then.

Let us hope that Dutton Epoch or Naxos chose to record the last, few orchestral works in the catalogue that remain unheard.

This work has been released on Dutton Epoch CDLX7270 and can be purchased from theDutton Vocalion Wepage

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