Cambridge University Library

William Alwyn Archive

Overview

The papers and manuscripts of William Alwyn and Doreen Carwithen were presented to Cambridge University Library by the William Alwyn Foundation and the Executors of the will of Mary Alwyn (the composer Doreen Carwithen)in 2003.

The Archive contains musical and literary manuscripts by William Alwyn, correspondence, papers including journals, press cuttings and ephemera, photographs, sound recordings, videos and DVDs. It also includes music manuscripts by Alwyn's first wife, Olive Pull, and a larger collection of manuscripts by his widow, Doreen Carwithen. Also within the Archive are Doreen Carwithen's papers relating to the William Alwyn Foundation, set up by Doreen, with the purpose of popularising, and providing further information about William and his music.

In the years following her husband's death, Doreen tried to gather together as many of Alwyn's papers as possible. To this end, she wrote to as many of William's correspondents as possible, asking for copies of William's letters to them. Most were happy to help, so for most of the major correspondents, and the musicians, the Archive does have both sides of the correspondence, principally photocopies of William's side of the correspondence, but also a few original letters. Among Alwyn's correspondents are Clifford Curzon, James Blades, Arthur Bliss, Henry Wood, Edmund Rubbra, Peter Pears, and numerous contemporary musicians who worked on performances of Alwyn works. There are also literary and artistic correspondents including Joy Finzi; she and Alwyn became friends because of their shared enthusiasms for art and literature, and the writer John Masefield.

Doreen also collected all of William's programme notes and other notes on his works, press cuttings, reviews, and other writings, and organized them so that any queries about a specific work could be easily answered using a variety of sources.

William Alwyn was born William Alwyn Smith, a grocer's son, in Northampton in 1905. The shop was named 'The Shakspere [sic] Stores', an indication of his father's interest in literature (quotations from Shakespeare were even printed on the flour bags), which was also to become a love of his son's. At the age of eight his family bought him a second-hand piccolo as a birthday present. William quickly became proficient on the instrument and started to compose. Sadly his first piece Sparkling cascades is lost, but there are several manuscript books of pieces composed between the ages of 10 and 13, including one with a carefully prepared index and list of opus numbers. William was to write about his childhood at great length in his autobiography Early closing. This was never commercially published, but there are a complete bound typescript and extensive manuscript drafts in the Archive.

William entered the Royal Academy of Music at the age of fifteen. He studied flute with Daniel Wood, and initially took piano as his second subject. By the summer of 1922 he had become a member of the Academy orchestra, and was starting to compose seriously. It was at this point that he decided to change to composition as his second study, and was fortunate to have as composition teacher, John Blackwood McEwen, who was to be a great influence on him, and a lifelong friend. Alwyn won the Ross scholarship for the flute, and the Sir Michael Costa scholarship for his first foray into opera: The fairy fiddler, most of which is now lost, although the overture, the libretto, and an abridged vocal score survive.

While at the Royal Academy, Alwyn met his future wife, Olive Pull, a fellow student who would later become a sub-professor at the Academy. The happy life as a student was to come to an abrupt end when Alwyn's father died suddenly. William was unable to support himself at the Academy without his father's help and had to become a jobbing musician to earn a living.

Throughout the time he was moving around the country whether playing with seaside orchestras for the summer season, or taking part in the Three Choirs Festival under Elgar's baton, he maintained a correspondence with Olive. Although we only have her side of the correspondence it paints a vivid picture of life on the road. Late in the correspondence, William becomes a successful composer when Oxford University Press accepted some short pieces for publication. Then there was the decision familiar to many musicians, should he stay in a secure job (he was teaching at a private school), or should he strike out as an independent composer?

He decided to take the latter path, and was to be rewarded for this decision when he was invited by J.B. McEwen, now Principal of the Royal Academy, to return there to teach composition. William was to inherit J.B. McEwen's writing desk (sadly not in the Archive) and a number of notebooks in McEwen's hand, containing a mixture of lecture notes, and mathematical formulae. There are also many letters from McEwen's wife, Hedwig, who was to become a close friend of Olive's, and who was also a teacher at the Royal Academy.

In the following years, when William wasn't teaching at the Royal Academy or playing first flute in the London Symphony Orchestra, he went on three exotic expeditions, as an Associated Board examiner to Australia and Canada This time we have William's side of the correspondence as he writes back home to Olive and his young son. These letters demonstrate what a tough life it could be being an examiner. The vast distances covered, the relentless timetable, and the expectations of parents and teachers of examinees; one school belonging to a religious order refused to send their pupils to be examined by 'Mr. Alwyn' after being told by another order that he was a 'hard examiner'. These letters provide a fascinating insight into life as an examiner in the Empire in the early 1930s.

Upon William's return to England, through a lucky break, he became drawn into the British film industry. He describes the incident in his autobiography Winged chariot

In 1936 an opportunity arose which I grasped eagerly. I had already played for a number of film sessions with small chamber groups (especially wind and percussion, for strings, in those experimental days, did not record well) and then the chance absence of the original composer going abroad before it was discovered that his recording had, through a mechanical fault, failed to register, led the director of the film with whom I had had a casual drink after the session, to call on me to compose in the shortest possible time a new score. So, by an odd piece of luck, I entered the British Documentary Movement as a pioneer of film music, two years after the young and brilliant Benjamin Britten had scored his first success with Night mail. [1]

Alwyn was to write an enormous number of film scores (86 features, 107 documentary films) ranging from short documentary films, a police serial, classic films of the British cinema, such as Odd man out and The history of Mr. Polly, and Disney hits like The Swiss family Robinson and In search of the castaways. Although there were opportunities for William to go to Hollywood, he always refused, preferring to stay in Britain, even the scores for the Disney films were composed and recorded here.

Odd man out,which won the BAFTA for best British film in 1947, was one of his best works. Alwyn worked with Carol Reed, the director, seven times. They had a great respect for each other, as Reed valued the importance of music in setting the mood of a film. The plot follows the last hours in the life of an Irish gunman, Johnny, played by James Mason, who, badly wounded during a bank raid, tries to evade the police through the back streets of Belfast. When looking at the rushes of the film Reed quickly realized that there was a problem: James Mason's wounded walk actually looked as though he was drunk. Carol Reed conferred with Alwyn, who provided some new music to represent Johnny's walk, a composition that completely changed the atmosphere of the scene.

Sadly Johnny's walk is one of the few surviving sketches from Odd man out. The film studios destroyed many of his greatest scores: there is a moving description in his journal of his discovery of this:

Wednesday October 5th [1955], Midnight

Learned at BFA [British Film Association] meeting this afternoon that all my major film scores (Odd man out, etc.) and all Willie's [i.e. William Walton's] scores (Henry 5 & Hamlet) had been destroyed in a holocaust of tidying up after Muir's [2] departure from the Rank organization. Devastating news to me, and I know to Willie also, as neither of us had kept copies of the original sketches, and all the work we had done on the scores is irreplaceable.[3]

The Archive however does hold many original full scores of his documentary films, and many sketches for the feature films. There are also reconstructions of the film music as used on the recent Chandos recordings, including the reconstruction of the score of Odd man out.

Besides the manuscripts, there are cue sheets for many films, a few film scripts, Performing Right Society financial returns - which provide a snapshot of the popularity both of the films, and of Alwyn's art music - and many photographs showing film music being recorded at Denham studios, featuring both Alwyn, and Doreen Carwithen (who was also a talented film composer), and Muir Mathieson. The Archive also has a collection of videos and now DVDs of both Alwyn and Carwithen's films.

During the war after a brief stay at a house in the Chilterns with Alan Bush's family, the Alwyns returned to their home in London, William became an air raid warden. Along with this work, William continued to compose under increasingly difficult circumstances, and teach at the Royal Academy. It was there in 1941 that he first met the young Doreen Carwithen, who was one of his composition pupils. Some of Doreen's diaries from the early 1940s survive and are in the Archive. They paint an astonishingly vivid picture of life at the time: a mixture of concerts, practice, student gossip, and sudden and violent death. One unexpected document is the scroll giving William the freedom of the City of London: this was awarded to him in 1941 as thanks for his work on wartime documentaries. He composed many documentary scores during this period; everything from army training films to films about life on the home front on subjects such as evacuees, farming, women in industry, and news footage. William was immensely proud to learn, after the war, that he had been placed on a Nazi blacklist of prominent people to be immediately executed following the invasion of Britain.

By the end of the war William had renounced most of his pre-war concert works, although thankfully he didn't destroy them, all but one of his early 13 string quartets, and many delightful short works survive. In 1948 under the patronage of Sir John Barbirolli, who was a great Alwyn enthusiast, William started on the first of a cycle of four symphonies. An interesting volume is the bound photostat of the holograph of Symphony No. 1, marked up by Sir John indicating with paper overlays the sections he thought should be cut. That Alwyn, who did not usually accept criticism easily, accepted these revisions demonstrates the respect he had for Barbirolli. Certainly Barbirolli's cuts do seem to be for the best, shortening what would otherwise, in the case of the first movement, be an extremely unwieldy work. The 1952 published score follows Barbirolli's cut version. Barbirolli's performance of this symphony survives on a reel-to- reel tape, which was never made available commercially. There are several other similar tapes, often of BBC recordings, that were made for one-off programmes, and never commercially released. These include recordings featuring Sir Thomas Beecham, Muir Mathieson, and Sidonie Goosens, early recordings of Alwyn himself playing the flute from 1932, and tapes of Alwyn's talks on music and literature.

Literature was to become an increasing passion of William's. As a young man he had taught himself French so that he could read French poetry in the original language. He was to embark on a series of translations of French poems, and this was to encourage him to launch into a series of literary ventures. His many writings on the subjects of music, literary and artistic criticism, biography, poetry, and even a novel, are all housed in the Archive.

He also had a passionate interest in the visual arts, and in the 1950's accumulated a significant collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Among his treasures were an early Tissot, and sculptures by Gauguin and Rodin (many of which are now in Northampton Art Gallery). In November 1962 he sold most of his collection in an auction at Sotheby's. The sale catalogue and associated press cuttings are housed here:

"Anyone who thought that the boom had gone out of art, that prices and markets had reached their peak, had only to look at last week's sale of Pre-Raphaelites at Sotheby's to see that here is a new market with new highs.

'An angel with cymbals' by Burne-Jones, which was bought in the fifties by William Alwyn, the composer, for eight guineas, put on a 4,000 per cent increase to fetch £500. And 'Sardanapalus and Myrrha' by Ford Madox Brown, bought for £25, leapt 1,360 per cent to £340.

It's said that Mr. Alwyn, who is a keen collector of Pre-Raphaelites, had concluded recently that Pre-Raphaelite prices were moving up, probably because of the increasing interest in Victoriana. Last week's sale proved it."[4]

Also included in the sale were works by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Frith, and Holman Hunt.

In the early 1960s Alwyn moved to Blythburgh in Suffolk. His last major feature film score was The running man,with his old friend Carol Reed, in 1963, and after that date he dedicated himself to the concert music that he always considered to be his best work. Sadly from this period onwards his fame as a film composer and his overtly romantic style did not find favour with those with influence in the musical establishment. This is reflected in a number of letters, notably with the BBC, other composers (Elisabeth Lutyens and Ruth Gipps), and friends and fans. He was generally philosophical about this, although occasionally his correspondence betrays his disappointment.

Nowhere does this become clearer than in the case of his opera Miss Julie. Alwyn was a passionate opera lover, being especially fond of Mascagni and Puccini. There is a long correspondence with Mosco Carner, the biographer of Puccini and Berg, on musical subjects. Alwyn wrote three full-length operas The fairy fiddler (1922), Juan(ca. 1967) with a libretto freely adapted by the composer from James Elroy Flecker's play Don Juan, and Miss Julie (1977), again with a libretto adapted by William, from Strindberg's play. There was also the ballad opera, Farewell companions (1955), commissioned and broadcast on the BBC Third Programme. There are drafts and complete full scores of Juan and Miss Julie.

Miss Julie was given its first performance on BBC Radio 3 in February 1977. The opera got good reviews, and William and Doreen were optimistic that it would soon be staged properly. A long series of letters document their struggle to attain this, and the many disappointments along the way. Following William's death Doreen continued the battle to stage the opera. Letters trace the many times that opera companies took a serious interest in it and then withdrew at the last moment, the eventual premiere in Copenhagen and its associated crises, and then finally the UK premiere at the Norwich Festival in October 1997. The Miss Julie papers also include letters and other miscellaneous papers including set and costume designs for the Copenhagen production, programmes and posters, and press cuttings and fan mail. Juan, sadly, remains unstaged.

During the last 15 years of his life, in spite of failing health, William produced a large number of high quality works, as well as continuing to write and to paint (he was a serious amateur artist in oils). Many of his best loved works come from this period, including Naiades for harp and flute, his last 2 string quartets, a concerto for flute and 8 wind instruments, Sinfonietta for strings, his last symphony Hydriotaphia, Miss Julie, and 5 song cycles. Also during this period, there was a resurgence of interest in his music, particularly in the United States. Several American fans, who wrote initially to express their pleasure in his music, soon became both friends and promoters of Alwyn's music in the States; their correspondence is preserved.

Throughout the 1970s Lyrita Records recorded Alwyn's works, often with the composer conducting. Many good photos of him conducting these sessions are preserved.

In 1978 William was awarded the CBE. His CBE is in the Archive, as are the many letters from delighted fellow musicians, former pupils, and admirers, congratulating him upon the honour.

The papers in the Archive cover a wide period, the bulk of the collection dates from ca. 1924-2000, with new reviews, press cuttings, and CDs and DVDs being added as they become available. William was at the heart of British musical life, not just as a composer and musician, but as a teacher at the Royal Academy, an examiner with the Associated Board, Chairman or council member of the Performing Rights Society, the Composers' Guild of Great Britain, and the Society for the Promotion of New Music, and a Fellow of the British Film Institute. William and Doreen were founder members of the Composers' Guild, and he was also instrumental in the creation of the Society for the Promotion of New Music. As a result of his many interests, and the fact that both his wives were fellow musicians, the Archive is not only a source of information on the life and work of William Alwyn, but also sheds new light on many other aspects of musical and literary life in the twentieth century.

A good example of this is the correspondence of Sir Cecil Parrott. Cecil Parrott was the British Ambassador to Prague in the 1960s. He initially wrote to William because he admired his music, William admired Parrott's work as a translator (he was the translator of the Penguin edition of The good soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek). Parrott's letters to Alwyn are full of his memories of the Eastern Bloc: the Shostakovich concert in Moscow that was mysteriously cancelled with no notice, arranging for the visit of British musicians such as Sir Malcolm Sargeant and Alan Bush to Czechoslovakia, and smuggling recordings of the Beatles into Prague. It provides a new insight into musical and literary life behind the Iron Curtain.

Another possible area of interest to future researchers could be the role of women in twentieth century music. The musical manuscripts, letters and other miscellaneous papers of both Doreen Carwithen and Olive Pull are part of the Archive. Olive was awarded a LCC special talents scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in 1919, and studied piano, singing, and harmony there. In 1924 she won the Elizabeth Stokes bursary, and was appointed a sub-professor. She wrote a number of chamber works, some delightful childrens' songs based on the poems of Robert Louis Stevenson, and several piano pieces. Olive's musical life is often reflected in the letters that William received from his former students, very few of the girls, in spite of the talent they may have shown at the Academy, continued to perform as professionals, or compose once they were married. Two notable exceptions to this were the redoubtable composers Elizabeth Lutyens and Ruth Gipps, both of whom maintained long correspondences with William.

Doreen Carwithen entered the Royal Academy in 1941 to study piano, cello, and composition. William was her composition teacher. She was the first student to be awarded a J. Arthur Rank scholarship, and would go on to write the scores for over 30 films, including the official film of the coronation. Her manuscript scores are in the Archive, as are correspondence, her wartime diaries, and miscellaneous papers.

It is hoped that eventually the William Alwyn Archive as well as being the primary source of information on the life and works of the composer, will through its holdings and outreach encourage more interest in the life and works of this multi-talented man. It will also be an exciting new resource for researchers on many aspects of British musical and literary life in the twentieth century

 

[1]William Alwyn, Winged chariot : An essay in autobiography (Southwold : Southwold Press, 1983 ; Blythburgh : The William Alwyn Foundation, 1997), p. 7-8

[2]Muir Mathieson, 1911-1975. British conductor and arranger. Head of the music department at Denham studios under Alexander Korda, and J. Arthur Rank, probably the most prolific conductor of screen soundtracks in British film history.

[3] Taken from Alwyn's journal. This journal, which he kept from 1955-1956, was later substantially revised by William, and published as Ariel to Miranda in ADAM international review, 316-318 (1967), p. 4-84

[4] The Observer (November 18th, 1962)

This article by Margaret Jones was previously published in Brio, the journal of the International Association of Music Librarians, v. 42, Winter 2005, pp. 22-29