William Alwyn

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

William Alwyn was born William Alwyn Smith in Northampton, 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 and composition. He was a virtuoso flautist and for a time was a flautist with the London Symphony Orchestra.[4] Alwyn served as professor of composition at the Royal Academy of Music from 1926 to 1955.[5]

Alwyn was a distinguished polyglot, poet, and artist, as well as musician.[5] 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.[6] He was also sometime Director of the Mechanical-Copyright Protection Society, a Vice-President of the Society for the Promotion of New Music (S.P.N.M.) 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.[7]

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

Alwyn wrote over 70 film scores from 1941 to 1962. His classic film scores included Odd Man Out, Desert Victory, Fires Were Started, The History of Mr. Polly, The Fallen Idol, The Black Tent, The Way Ahead, The True Glory and The Crimson Pirate. 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.[8]

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

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.[9]

William Alwyn spent the last twenty-five 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). [10]

He was married first to Olive Mary Audrey (Pull).[11][12] He died in Southwold, Suffolk, in 1985. Alwyn was survived by his second wife, the composer Doreen Carwithen. His great-grandson is actor Joe Alwyn. (The actor Gary Cooper was a cousin of his, on Alwyn's mother's side.)

Selected works

  • 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)
  • 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)
  • 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
  • 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

Date Title Director Notes
1941Penn of PennsylvaniaLance Comfort
1941They Flew AloneHerbert Wilcox
1942Squadron Leader XLance Comfort
1942The Harvest Shall ComeBasil Wright
1943Escape to DangerLance Comfort
Victor Hanbury
1943Desert VictoryRoy Boulting
1943Summer on the FarmRaph Keene
1944Medal for the GeneralMaurice Elvey
1944The Way AheadCarol Reed
1944The True GloryCarol Reed
1945Great DayLance Comfort
1945The Rake's ProgressSidney Gilliat
1946I See a Dark StrangerFrank Laundera.k.a. The Adventuress
1946Odd Man OutCarol Reed
1946Green for DangerSidney Gilliat
1947Take My LifeRonald Neame
1947The October ManRoy Ward Baker
1947Captain BoycottFrank Launder
1948EscapeJoseph L. Mankiewicz
1948So Evil My LoveLewis Allenmusic also by Victor Young
1948The Fallen IdolCarol Reed
1948The Winslow BoyAnthony Asquith
1949The History of Mr. PollyAnthony Pelissier
1949The Rocking Horse WinnerAnthony Pelissier
1949The Cure for LoveRobert Donat
1949MadeleineDavid Lean
1949Golden SalamanderRonald Neame
1950State SecretSidney Gilliat
1950The MagnetCharles Frend
1950The MudlarkJean Negulesco
1950Morning DepartureRoy Ward Baker
1951Night Without StarsAnthony Pelissier
1951No Resting PlacePaul Rotha
1951The Magic BoxJohn Boulting
1951The House in the SquareRoy Ward Bakera.k.a. I'll Never Forget You
1951Lady Godiva Rides AgainFrank Laundera.k.a. Bikini Baby
1952The CardRonald Neame
1952Saturday IslandStuart Heislera.k.a. Island of Desire
1952MandyAlexander Mackendrick
Fred F. Sears
1952The Crimson PirateRobert Siodmak
1952The Long MemoryRobert Hamer
1953Malta StoryBrian Desmond Hurst
1953The Master of BallantraeWilliam Keighley
1953Personal AffairAnthony Pelissier
1954The Million Pound NoteRonald Neame
1954The Rainbow JacketBasil Dearden
1954The SeekersKen Annakin
1954SvengaliNoel Langley
1955BedevilledMitchell Leisen
1955The Ship That Died of ShameBasil Dearden
1955GeordieFrank Launder
1955SafariTerence Young
1956The Black TentBrian Desmond Hurst
1956SmileyAnthony Kimmins
1956ZarakTerence Young
1957The Smallest Show on EarthBasil Dearden
1957ManuelaGuy Hamiltona.k.a. Stowaway Girl
1958Fortune Is a WomanSidney Gilliat
1958Carve Her Name with PrideLewis Gilbert
1958I Accuse!José Ferrer
1958The Silent EnemyWilliam Fairchild
1958A Night to RememberRoy Ward Baker
1959Shake Hands with the DevilMichael Anderson
1959Killers of KilimanjaroRichard Thorpe
1959Third Man on the MountainKen Annakin
1959Devil's BaitPeter Graham Scott
1960The ProfessionalsDon Sharp
1960Swiss Family RobinsonKen Annakin
1961The Naked EdgeMichael Anderson
1962Night of the EagleSidney Hayers
1962Life for RuthBasil Dearden
1962In Search of the CastawaysRobert Stevenson
1963The Running ManCarol 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. William Alwyn, Winged Chariot Composing in words (London: Toccata Press, 2009) ISBN 978-0-907689-71-3
  4. 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).
  5. English Music Festival: Composer Profiles. Accessed 27 April 2013
  6. William Alwyn Foundation: Biography. Accessed 26 February 2016
  7. Philip Lane, "Reconstructing Film Scores", William Alwyn Society Newsletter (December 1997).
  8. Michelle Kwan at the 1998 Olympics. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OZEfmMOpQGk
  9. Naxos CD 8.556647 notes Andrew Knowles 2005
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