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William Alwyn on His Fellow Composers

by John Cobley

Thursday Dec 13th, 2018




English composer William Alwyn first published his 1955-6 journal in a little-known magazine, ADAM International Review (XXXII: 316-8, 1967). Although he did not admit so at the time, Alwyn made drastic cuts, many of which were made to avoid offending family, friends and acquaintances about whom he had written critically. Basically he transformed a private document into a public one.


Forty years later, when almost everyone mentioned in the journal was dead—Alwyn himself died in 1985—it was decided to publish the full unedited journal. It appeared with its original title, “Ariel to Miranda,” in a 2009 compilation of Alwyn’s writings (Composing in Words). This book was edited by the eminent music critic Andrew Palmer.


Below I have listed all of Alwyn’s comments about his fellow British composers. These comments are extremely illuminating. It is rare to find a composer’s honest comments on fellow composers. When he wrote his journal in 1955-5, Alwyn was not, of course, expecting it to be published.


I have provided extracts from the full 2009 version, but I have italicized all the material that Alwyn deleted for the 1967 ADAM version. It is informative to see what entries Alwyn thought too offensive.



Benjamin Britten

 “Benjamin Britten…owes much to Mahler, not only in the more indebted ‘Spring’ Symphony, but in his work generally. Though Mahler is the inspiration of his orchestration, Britten impregnated it with new meaning and forged from a strong influence a characteristic new style.” 124


Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett

I deplore the manner in which Britten and Tippett treat words (as do most composers) and lose the rhythmic sense by putting many sounds to a syllable.” 218-9


Malcolm Arnold

“The prodigal output of Malcolm Arnold.” 133


“The complete extrovert to whom life is a glorious adventure and composition a delight and a joke.”151

“Music was born to him and is as repressible as his nature.” 152


Sober as he was, he again charmed me by his sweet nature and his generous attitude to life.” 204


Edward Elgar

“The occasional pomposity of Elgar at his most Edwardian.” 124


Alan Rawsthorne

A pity he has let himself run to seed; he is still and amusing and charming companion, with the bohemian aura of the Café Royal still clinging to him, evoking the shades of Constant Lambert and EJ (Jack) Moeran; but now he always gives the impression of being slightly fuddled. Alan is a fastidious composer. His output is small compared with Benjamin Britten’s and minute compared with the prodigal output of Malcolm Arnold.” 133


William Walton

“…hearing his music en masse, I find his rather hectic rhythms tiring to listen to, and the absence of real repose a definite drawback; even his lyric passages are over-complicated by figures and counterpoints, and I long for a simple, unaffected melodic line. However, there are many fine moments, and the opening of the Violin Concerto is exquisitely beautiful and haunting. Everything Walton writes is stamped with his own individuality, and this intense and original style has become part of the British composer’s vocabulary—as strong an influence as Elgar and Vaughan Williams and probably a better influence, as Walton is a man of his time, vital and exhilarating and free from VW’s folksiness and the occasional pomposity of Elgar at his most Edwardian.”124


“Willie [is] not impressive as a conductor, but he is efficient—though the orchestra tell me that in spite of his clear beat he is disconcerting them when giving them leads and he takes everything just that much too fast for comfortable playing. Certainly Scapino was rushed and untidy, but that was partly due to understandable nerves on a great occasion for him, with a packed house.” 123


“An individual style is not attained by avoiding or denying the influence of other composers. Walton’s style, particularly in his early and middle-period works, is strongly influenced by both Stravinsky and Sibelius—without Sibelius the first movement of his First Symphony could hardly have been written. But Walton’s personality transcends those of his models.” 124


“Dallas [Bower], when tackled on the subject of Walton’s music for Richard III, was obviously uncomfortable about it. I was interested to find out his impressions as I have heard from good authorities that it is very disappointing and unworthy of Walton.  I hope not—Hamlet contained some of the finest music he has ever written. In spite of my disappointment in his opera [Troilus and Cressida], masterly as was its craftsmanship, I shall wait and see.” 85


Gustav Holst

“…the first London performance of a Scherzo planned for a symphony, which proved to be rather a dull piece in the style of ‘Mercury’ [from The Planets] using the same tricks to less effect; a faded and clumsy Somerset Rhapsody and The Hymn of Jesus. I first heard the Hymn when I was playing the flute in the LSO…and then I was greatly moved by it. In the Festival Hall it still sounded impressive—the opening of the work is very beautiful, the hidden choirs sounding remotely ethereal—but Boult failed to make the music dance with the pagan energy it demands.” 126-7


Arthur Bliss

“Lunched at the IMA with Arthur Bliss…. Arthur was bubbling over with information and high spirits; his good humour is infectious, and eagerness and zest has the spontaneity and freshness of a child—a musical child but not a child prodigy. One cannot help but warm towards him. He is still elated over his latest work, Meditations on a Theme of John Blow, which is based on my favorite psalm, ‘The Lord is My Shepherd.’ Some of his suggestions were sound, others outrageous, but never other than provocative. He has a prejudice against the ‘film composer,’ feeling no doubt that it is a way of earning easy money by dubious means…. Arthur argued his point of view with good humour and infectious high spirits that swept aside opposition but left me unconvinced.” 140-1


I seem fated to tilt against Arthur Bliss, but he cannot handle people if he adopts the easy and airy attitude that all is right with the world—this is the penalty of a life that has been too easily successful; he has not even had to seek the bubble reputation but has found it happily floating on the surface of a stream.” 195


Peter Fricker

“He is quiet and unemotional…. His music has this same, somewhat aloof, distinction. His technique is assured, and his style personal—though at times rather arid and over-concerned with the almost Reger-ish complexities.” 84


Iain Hamilton

“I drove down to Cheltenham…to hear a new work by an old pupil, Iain Hamilton: Symphonic Variations for orchestra. This was a fine piece and, except for some hesitancy in the finale, and some rather thick brass writing in the peroration at the end, it held the attention throughout by its dramatic vitality and orchestral colouring. Iain is the best of the younger composers and should make a big name for himself: he is not afraid of expressing feeling and warmth in his music.” 224-5


William Wordsworth

Billy is inclined to be silent and deliberate, but he has a sardonic sense of humour and a shrewd appreciation of others people’s qualities…. The more I know him the more I admire his fine mind…. He reminds me very much of JB McEwen, both personally and as a composer, thought Mac was more of a poet. Both suffer from musical reticence—and no great composer was ever reticent.” 83


“…to Wigmore Hall to hear Billy Wordsworth’s [Four Blake Songs]…. Wordsworth’s songs were uninspired and clumsy and seemed to have neither feeling for words nor appreciation of vocal technique.” 89


“Billy Wordsworth came to lunch and afterwards we spent an absorbing hour looking through the score of his new Violin Concerto…. The worst fault was the long stretches where the solo violin has nothing to do…. It is a thoughtful work, and his orchestration is much more colourful (in the best sense) than when I first knew him.” 122


Today I lunched with Billy Wordsworth at the IMA and talked of his symphony. Curiously enough, the work seemed much better in retrospect than was my immediate reaction at the time of the performance. I think there are still weaknesses, but I had already pointed them out to Billy when he showed me the rough score prior to the Edinburgh Festival. Some of the technical points he adjusted but, quite rightly, he maintained his own opinion in others. Criticism is so much tempered by personal taste, and a composer must be true to his own sense of style. The symphony is certainly evidence that Billy is evolving a very personal style in writing, whether one likes it or not. At the moment I alternately admire and criticise, but his music does not move me emotionally—it is too cerebral.” 170-1


Elisabeth Lutyens

“Serialism…is only one manner of composing and few can express individuality within its limits. Of our British composers, I can think of only one who has moulded it into an eloquent language of her own: Elisabeth Lutyens.”125


Ralph Vaughan Williams

Vaughan Williams’ “synthetic folksiness.” 78


“He is idealized as the father-figurehead of British music—the bluff, tweeded country squire with a kindly word for all his tenants. His great bulk is beginning to be a burden to him, and he looks frail in spite of his massive physique. I think he attempts far too much at the age of 83 in his efforts to remain mobile, and his incessant outpouring of work after work must be a drain  on his mental stamina. There is a pathetic urgency in this desire to write while there is yet time.” 132


“Vaughan Williams some time ago was lamenting to me the considerable change of the horn timbre in present-day playing.” 156


Edward Elgar

“the occasional pomposity of Elgar at his most Edwardian.” 124

Alwyn playing flute and piccolo under Elgar’s baton: “Elgar’s interpretations of his own works have left me with an indelible impression of breadth and spaciousness but also of controlled freedom and a warm, all-satisfying inner glow.” 82


Edmund Rubbra

“Dickie Howgill was singing the praises of Rubbra…and said that his 6th Symphony would make his reputation. I don’t agree. I think #5 is far better—it has warmth and fewer mannerisms. I told Dick that, in my opinion, Edmund is the Hubert Parry of our time: the same conscientiousness and sincerity; but, compared with Elgar, Parry had none of the professional craftsmanship and panache that goes to make a composer of the first rank. Composers are rarely generous to one another….I am probably prejudiced; it is difficult for me to disassociate in my mind the visionary Dr. Edmund Rubbra for today from the Charlie Rubbra of my boyhood days in Northampton.” 151


“Both Rubbra and I were born at Northampton….Rubbra introspective and mystically serious….bearded, slight of build and delicate-looking….Edmund is a little older than I am and I used to regard him with awe when first we met as youths in Northampton. He was then studying composition from Cyril Scott, from whom I suspect he absorbed some of that composer’s mystic beliefs (certainly not Scott’s style) and he was already an accomplished and sensitive pianist.” 151-2


Edmund’s pseudo-profundity” 203


On a piano trio: “Edmund gets lovely phrases but seemingly by chance, as he seldom makes use of them; the work as usual had the ‘chime of bells’ effect which has become a cliché with him.”203


“[Richard Farrell] tells me that the Rubbra #6 was badly received in Zurich; I don’t like the work—it is amateurish and passionless, and quite unsuitable for export to the continent.” 183


On the first performance of Rubbra’s Improvisation for Violin and Orchestra: “an uninteresting piece with little substance but much earnestness.” 154



Note: All the above are excerpts from Composing in Words by William Alwyn, edited by Andrew Palmer and published in 2009 by Toccata Press.


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