I first came across William Alwyn’s music in 1972: it was hearing the Symphonic Prelude: Magic Island on Radio 3’s Record Review. As soon as the programme ended I rushed into Cuthbertson’s music shop in Glasgow and bought the record with some hard saved pocket money. I fell in love with that work and the coupled Symphony No.3. Apart from the sleeve notes, I could find no details about the composer. Even a visit to Glasgow’s Mitchell Library elicited little information beyond what was in the then-current Grove. But it was the start of my appreciation of Alywn’s music, and I have assiduously purchased releases of his music as they have appeared on Lyrita, Chandos and Naxos over the intervening 40 years.
John Dressler’s William Alwyn: A Research and Information Guide is the book I would have dreamt about had I known such things existed. Primarily, this book will appeal to enthusiasts of Alwyn’s music: people who love his music and want to get to grips with its ‘sitz in leben’ and to discover possible avenues for further exploration. Students embarking on music courses or putative D.Mus’s will find this book essential reading. Programme note writers and CD and concert reviewers who specialise in British Music will require this book close at hand. And performers will be interested to get background information when they come to prepare for recitals (assuming they want to play Alwyn’s music). It is a book that will find its way onto the shelves of most music college libraries and large references libraries around the world.
For many years the only information about William Alwyn (apart from Grove) was to be gleaned from Craggs & Poulton’s William Alwyn: A Catalogue of his music (1985). As Dressler suggests in the present volume, it was a first attempt at sorting out the composer’s works. It was prepared with his blessing. I was lucky enough to find a copy of this book in a second-hand bookshop; I believe that it is relatively rare. Even the Royal College of Music or the Royal Academy of Music does not list this book in their library catalogues.
Prior to this Francis Routh (a former pupil of Alwyn) published an important book Contemporary British Music in 1972. Included was an entire chapter devoted to Alwyn. This is available for on-line perusal at MusicWeb International.
For many years the major diary article written by Alwyn for the ADAM International Review (1967) eluded me. This study elaborated the day to day composition of the Third Symphony. For biographical details the enquirer was limited to a slim volume entitled Winged Chariot. This book was selective in its coverage and discussion of many important works was omitted. It was published in 1983 and was effectively an ‘essay in autobiography.’
In 2005 Boydell Press published the significant study, William Alwyn: The Art of Film Music by Ian Johnson. This explored in depth the composer’s major contribution to the world of the moving picture. Relatively little information was given about Alywn’s ‘art music.’
Three years later, the ‘official biography, The Innumerable Dance: The Life and Work of William Alwyn by Adrian Wright was published by Boydell Press. This remains the only volume to deal objectively with the composer’s life and music. The last major contribution to the Alwyn bibliography was Composing in Words: William Alwyn on his Art (Musicians on Music Volume 9) published by Toccata Press in 2010 and edited by Andrew Palmer. This is comprehensive collection of texts written the composer, including the elusive ADAM diary and the complete text of Winged Chariot with extracts from an essay on Alywn’s boyhood, Early Closing. Additionally, there are a number of pieces of journalism and essays. This is essential reading for all who wish to understand the composer’s milieu as it includes the majority of Alwyn’s writings about music.
The Research and Information guide is presented in four major sections preceded by a short preface which outlines the purpose and scope of the volume alongside an extensive list of acknowledgements.
The first part is largely biographical. This begins with a brief sketch of the composer’s life and achievement by Andrew Knowles who is currently archivist and administrator of the William Alwyn Foundation. This is followed by a short ‘Discovering Alwyn by the current book’s author which presents similar biographical material. The ‘Chronology’ is useful for situating the composer’s life and works. The references to his compositions are selective: I would have liked to have seen a full chronological listing of all his works – whether by genre or simply in order. For example, exactly half a century ago, Alwyn was inaugurated as a member of the Isle of Wight Sailing Club at Cowes; he attended a memorial service for the poet Louis MacNeice and produced his last film score, The Running Man. There is no mention of his Twelve Diversions for Five Fingers.
Nearly half of the book is devoted to a ‘Catalogue of Works’. This is conveniently divided up into genre. Major elements of this catalogue include the Documentary and Feature Film Scores and the usual ‘art’ music divisions such as Orchestral Works, Instrumental Chamber Music and Works for Brass and Military Bands. Within these divisions, each work is presented in alphabetical order.
For example, on Page 141, the Symphony No. 1 is catalogued. The format includes the work’s instrumentation, the titles of each movement, its duration and dedicatee. A list of first and early performances is quoted. The work’s publisher is given. In the case of the First Symphony there is a detailed description of the manuscript, including its location at the Alwyn Archive. The last part of the entry includes cross-references to various biographical or critical notes as well as recordings.
The third major division of this Research Guide is the main ‘Bibliography’. This is divided up into eight specific sections. The first considers the primary sources of material written by Alwyn. This includes details of articles, essays, letters to publications and even an unpublished novel. Additionally, there is a selected listing of letters from William Alwyn to and from a number of correspondents including Arthur Bliss, Ruth Gipps, Benjamin Britten and Muir Mathieson. Many of these are available for study in the Alwyn Archive at Cambridge University.
A comprehensive list of ‘obituaries’ is presented ranging from the Chicago Tribune to the Northampton Chronicle and Echo.
I was delighted to find an account of material located at the BBC Written Archives, Caversham. This includes a variety of scripts, films and radio broadcast featuring the composer. It is a pity that some of these could not be made available on ‘podcasts’.
I was surprised that comparatively few ‘thesis and dissertations’ have been written about the composer and his music. At 2011 these numbered only five. The most useful being Ian Carmalt’s William Alwyn (1905-1985) a Romantic Composer of his Time. Fortunately this is available on-line.
One of the desiderata of Alywn scholars must be to have ‘soft’ copies of the William Alywn Newsletter. This ran for only eight issues between January 1996 and December 2000. John Dressler has provided a convenient listing of the major articles featured in these publications. Fortunately some of them are available for perusal at MusicWeb International. There is a listing detailing entries in various dictionaries, encyclopaedias and general overviews of musical history and achievement. This is followed by general studies dealing with Alwyn’s life and works. These includes articles and books specifically about the composer, and also references which contain useful information. Omitted from these are CD and record liner notes, unfinished dissertation projects, brief press notices and non-western European language materials.
The last major section of the bibliography explores references to individual works. Dressler has included virtually all William Alwyn’s major compositions, both film and art music, as well as a good selection of less important pieces. For example there are 32 references to the opera Miss Julie. The short Midsummer Night (c1930s) has been given a single citation. As an example, I looked at the Symphonic Prelude: The Magic Island. Unfortunately no-one has written a major study of this work however there are three reviews from the work’s premiere at the 1953 Cheltenham Festival cited. Other references are to reviews of CDs and records. In this case the 1972 Lyrita discs and the later Chandos and Naxos editions of this work. There is a review cited of the miniature score – although this fact is not noted in the text. I would have appreciated these listings in chronological order.
The last major division of this book is the extensive ‘discography’. For most listeners (and enthusiasts) the catalogues currently available at Arkiv, Crotchet or Amazon are sufficient for their explorations. Yet much more is available. For the The Magic Island, I was amazed to discover eight entries. I know of only four releases- the Lyrita (vinyl & CD) the Naxos and the Chandos. In addition to these, there is a BBC Sound Archive recording from February 1966, a Musical Heritage vinyl disc, which I think is the American imprint for Lyrita. Interestingly Lyrita have presented The Magic Island in Box 1 of the company’s popular 50th anniversary set. Finally, the work has been included in a sampler of ‘mystic classics’ from Naxos.
The Discography is given by record label, which I am not sure is helpful – I guess that I would have preferred a chronological order or work order.
The final part of this Research Guide is ‘Related Materials.’ This includes an interesting ‘selected’ list of ‘Former First-Study Pupils of William Alwyn’ at the Royal Academy of Music. Names include Iain Hamilton (sadly neglected as a composer) Minna Keal, John Lanchberry, Steve Race and Francis Routh. Alwyn also attracted a number of musical dedications with works by Arnold Cooke, John Manduell, Thomas Pitfield and Trevor Hold. Finally there are two detailed indices –one an ‘alphabetical index of works’ and the second an index of names.
Unfortunately, there is no information given in the book about the author, John C. Dressler. He is well-known to British Music enthusiasts for his two important exercises in bibliography. In 1997 Greenwood Press issued Gerald Finzi-A Bio-Bibliography. Some seven years later, there followed a similar book for Alan Rawsthorne. The present volume, although different in format and presentation, is of similarly high standard. John Dressler is Professor of Horn and Musicology at Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky. As well as practical music lessons he has lectured in a number of 19th and 20th century musicological studies. He gained his Master’s and Doctoral degree from Indiana University. In addition to his academic work he plays horn with a number of ‘local’ orchestras and is also the organist at Fountain Avenue Methodist Church in Paducah, Kentucky.
This book is well-presented. It is printed on environmentally friendly paper: the text is clear and the layout is definitely easy to use. I have not been able to review the Kindle Version of this book: I note that it is priced at £62:23 on Amazon. I am not convinced that a reference book like is quite as effective when presented digitally. Personally, I like to be able to browse between sections, flick between indices and text and gain inspiration from serendipity. I understand that Kindle will allow a full search, but the results are not always clear to peruse.
At £95.00 the hardback version of William Alwyn: A Research and Information Guide is high-priced. Amazon is offering it for £88.90 and other sellers for around the £80 mark. It is a fact of academic life that books of this calibre are expensive, even by today’s standard. Information does not come cheap in any walk of life.
I recommend this book as ‘required reading’ for all enthusiasts of William Alwyn – whether they are ‘lay’ or ‘academic’. There is so much information packed into these 336 pages that will be of interest and value to researchers for many years to come.
William Alwyn: A Research and Information Guide
John C. Dressler
John C. Dressler
Routledge Musical Bibliographies
Routledge, hardback 336 pages