William Alwyn

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William Alwyn
William Alwyn Smith

(1905-11-07)7 November 1905
Northampton, England
Died11 September 1985(1985-09-11) (aged 79)
Southwold, England
Alma materRoyal Academy of Music
  • Composer
  • Conductor
ChildrenNicholas Alwyn
RelativesJoe Alwyn (great-grandson)

William Alwyn CBE (born William Alwyn Smith;[1] 7 November 1905 – 11 September 1985),[2] was an English composer, conductor, and music teacher.

Life and music[edit]

William Alwyn was born William Alwyn Smith in Northampton, England, the son of Ada Tyler (Tompkins) and William James Smith.[3] He showed an early interest in music and began to learn to play the piccolo. At the age of 15, he entered the Royal Academy of Music in London, where he studied flute, piano[4] and composition.[5] He was a virtuoso flautist and for a time was a flautist with the London Symphony Orchestra.[6] Alwyn served as professor of composition at the Royal Academy of Music from 1926 to 1955.[7]

Alwyn was a distinguished polyglot, poet, and artist, as well as musician.[7] In 1948, he became a member of the Savile Club in London. He helped found the Composers' Guild of Great Britain (now merged into the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors), and was its chairman in 1949, 1950 and 1954.[8] He was also sometime Director of the Mechanical-Copyright Protection Society, a Vice-President of the Society for the Promotion of New Music (SPNM) and Director of the Performing Right Society. For many years he was one of the panel engaged by the BBC to read new scores to help assess whether the works should be performed and broadcast. He was appointed a CBE in 1978 in recognition of his services to music.[9]

His compositional output was varied and large and included five symphonies, four operas, several concertos, film scores and string quartets.[10]

Alwyn wrote more than 70 film scores from 1941 to 1962. His classic film scores included Green for Danger (1944), Odd Man Out (1947), Desert Victory (1943), Fires Were Started (1943), The History of Mr. Polly (1949), The Fallen Idol (1948), The Black Tent (1956), The Way Ahead (1944), The True Glory (1945) and The Crimson Pirate (1952). Some of the scores have been lost, although many scores and sketches are now in the William Alwyn Archive at Cambridge University Library. In recent years CD recordings have been made. Some works, for which only fragmentary sketches remained, were reconstructed by Philip Lane or Christopher Palmer from the film soundtracks themselves.[11]

Alwyn relished dissonance, and devised his own alternative to 12-tone serialism. For instance, in his third symphony (1955–56), eight notes of the possible 12 are used in the first movement, with the remaining four (D, E, F, and A) constituting the middle movement, and all 12 being combined for the finale. The work was premièred on 10 October 1956 at the Royal Festival Hall by Sir Thomas Beecham.[12]

Alwyn's concerto for harp and string orchestra, Lyra Angelica, was popularized when the American figure skater Michelle Kwan performed to it at the 1998 Winter Olympics.[13]

Alwyn spent the last 25 years of his life at Lark Rise, Dunwich Road, Blythburgh, Suffolk, where he composed his Concerto Grosso no. 3 (1964), two operas, Juan, or the Libertine and Miss Julie, and his last major orchestral work, Symphony No. 5 Hydriotaphia (1972–73).[14]

Alwyn recorded his five symphonies as conductor for the Lyrita label in the 1970s, recordings that have since been reissued on CD. Most of Alwyn's orchestral and chamber music has more recently been recorded on CD for Chandos Records: the five symphonies were played by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Richard Hickox.

Alwyn's opera Miss Julie has been recorded twice: for Lyrita, and in 2019 for Chandos, conducted by Sakari Oramo.

Personal life[edit]

Alwyn was married first to Olive Mary Audrey (Pull).[15][16] He died in Southwold, Suffolk, in 1985. Alwyn was survived by his second wife, the composer Doreen Carwithen. His great-grandson is the actor Joe Alwyn.

Selected works[edit]

  • Five Preludes (1927)
  • Aphrodite in Aulis, Eclogue after George Moore for small orchestra (1932)
  • The Innumerable Dance, an English Overture (1933)
  • Tragic Interlude for 2 horns, timpani and string orchestra (1936)
  • Overture to a Masque (1940)
  • Concerto Grosso No. 1 in B major (1942)
  • Score for Country Town (1943)
  • Suite of Scottish Dances for small orchestra (1946)
  • Concerto Grosso No. 2 in G major for string quartet and string orchestra (1948)
  • Symphony No. 1 (1948–1949)
  • Festival March (1951)
  • The Magic Island, Symphonic Prelude (1952)
  • Symphony No. 2 (1953)
  • Symphony No. 3 (1955–1956)
  • Elizabethan Dances (1956–1957)
  • Fanfare for a Joyful Occasion for brass and percussion (1958)
  • Symphony No. 4 (1959)
  • Derby Day, Overture (1960)
  • Concerto Grosso No. 3 (1964)
  • Sinfonietta [No. 1] for string orchestra (1970)
  • Symphony No. 5 Hydriotaphia (1972–1973)
  • Sinfonietta No. 2 for string orchestra (1976)[citation needed]
  • The Moor of Venice, Overture for brass band (1956)
  • Piano Concerto No. 1 (1930)
  • Violin Concerto (1939)
  • Pastoral Fantasia for viola and string orchestra (1939)
  • Concerto for oboe, harp and strings (1944)
  • Autumn Legend for cor anglais and string orchestra (1954)
  • Lyra Angelica, Concerto for harp and string orchestra (1954)
  • Piano Concerto No. 2 (1960)
  • Concerto for flute and 8 wind instruments (1980)
Chamber music
  • Sonatina for violin and piano (1933)
  • Sonata for oboe and piano (1934)
  • 2 Folk Tunes for cello or viola and piano (or harp) (1936)
  • Novelette for string quartet (1938)
  • Ballade for viola and piano (1939)
  • Sonata Impromptu for violin and viola (1939)
  • Rhapsody for violin, viola, cello and piano (1939)
  • Divertimento for solo flute (1940)
  • Sonatina for viola and piano (1941)
  • Suite for oboe and harp (1944)
  • Sonata for flute and piano (1948)
  • Three Winter Poems for string quartet (1948)
  • Conversations for violin, clarinet and piano (1950)
  • Trio for flute, cello and piano (1951)
  • String Quartet No. 1 in D minor (1953)
  • Crepuscule for harp (1955)
  • Sonata for clarinet and piano (1962)
  • String Trio (1962)
  • Moto Perpetuo for recorders (1970)
  • Naiades, Fantasy Sonata for flute and harp (1971)
  • String Quartet No. 2 Spring Waters (1975)
  • Chaconne for Tom for descant recorder and piano (1982)
  • String Quartet No. 3 (1984)
  • Hunter's Moon (1920s)
  • Odd Moments, Suite (1920s)
  • The Orchard (1920s)
  • Haze of Noon (1926)
  • Two Irish Pieces
  • April Morn, 4 Petites Pièces (1924–1926)
  • Fancy Free, 4 Pieces
  • Contes Barbares, Hommage à Paul Gauguin (1930–1933)
  • Night Thoughts (1940)
  • Prelude and Fugue Formed on an Indian Scale (1945)
  • Sonata alla Toccata (1946)
  • By the Farmyard Gate, 4 Pieces
  • From Ireland, 7 Traditional Tunes
  • Wooden Walls, Suite
  • Midsummer Night, Suite
  • Green Hills
  • Five Pieces, Suite
  • Two Intermezzi
  • Two Pieces
  • Harvest Home, Suite
  • The Tinker's Tune
  • Down by the Riverside
  • Nine Children's Pieces
  • Fantasy-Waltzes (1956)
  • Twelve Preludes (1958)
  • Movements (1961)
  • Twelve Diversions for the Five Fingers
Vocal and Choral
  • The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, oratorio (1936, fp. 18 February 2023, King's College, London)
  • 3 Songs to Words by Trevor Blakemore for voice and piano (1940)
  • Mirages, Song Cycle for baritone and piano (1970)
  • 6 Nocturnes for baritone and piano (1973)
  • Invocations, Song Cycle for soprano and piano (1977)
  • A Leave Taking, Songs for tenor and piano (1978)
  • Seascapes, Song Cycle for soprano, treble recorder and piano (1980)

Film scores[edit]

Date Title Director Notes
1941 Penn of Pennsylvania Lance Comfort
1941 They Flew Alone Herbert Wilcox
1942 Squadron Leader X Lance Comfort
1942 The Harvest Shall Come Basil Wright
1943 Escape to Danger Lance Comfort
Victor Hanbury
1943 Desert Victory Roy Boulting
1943 Summer on the Farm Raph Keene
1944 Medal for the General Maurice Elvey
1944 The Way Ahead Carol Reed
1944 The True Glory Carol Reed
1945 Great Day Lance Comfort
1945 The Rake's Progress Sidney Gilliat
1946 I See a Dark Stranger Frank Launder a.k.a. The Adventuress
1946 Odd Man Out Carol Reed
1946 Green for Danger Sidney Gilliat
1947 Take My Life Ronald Neame
1947 The October Man Roy Ward Baker
1947 Captain Boycott Frank Launder
1948 Escape Joseph L. Mankiewicz
1948 So Evil My Love Lewis Allen music also by Victor Young
1948 The Fallen Idol Carol Reed
1948 The Winslow Boy Anthony Asquith
1949 The History of Mr. Polly Anthony Pelissier
1949 The Rocking Horse Winner Anthony Pelissier
1949 The Cure for Love Robert Donat
1949 Madeleine David Lean
1949 Golden Salamander Ronald Neame
1950 State Secret Sidney Gilliat
1950 The Magnet Charles Frend
1950 The Mudlark Jean Negulesco
1950 Morning Departure Roy Ward Baker
1951 Night Without Stars Anthony Pelissier
1951 No Resting Place Paul Rotha
1951 The Magic Box John Boulting
1951 The House in the Square Roy Ward Baker a.k.a. I'll Never Forget You
1951 Lady Godiva Rides Again Frank Launder a.k.a. Bikini Baby
1952 The Card Ronald Neame
1952 Saturday Island Stuart Heisler a.k.a. Island of Desire
1952 Mandy Alexander Mackendrick
Fred F. Sears
1952 The Crimson Pirate Robert Siodmak
1952 The Long Memory Robert Hamer
1953 Malta Story Brian Desmond Hurst
1953 The Master of Ballantrae William Keighley
1953 Personal Affair Anthony Pelissier
1954 The Million Pound Note Ronald Neame
1954 The Rainbow Jacket Basil Dearden
1954 The Seekers Ken Annakin
1954 Svengali Noel Langley
1955 Bedevilled Mitchell Leisen
1955 The Ship That Died of Shame Basil Dearden
1955 Geordie Frank Launder
1955 Safari Terence Young
1956 The Black Tent Brian Desmond Hurst
1956 Smiley Anthony Kimmins
1956 Zarak Terence Young
1957 The Smallest Show on Earth Basil Dearden
1957 Manuela Guy Hamilton a.k.a. Stowaway Girl
1958 Fortune Is a Woman Sidney Gilliat
1958 Carve Her Name with Pride Lewis Gilbert
1958 I Accuse! José Ferrer
1958 The Silent Enemy William Fairchild
1958 A Night to Remember Roy Ward Baker
1959 Shake Hands with the Devil Michael Anderson
1959 Killers of Kilimanjaro Richard Thorpe
1959 Third Man on the Mountain Ken Annakin
1959 Devil's Bait Peter Graham Scott
1960 The Professionals Don Sharp
1960 Swiss Family Robinson Ken Annakin
1961 The Naked Edge Michael Anderson
1962 Night of the Eagle Sidney Hayers
1962 Life for Ruth Basil Dearden
1962 In Search of the Castaways Robert Stevenson
1963 The Running Man Carol Reed


  1. ^ Ian Johnson, William Alwyn: The Art of Film Music (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2005), ISBN 1-84383-159-7.
  2. ^ "Alwyn, William". Who Was Who in America, 1993–1996, vol. 11. New Providence, N.J.: Marquis Who's Who. 1996. p. 5. ISBN 0-8379-0225-8.
  3. ^ Dressler, John C., William Alwyn: A Research and Information Guide, Chronology, p. 4. Retrieved 14 December 2020.
  4. ^ Wright, Adrian (2008). The Innumerable Dance: The Life and Work of William Alwyn. Boydell & Brewer Ltd. p. 22. ISBN 978-1-84383-412-0. LCCN 2008300031. His principal study would be Flute under Daniel S. Wood (brother of the composer Haydn Wood), with Piano as his second subject under Edward Morton and subsequently, Leo Livins.
  5. ^ Bush, Alan (2006). The Correspondence of Alan Bush and John Ireland: 1927-1961. Ashgate. p. 301. ISBN 978-0-7546-4044-8. ALWYN, William (1905-1985). Composer, flautist, painter and writer. Entered the RAM at the age of fifteen, studied flute with Daniel Wood and composition with John B. McEwen.
  6. ^ William Alwyn, Winged Chariot Composing in words (London: Toccata Press, 2009), ISBN 978-0-907689-71-3.
  7. ^ a b Mervyn Cooke, "Alwyn, William", The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell (New York: Grove's Dictionaries, 2001).
  8. ^ English Music Festival: Composer Profiles Archived 23 February 2014 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved 27 April 2013
  9. ^ William Alwyn Foundation: Biography. Retrieved 26 February 2016.
  10. ^ Wright, Adrian (2008). The innumerable dance: the life and work of William Alwyn. Woodbridge; Rochester, NY : Boydell Press. p. 292.
  11. ^ Lane, Philip (December 1997), "Reconstructing Film Scores", William Alwyn Society Newsletter.
  12. ^ Gee, Thomas (19 October 1956). "Alwyn's Third Symphony". Truth.
  13. ^ 1998 Olympics Free Programm "Lyra Angelica": Michelle Kwan, 1998 Olympics, www.youtube.com. Retrieved 14 December 2020.
  14. ^ Naxos CD 8.556647 notes Andrew Knowles, 2005.
  15. ^ John C. Dressler: William Alwyn: A Research and Information Guide (Olive Mary Audrey Pull "ALWYN", Chronology, p. 6), books.google.ca. Retrieved 14 December 2020.
  16. ^ John C. Dressler: William Alwyn: A Research and Information Guide (Chapter 4: Olive, p. 35) books.google.ca. Retrieved 14 December 2020.

External links[edit]