Tuesday, 1 May 2018

William Alwyn: The Innumerable Dance: An English Overture (1933) Part I

I first came across a reference to The Innumerable Dance in William Alwyn: A Catalogue of his Music, compiled by Stewart Craggs and Alan Poulton. (Bravura Press, Hindhead, 1985). In the section detailing ‘Orchestral Works’, the entry simply suggested this work existed, had been composed in 1935 and was first heard during a BBC radio concert on 8 December 1935. The score was unpublished, and the editors were ‘unable to trace’ the instrumentation of the piece.
In those days, there was an understanding that virtually all of William Alywn’s early compositions had been ‘disowned’ if not destroyed by the composer in 1939. The earliest work usually referred to as being part of this opus was the ‘Rhapsody’ for piano quartet. Clearly, music that had been was composed up to that time for films was in the public domain. Additionally, several works had been published: these could not be ‘disowned’. Alwyn’s new beginning is usually marked by the Divertimento for solo flute (1940).

It was not until the release of a sizeable portion of Alwyn’s orchestral music on the Chandos label in the 1990s that some of his earlier, forgotten music began to be rediscovered. This included works such as the Piano Concerto No.1 (1930), the Violin Concerto (1937-9), the Tragic Interlude for Two Horns, Timpani and String Orchestra (1936) and the Pastoral Fantasia for Viola and String Orchestra (1939). 
In the following years, a succession of releases from Naxos, Somm and Dutton Epoch provided Alwyn enthusiasts with virtually all the pre-1939 orchestral works, as well as several chamber and piano pieces. This included Derybeg Fair: Overture for orchestra (c.1922), Ad Infinitum: tone poem for orchestra (1920s), Blackdown: tone poem for orchestra (1920s), Five Preludes for orchestra (1927), Serenade for orchestra (1930s), Aphrodite in Aulis: Eclogue for small orchestra (1932) and several other equally interesting pieces.
One of these discoveries was the The Innumerable Dance: An English Overture. This was released on CD by Naxos (8.570144, 2006) and featured the Elizabethan Dances (1956-7), the Concerto for oboe, harp and strings (1943-4), the Festival March (1951), the Symphonic Prelude: The Magic Island (1952) and Aphrodite in Aulis: Eclogue for small orchestra (1932). David Lloyd-Jones conducted the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

The Innumerable Dance: An English Overture owes its inspiration to some verses from William Blake’s esoteric poem Milton. The score is prefaced with several lines from the second book of this work:
First e'er the morning breaks,
joy opens in the flowery bosoms,
Joy even to tears, which the suns rising dries:
first the Wild Thyme
And meadow sweet, downy and soft waving among the reeds,
Light springing in the air, lead the sweet dance;
they wake
The honeysuckle sleeping on the oak,
the flaunting beauty
Revels along upon the wind; … every tree
And flower and herb soon fill the air with an
innumerable dance,
Yet all in order sweet and lovely.
The poem ‘Milton’ was conceived by Blake in two books which were written and etched between 1804-8. Literary experts suggest it is one of his most complex mythological works. It is largely a response to the work of the poet John Milton and his Paradise Lost where Blake seems to become ‘permeated’ with spirit of the elder poet. Whatever the deeper symbolism of Blake’s words may be, a straightforward reading of this text implies a paean of praise to Nature and to Spring.
The Innumerable Dance was not the only piece of music inspired by the poet Blake. For several years (1933-38) Alwyn had been working on a large-scale cantata, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell for soloists, double chorus and orchestra. This major work remains unpublished and, to my knowledge, unperformed.
Alwyn’s Overture was completed in November 1933. It was written for a standard ‘full orchestra’ with the addition of glockenspiel, celeste and harp.

The Innumerable Dance is not really an overture at all, but a short tone poem. The opening section of the work begins quietly with the almost impressionistic sound of muted horns and tremolando strings. The music gradually builds up to a powerful climax, which represents the rising of the sun or perhaps ‘Joy even to tears.’ After a short pause, this is followed by a vibrant dance which presents the idea of nature exploding into life, echoing the lines ‘Every tree…And flower and herb soon fill the air with an innumerable dance…’ revealing Blake’s vision of nature in all its glory.  

The musical style of The Innumerable Dance: An English Overture (1933) is eclectic. Commentators have discovered intimations of Frederick Delius and Ernest J Moeran in these bars. Rob Barnett (MusicWeb International, 6 December 2006) has noted a similar mood to Frank Bridge’s Enter Spring and John Fould’s April-England. Both these works are evocative of the bursting forth of life at the springtime of the year.
To be continued…

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