Kenneth Alwyn

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Kenneth Alwyn in 1985 by Robin Adler FRSA

Kenneth Alwyn (born Kenneth Alwyn Wetherell, 28 July 1925)[1] is an English conductor, composer and writer. Described by BBC Radio 3 as "one of the great British musical directors",[2] Alwyn is known for his many recordings, including with the London Symphony Orchestra on Decca’s first stereophonic recording of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. He is also known for his long association with BBC Radio 2’s orchestral live music programme Friday Night is Music Night, appearing for thirty years as a conductor and presenter, and for his contribution to British musical theatre as a prolific musical director in the 1950s and 1960s. He is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music[3] and is married to the actress Mary Law.

Early life, wartime service and education[edit]

Alwyn was born in Croydon, England[1] and attended the John Ruskin Boys’ Central School (now known as John Ruskin College). After wartime service with the Royal Air Force, Alwyn joined the Royal Academy of Music (1947-1951), where he studied singing, viola and organ (with C. H. Trevor) and won the Manns Memorial Prize for conducting in 1952.[4][5] He was the Sub-Professor of Organ and opera coach and founded the RAM Madrigal Choir.

After a period as a Colonial Officer working with Radio Malaya, Singapore and a post as conductor with the Royal Wellington Choral Union in Wellington, New Zealand in 1952,[6] Alwyn returned to England.

The Royal Ballet, Covent Garden[edit]

In 1952 Alwyn joined the Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet (now known as the Birmingham Royal Ballet)[4] as a conductor. In 1957, he moved to the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden,[4] where he shared the rostrum with Malcolm Sargent, Ernest Ansermet, Arthur Bliss, William Walton, Hans Werner Henze and Benjamin Britten, from whom he took over Britten’s original production of The Prince of the Pagodas. It received its premiere on 1 January 1957. Alwyn also served as musical director of the Western Theatre Ballet (now known as the Scottish Ballet) from 1967-1969.[4]

Conducting tours[edit]

Alwyn has toured extensively in Europe, North America, South Africa and the Far East.[4] As principal conductor of the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra in the 1960s, Alwyn conducted the first performance in Japan of Gustav Holst's The Planets Suite, Op.32, and introduced other British works to Japanese audiences.

BBC radio and television career[edit]

In 1958, the BBC invited Alwyn to conduct the BBC Concert Orchestra, marking the beginning of a long association between Alwyn and the BBC as a conductor and presenter of programmes including Friday Night is Music Night. Alwyn has worked with all of the BBC’s orchestras, serving as Associate conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra and, from 1969, as Principal conductor of the BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra (now known as the Ulster Orchestra).[4] He has also served on the BBC Music Advisory Committee.

Alwyn presented the BBC TV series The Orchestra, conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The series culminated in a performance of Benjamin Britten’s Let’s Make an Opera and was part of a pioneering educational movement, led by John Hosier, to teach music in schools through the medium of television. Alwyn also presented a BBC Omnibus documentary on the music of Tchaikovsky, directed by Sir John Drummond.

Alwyn’s friendship with the comedian Dudley Moore led to a collaboration for Moore’s final UK concert tour in March 1992. Alwyn conducted the BBC Concert Orchestra for a series of performances with Moore at the piano. These included a series of concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, London, broadcast live on BBC Radio 4 and later released on CD under the title Live from an Aircraft Hangar (Martine Avenue Productions, Inc. 2001). Music from Moore’s 1992 tour with Alwyn also featured in a BBC Radio 2 programme celebrating 60 years of the BBC Concert Orchestra, broadcast on 2 March 2012.[7] Alwyn’s friendship and stage performances with another popular British comic, Bob Monkhouse, are chronicled in Monkhouse’s autobiography Crying with Laughter: My Life Story.[8]

Musical theatre[edit]

To mark the year of his 80th birthday, Alwyn was interviewed by Edward Seckerson for BBC Radio 3’s programme Stage and Screen, broadcast on 21 November 2005. The programme notes record that "Alwyn’s career has encompassed many of the highlights of post-war British musical theatre".[2] Working frequently with Gordon Langford as orchestrator, Alwyn served as musical director for the premieres of many Broadway and original British musicals, including the following productions:[9]

Alwyn made original cast recordings of all of the above shows and has also made studio cast recordings (complete and/or highlights) of the following musicals:

Alwyn served as musical director for a production of the pantomime Dick Whittington at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre in 1955 starring Peter O’Toole. In recognition of his contribution to the world of British musical theatre, Alwyn and the Alwyn Concert Orchestra were invited to perform at the memorial service for Noël Coward, which was held in Westminster Abbey on 28 March 1984 in the presence of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother.[15]

Orchestral recordings[edit]

Alwyn’s orchestral recording career dates back to 1958, when he recorded Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture for Decca Records with the London Symphony Orchestra and the Band of the Grenadier Guards, which has been reviewed and critically acclaimed many times over the years in Gramophone magazine.[16] and was chosen as one of its records of the year (1958 Gramophone Critics’ Choice).[17] The recording famously featured slowed-down gunshots to mimic cannon fire.[18] It has remained a mainstay of the classical catalogue for 60 years and was re-issued by Decca in 2012. Other notable recordings include Lord Berners' Wedding Bouquet with the RTÉ Chamber Choir and Sinfonietta (1996 Gramophone Critics’ Choice).[19]

Selected discography:

Film music recordings[edit]

Alwyn’s recording of The Ladykillers: Music from Those Glorious Ealing Films with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia won the 1998 Gramophone Award for Best Film Music Recording.[25] and a selection of Richard Addinsell’s film music entitled British Light Music with the BBC Concert Orchestra was chosen as a record of the year by Gramophone magazine (1995 Gramophone Critics’ Choice).[26] A collection of main themes and excerpts from famous film scores, including The Last of the Mohicans,The English Patient and Sense and Sensibility was also selected as a recording of the year by the magazine in 1998.[27] Alwyn's wide interest in film music of all genres has led him to re-record many popular film scores, including The Bride of Frankenstein for which he received particular acclaim: "Shaped by Kenneth Alwyn with an admirable feel for the music's full-blooded style, and graced with a tight, bright recording which gives the orchestra an authentic film studio sound, this could almost be the original film soundtrack in modern digital dressing."[28]

Selected discography:


Alwyn composed music and text for the BBC’s Battle of Britain tour of North America to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the battle in 1990. His compositions for the tour include Fighter Command 1940, which is included on the album A Tribute to the Few (Polyphonic 1990) with the Massed Bands of the Royal Air Force. Said to reflect his own flying experience, it has been described as "a musical panorama of those days in march time".[37] It has become a standard Royal Air Force ceremonial march and is played at the opening Royal Air Force Tours which commemorate anniversaries of the Battle of Britain.

Alwyn devised and conducted a gala concert in aid of Imperial Cancer Research Fund (now a constituent charity of Cancer Research UK) for the 1993 St George’s Day Festival, for which he wrote much of the original music, featuring the BBC Concert Orchestra, the Royal Artillery Band, St George’s Singers, St George’s Festival Choir and the Wells Cathedral Junior School Choir. Starring Peter Vaughan as St George, it was broadcast from the Royal Albert Hall on BBC Radio 2.

Alwyn devised and conducted a BBC concert to commemorate the 50th anniversary of D-Day on 6 June 1994, for which he wrote a musical description of D-Day called Echoes, introduced by Raymond Baxter. The BBC Concert Orchestra concert was broadcast live from Portsmouth and was subsequently released on CD as D-Day: The Fiftieth Anniversary Musical Tribute (Start 2010).

Alwyn’s other compositions include Concert March: The Young Grenadier which he dedicated to HM The Queen. It was played by the Massed Bands of the Brigade of Guards at the Trooping of the Colour in 1991 and is included on the album The Music of the Grenadier Guards (SRC 2006). The title of the work refers to a famous photograph of a young Princess Elizabeth wearing a Grenadier Cap at the time when she became Colonel of the Regiment in 1942. Alwyn also composed a setting of Queen Elizabeth I’s poem Youth and Cupid for a royal gala performance at the Chichester Festival Theatre to commemorate HM The Queen’s Silver Jubilee in June 1977.

He wrote the music and lyrics of a number of comic songs for singer Ian Wallace’s album Wallace’s New Zoo,[38] released in 1965, including The Gorilla, (re-released as part of The Best of Ian Wallace, EMI 1994) and he has written stories and poems for children.[39] Alwyn also composed the song Liverpool for Gerry Marsden (later of Gerry and the Pacemakers), released in 1968.

Alwyn composed the theme tune for the LWT series Affairs of the Heart (1974-1975),[40] a set of adaptations of the stories of Henry James, and he was also commissioned to write the music for the television adaptation of Sir John Mortimer’s play A Choice of Kings, which commemorated the 900th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings.

Promotion of the works of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor[edit]

Alwyn has said[41] that his interest in Coleridge-Taylor’s work began when his first dance band, 66 Squadron (Croydon) Air Training Corps, played Demande et Réponse in 1942. He later discovered that he had been christened at the same church where Coleridge-Taylor had been married and that they had attended the same school and had lived on the same street.[41][42] Alwyn included Demande et Réponse in the first BBC concert to be broadcast from Fairfield Halls, Croydon in 1962,[41] and other works by Coleridge-Taylor often featured in his programmes as presenter and conductor of Friday Night Is Music Night. In 1975, the centenary year of Coleridge-Taylor's birth, Alwyn broadcast from Fairfield Halls the first complete performance of Coleridge-Taylor’s Song of Hiawatha, Op.30 since Sir Malcolm Sargent had conducted the work at the Royal Albert Hall in the 1930s.[41][43] In 1991, Alwyn recorded the entire Song trilogy with Bryn Terfel and the Welsh National Opera.

In recognition of his long-standing work to bring the work of Coleridge-Taylor to greater prominence, Alwyn was invited in January 2013 to unveil a blue plaque at the composer’s home in Croydon as the culmination of a year of events to commemorate the centenary of Coleridge-Taylor’s death.[44]


  1. ^ a b FreeBMD online database
  2. ^ a b BBC Radio 3
  3. ^ Appointed as a Fellow in 2000. A list of all current holders of this honour ('FRAM') may be consulted on the web site of the Royal Academy of Music [1]
  4. ^ a b c d e f The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians edited by Stanley Sadie (first edition, 1980) and The Oxford Dictionary of Music (Oxford University Press, 6th edition, 2012)
  5. ^ Plaques commemorating prizewinners are held by the Museum of the Royal Academy of Music [2]
  6. ^ From the sleeve notes to Grieg: Peer Gynt - Suite No. 1, DECCA Eloquence 2012
  7. ^ Programme details appear in the BBC online archives
  8. ^ Crying with Laughter: My Life Story by Bob Monkhouse published by Arrow Books (1994). References to working with Alwyn appear on pages 63, 148 and 149.
  9. ^ All production dates and cast information appearing in this article can be verified in Vivyan Ellacott's book London Musicals, published online [3]
  10. ^ Cast recording of The Most Happy Fella (HMV 1960) was reviewed in Gramophone magazine (August 1960, page 137)
  11. ^ Studio cast recording of Carmen Jones (World Record Club 1962) was reviewed in Gramophone magazine (January 1963, page 365; July 1973, page 248)
  12. ^ Reissue reviewed in Gramophone magazine (January 2006, page 81)
  13. ^ Reviewed in Gramophone magazine (August 1970, page 339; March 1978, page 1627)
  14. ^ Reviewed in Gramophone magazine (May 1983, page 70; July 1989, page 240; November 1993, page 185)
  15. ^ Westminster Abbey online archives
  16. ^ Reviewed and discussed in Gramophone magazine (October 1958, page 200; July 1965, page 72; November 1966, page 264; May 1970, page 1767; January 1971, page 1224; April 1971, page 1637; August 1971, page 349; October 1973, page 770; November 1974, page 973; August 2012, page 90, September 2012, pages 22-23)
  17. ^ Chosen by Malcolm MacDonald as one of his six recordings of the year for the 1958 Gramophone Critics' Choice annual review (December 1958)
  18. ^ The recording technique was discussed in Gramophone magazine (April 1971, page 1637)
  19. ^ Reviewed in Gramophone magazine (July 1996, page 47) and chosen by Peter Dickinson as one of his five recordings of the year for the 1996 Gramophone Critics' Choice annual review (December 1996)
  20. ^ Reviewed in Gramophone magazine (May 1980, page 1718)
  21. ^ Reviewed in Gramophone magazine (May 1984, page 28)
  22. ^ Reviewed in Gramophone magazine (December 1984, page 741; February 1985, page 1019)
  23. ^ An interview with Alwyn about the making of this recording and a review appeared in Gramophone magazine (September 1991, pages 34 and 110). The recording was also reviewed in a later edition of the same periodical (October 1991, page 70)
  24. ^ Reviewed in Gramophone magazine (September 1969, page 387; October 1971, page 630; June 1974, page 116)
  25. ^ An article by the producer, David Wishart, about making the recording with Alwyn appeared in Gramophone magazine (July 1997, page 116) and it was reviewed in the July 1997 edition (page 118). It was chosen by Robert Seeley as one of his six recordings of the year for the 1997 Gramophone Critics' Choice annual review (March 1998). The Gramophone Awards 1998 were reported in the November 1998 edition and a full list of the award winners appears at [4]
  26. ^ Reviewed in Gramophone magazine (April 1995, page 47; March 2000, page 68) and chosen by Robert Seeley as one of his six recordings of the year for the 1995 Gramophone Critics' Choice annual review (December 1995)
  27. ^ Chosen by Robert Seeley as one of his six recordings of the year for the 1998 Gramophone Critics' Choice annual review (December 1998)
  28. ^ Robert Seeley in Gramophone magazine (March 1994, page 109)
  29. ^ Reviewed in Gramophone magazine (September 1997, page 128; August 1999, page 38)
  30. ^ Reviewed in Gramophone magazine (June 1986, page 46; October 1987, page 639; December 1989, page 1212)
  31. ^ Reviewed in Gramophone magazine (September 1996, page 126)
  32. ^ Reviewed in Gramophone magazine (September 1996, page 130)
  33. ^ Reviewed in Gramophone magazine (September 1998, page 114)
  34. ^ Reviewed in Gramophone magazine (August 1994, page 110)
  35. ^ Reviewed in Gramophone magazine (February 1991, page 1564)
  36. ^ Reviewed in Gramophone magazine (October 2012, page 109)
  37. ^ Rodney Bashford in Gramophone magazine (December 1991, page 146)
  38. ^ Reviewed in Gramophone magazine (June 1965, page 32)
  39. ^ Extracts appear on the Impulse Music web site
  40. ^ TV programme details appear in the IMDB database
  41. ^ a b c d Anniversary concert will bring back fond memories Croydon Advertiser (31 October 2012) [5]
  42. ^ Neglected composer gets new release Croydon Advertiser (5 July 1991)
  43. ^ Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Foundation online archives
  44. ^ Conductor Alwyn unveils blue plaque to Croydon composer Inside Croydon (2 January 2013)[6]

External links[edit]

  • Impulse Music [7]
  • Gramophone Magazine [8]
  • Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Network [9]