William Alwyn was one of the more popular of post-romantic English composers to come up in the wake of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst. A prolific composer, as well as a flautist and teacher, he worked in all idioms, including opera, but like most British composers of his generation (apart from Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett), his success in the latter arena was very limited.
Alwyn was educated at the Northampton Grammar School, where he proved a promising student in both music and art. He attended the Royal Academy of Music from 1920 to 1923, and was later elected a Fellow of the academy. His main interest by then was composition, and he later won the Sir Michael Costa Scholarship.
His studies were interrupted by the death of his father when Alwyn was 18, and he was forced to go to work. He taught in a preperatory school and made the rounds of numerous theater orchestras as a flautist, before returning to the Academy at age 21 as a composition teacher. Alwyn's own breakthrough as a composer took place in 1927 when Sir Henry Wood conducted the premiere of his Five Preludes for orchestra at a promenade concert in London. His Piano Concerto was finished in 1930, and his oratorio set to words by William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven And Hell, was completed in 1936. He received many honors and awards, including the Collard Fellowship (1938-41), but in 1939, Alwyn abruptly abandoned all of his early works, regarding his technique as inadequate.
Alwyn turned to neo-classicism in the 1940's, and this new-found approach to composition allowed him to resume his career on a more satisfying basis. His later work included four symphonies, the first dating from 1949, two concerti grossi, a series of four Scottish Dances, and several programatic orchestral works including The Magic Island symphonic prelude, the gorgeous and haunting Lyra Angelica for harp and strings, and Autumn Legend, as well as a pair of string quartets and other chamber pieces, and the operas The Libertine and Miss Julie. He was also responsible for 70 film scores, including Penn of Pennsylvania (1941), Green For Danger (1946), Odd Man Out (1946), The Fallen Idol (1948), and The Rocking Horse Winner (1950), as well as many documentaries, and was later made a Fellow of the British Film Academy. In 1955, Alwyn gave up his teaching position and from 1961 onward pursued composition virtually exclusively. In 1978, he was created a Commander of the British Empire.
Alwyn's music underwent a renaissance in the 1970's, both in performance and a series of landmark recordings by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by the composer himself, for the Lyrita label. Then, in the 1980's and 1990's, younger conductors on other labels--most notably Chandos--began recording the symphonies and other orchestral works.
Alwyn's was melodic and eminently accessible, if not always as adventurous as modern listeners might have liked. His melodic gifts were subtle and profound, as seen in his programatic works The Magic Island (inspired by Shakespeare's The Tempest) and the Lyra Angelica, both of which are among the finest pieces of program music of their era, expressing musically compelling visions of beauty and mystery. His symphonies, by contrast, are plainer and dryer, but only slightly less attractive, with beautiful scoring and great technical vitality. All of these pieces were also very out-of-date in the world of contemporary music at the time they were published, a factor which led to their being largely ignored outside of England at the time. With the rebirth of interest in twentieth century English music, however, Alwyn's work has been gradually finding a wider audience since the 1980's. He is today regarded as being one of the finest English composers of his generation, and only a rung or two below the standing of Vaughan Williams and E. J. Moeran. ~ Bruce Eder