William Alwyn: Symphony no. 1

performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the composer’s baton, or below with the London Symphony Orchestra under Richard Hickox

They have an original development of their own, and they will be looked at in the future as being something quite distinct in the evolution of the symphony. At least, that is what I think will happen.

William Alwyn, on his symphonies
from The Innumerable Dance: The Life and Work of William Alwyn 
by Adrian Wright

William Alwyn Smith was born 7 November, 1905 in Northampton. He showed an early interest in music and entered the Royal Academy of Music at the age of 15, studying flute and composition, even serving as flautist with the London Symphony for a time, and eventually began teaching at the RAM, which he did for almost 30 years.

His Wikipedia article states that he was “He was a distinguished polyglot, poet, and artist, as well as musician,” citing Mervyn Cooke’s entry on Alwyn in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. He was a member, sometimes founder, sometimes chairman or director, of a number of organizations and panels and societies, and so on paper, it seems like he’d be an established, well-known composer, but have you ever heard his name? Likely not.

He was a far more prolific composer for film than the concert hall. He wrote five symphonies, four operas, a number of concertos, some string quartets, but more than 70 film scores! That’s quite a lot, and in just over 20 years.

The first four of his five symphonies “are conceived as a gigantic meta-cycle of possibility provided by the form,” says Tom Service, in a typically outstanding article. He shared the quote above, and I used his original source. I’ve been thinking a lot about composers who have contributed heavily to what might be two of the most fundamental, long-standing traditions in classical music, that of the symphony and the string quartet.

Alwyn wrote both, but granted not as much of either as many other composers. In either case, I don’t know how a composer with such training as musical background as he had could be dissuaded from trying to write a symphony, and yet he was. Service’s article points out:

After the premiere of the First Symphony in 1950, the critical response was vitriolic. Donald Mitchell, in Musical Survey, told Alwyn to stick to film music: “Why stop doing what you do better than most others, in order to try your hand at something where you fail as badly as the worst of the rest?”

There were also comments claiming that “The thinking doesn’t stand up to the [40-minute] length,” or that it has “Too many features of a film score to impress one as a serious symphonic essay,” which would strike me as the most hurtful. Apparently, though, Arnold Bax acknowledged the critics wouldn’t like his music but told the composer not to take any notice of them. He may not have offered any compliments, per se, but he was at least encouraging. There is no shortage of criticism toward this work under the assumption that the work is worthless for not being in traditional symphonic form, or that Alwyn’s success as a film composer makes him incapable of writing “serious” symphonic” music.

As mentioned above, the first symphony is the first in a cycle of four symphonies, as John France says, “He imagined four symphonies as a sequence – almost like four separate movements in one great construction,” with the first obviously serving as the exposition. In fact, as French says, “Alwyn claimed that all the material that was to be subsequently used was to be found in the First Symphony,” but also that ultimately each work had to stand on its own, outside of this larger plan, and “Each symphony was to be an entity in its own right.”

Well, that’s ambitious, isn’t it? Alwyn was 45 by this time, and had quite some musical experience, so it’s maybe not too much, but quite a task all the same. I want to talk only very briefly about the work itself and spend more time on my thoughts about it.

The first movement, the one controversially not really in standard sonata form, presents three themes, as France mentions, a solemn, kind of static stepwise thing from bass and cello, and what could be seen as a continuation or a response to that gesture in woodwinds and upper strings. That’s enough, right, just two themes? Well, they’re very subtle, kind of just leading into one another, but there’s a third little gesture, a timpani roll with distant-sounding (muted) brass, and after these three have been introduced in succession, there’s a bit of an introductory passage.

If we wanted to lean into the ‘film composer’ idea, we could say this is the opening credits, title cards, and introduction of our ‘characters’ for apparently not only this, but also (maybe?) the next three symphonies. Listen for horns to begin to sing out and take over the melody, and you’ll know when we’re reaching the climax of this introductory section, because after that, the music takes off with an ‘allegro ritmico’ section. This is really enough of a start to enjoy the first movement, full of expressiveness and color, texture. Do you hear glimpses of Mahler? Stravinsky? Strauss? There’s tons of color and richness here, a bit cinematic, sure, but there’s plenty to enjoy. We hear deep, oceanic blues, sweeping, almost Russian-like strings, and I’ll admit, it does seem a bit disjointed and episodic at times, but it’s gosh darn purdy.

The remaining three movements are more direct and identifiable in their symphonic roles, with a scherzo, slow movement and finale. There are breathtaking moments of waltzes, sweeping strings, some of those cliché descriptions, but all in all, the standout of this work is how colorful the writing is and how immediately accessible it is, how urgently it communicates.

I was thinking about writing an aside here about “what we look for in music”, and what different people find satisfying, and how ‘pretty’ music does not equate to ‘interesting’ music, and the difference between ‘pretty’ and ‘beautiful’, and all the rest, but I feel it’s likely unfair to say that this symphony only works on a (more) superficial cosmetic level. If this is indeed the first in a series of four symphonies, I should likely become familiar with the rest of the mega-work before I pass judgment.

In any case, Alwyn shows us that he has a fine command of orchestral color, symphonic sound, but maybe the first symphony isn’t the most convincing evidence that he is indeed a fine symphonist. Could the work be a little shorter, a little more compelling, a little more tightly constructed? To my ear, sure. But even though I’m less inclined than most to be satisfied by just a pretty tune, this is an enjoyable enough symphony, and at the very least, a good argument for hearing the second (and third and fourth), so we’ll stick with that for now. William Alwyn is very much on my radar.


I feel like this may not do justice to what is a very pleasing work, to the ear, but I must say that in comparison with some of the other pieces we’ve discussed in this series, from Bax or Walton, Rubbra, or what’s coming up, Alwyn comes up at least a little short. That being said, do give the work a listen, because it has plenty of very pretty moments.

We’re coming up on our very last week of symphonies next week. After this article, we have three string quartets and two more symphonies left, and I must say, I have been very much in my happy place working through this series, with outstanding symphonies and chamber works from so many excellent composers, but (some of) the best is yet to come, so do stay tuned, and thanks for listening and reading.


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