William Alwyn - Writer

Composer. Nationality: British. Born: Northampton, 7 November 1905. Education: Studied music at Royal Academy of Music, London 1920–23. Career: Played flute in an orchestra that accompanied silent films; 1927–55—Professor of Composition, Royal Academy of Music; 1936—score for first film, The Future's in the Air ; also composed for radio, as well as orchestra and choral works; 1944–45—composer for newsreel The Gen . Award: Commander, Order of the British Empire, 1978. Died: 11 September 1985.

Films as Composer:


The Future's in the Air (Shaw—short) (co); New Worlds for Old (Rotha—short)


Air Outpost (Taylor—short); Roads across Britain (Cole—short); Wings over Empire (Legg—short)


Monkey into Man (Hawes, Spice, and Alexander); Zoo Babies (Spice—short); The Zoo and You (Shaw—short); The Birth of the Year (Spice—short)


These Children Are Safe (Shaw—short)


S.O.S. (Eldridge—short); The New Britain (Keene—short)


Penn of Pennsylvania ( The Courageous Mr. Penn ) (Comfort); Architects of England (Eldridge—short); Night Watch (Taylor—short); Steel Goes to War (Curthoys—short); Queen Cotton (Musk—short)


The Countrywomen (Page—short); Squadron Leader X (Comfort); They Flew Alone ( Wings and the Woman ) (Wilcox); The Harvest Shall Come (Anderson—short); Spring on the Farm (Keene—short); Life Begins Again (Alexander—short); Rat Destruction (Cooper—short); Western Isles (Bishop—short); Wales—Green Mountain, Black Mountain (Eldridge—short); Winter on the Farm (Keene—short); W.V.S. (Birt—short); Border Weave (Curthoys—short); Citizen of Tomorrow (Smith—short)


Escape to Danger (Comfort); A.B.C.A. (Riley—short); The Crown of the Year (Keene—short); A Start in Life (Smith—short); Summer on the Farm (Keene—short); World of Plenty (Rotha—short); Fires Were Started ( I Was a Fireman ) (Jennings); Desert Victory (R. Boulting); Tunisian Victory (R. Boulting and Capra) (co); On Approval (C. Brook); Welcome to Britain (Asquith and Meredith)


The Way Ahead ( The Immortal Battalion ) (Reed); French Town, September 1944 (Shaw—short); Our Country (Eldridge—short); The Grassy Shires (Keene—short); Soldier—Sailor (Shaw—short); Medal for the General (Elvey); There's a Future in It (Fenton—short); Your Children's Eyes (Strasser—short); Country Town (short)


The True Glory (Reed and Kanin); Great Day (Comfort); Your Children's Ears (Pearl—short); Land of Promise (Rotha); The Rake's Progress ( Notorious Gentlemen ) (Gilliat); Your Children's Teeth (Massey—short); Proud City (Keene—short); Worker and Warfront series (Rotha); Total War in Britain (Rotha and Orrom—short); Today and Tomorrow (Carruthers—short)


I See a Dark Stranger ( The Adventuress ) (Launder); Home and School (Bryant—short); Green for Danger (Gilliat); Your Children and You (Smith—short); Each for All (Tully—short)


Captain Boycott (Launder); Take My Life (Neame); Odd Man Out (Reed); The October Man (Baker); Approach to Science (Mason—short); A City Speaks (Gysin—short); A City Speaks (Gysin—re-edited as City Government , 1948)


Escape (Mankiewicz); Three Dawns to Sydney (Eldridge); One Man's Story (Munden and Shand—short); The History of Mr. Polly (Pellissier); The Fallen Idol (Reed); The Winslow Boy (Asquith); So Evil My Love (Allen) (co); Your Children's Sleep (Massy—short)


Morning Departure ( Operation Disaster ) (Baker); The Cure for Love (Donat); The Golden Salamander (Neame); The Rocking Horse Winner (Pelissier); Daybreak in Udi (Bishop—short)


Madeleine (Lean); The Mudlark (Negulesco); State Secret ( The Great Manhunt ) (Gilliat)


The Magic Box (J. Boulting); The Magnet (Frend); No Resting Place (Rotha); Night without Stars (Pelissier); Distant Thames ( Royal River ) (Smith—short); Lady Godiva Rides Again (Launder); The House in the Square ( I'll Never Forget You ) (Baker); Saturday Island ( Island of Desire ) (Heisler); Henry Moore (Read—short)


Mandy ( Crash of Silence ) (Mackendrick); The Long Memory (Hamer); The Crimson Pirate (Siodmak); Royal Heritage (Pine—short); The Card ( The Promoter ) (Neame)


Personal Affair (Pelissier); Malta Story (Hurst); The Master of Ballantrae (Keighley); The Million Pound Note ( The Man with a Million ) (Neame)


The Seekers ( Land of Fury ) (Annakin); The Constant Husband (Gilliat); The Rainbow Jacket (Dearden); Svengali (Langley); Black on White (Read—short)


The Ship That Died of Shame ( P.T. Raiders ) (Dearden and Relph); Bedevilled (Leisen); Geordie ( Wee Geordie ) (Launder); Zarak (Young)


Safari (Young); Smiley (Kimmins); The Black Tent (Hurst); Odongo (Gilling) (song only); Fortune Is a Woman ( She Played with Fire ) (Gilliat)


The Silent Enemy (Fairchild); Manuela ( Stowaway Girl ) (Hamilton); I Accuse! (J. Ferrer); The Smallest Show on Earth ( Big Time Operators ) (Dearden); Carve Her Name with Pride (Gilbert)


A Night to Remember (Baker)


Shake Hands with the Devil (Anderson); Killers of Kilimanjaro (Thorpe); Devil's Bait (Scott); Third Man on the Mountain (Annakin)


Swiss Family Robinson (Annakin); The Professionals (Sharp)


The Naked Edge (Anderson); In Search of the Castaways (Stevenson); Night of the Eagle ( Burn, Witch, Burn ) (Hayers)


Life for Ruth ( Walk in the Shadow )


The Running Man (Reed)


By ALWYN: books—

(Translator), An Anthology of Twentieth Century French Poetry , London, 1969.

Winter in Copenhagen, and Mirages , Southwold, Suffolk, 1971.

Daphne , Southwold, Suffolk, 1972.

(Translator), The Prayers and Elegies of Francis Jammes , Southwold, Suffolk, 1979.

By ALWYN: article—

"Composing for the Screen," in Films and Filming (London), March 1959.

On ALWYN: book—

Craggs, Stewart and Alan Poulton, William Alwyn: A Catalogue of his Music , Surrey, 1985

On ALWYN: articles—

Keller, K., "Film Music: Speech Rhythm," in Musical Times (London), 1955.

Hold, T., "The Music of William Alwyn," in Composer (Cleveland), nos. 43 and 44, 1972.

Pro Musica Sana (New York), Summer 1980 (additions in Fall 1980 issue).

Fistful of Soundtracks (London), October 1980.

Conway, Paul, "William Alwyn's Symphony no. 5: Exploring Hydriotaphia," in Music Review , August-November 1993.

Score (Lelystad), September 1996.

* * *

William Alwyn was the most successful British example of a composer dividing his creativity between absolute music and film composition. Between 1941 and 1963 he scored almost 80 films, while at the same time producing an extensive catalogue of concert, choral, and chamber works. It includes five symphonies, the opera Miss Julie , a piano concerto, a violin concerto, three concerti grossi, and several song cycles.

Alwyn studied the flute and the piano as a child. It was as a flautist that he first became aware of film scoring, when he was hired for an orchestra playing accompaniment to silent movies. Alwyn studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London and became a teacher of composition at the academy in 1925, a post he held until 1955. He was always among the most active forces in British music, serving as the chairman of the Composers' Guild, writing on musical topics for magazines, lecturing, serving on committees, all in addition to writing several volumes of poetry, translating French poetry, and painting. A number of his paintings were used to illustrate the covers of the recordings of his concert works.

Alwyn's first work for films was in 1936, when he was brought in to write a replacement score for the short documentary The Future's in the Air , which led to other assignments in this field. With Penn of Pennsylvania in 1941 he began his more than 20 years as Britain's most prolific composer of critically acclaimed films. Other composers—Walton, Bliss and Vaughan Williams—contributed occasional film scores of value but none matched the productivity or consistency of Alwyn. He was very much a part of the blossoming of the British film industry following the Second World War, and received praise for his contributions to such films as The Rake's Progress , I See a Dark Stranger , The Fallen Idol , The Crimson Pirate , A Night to Remember , and two films dealing with troubled Ireland— Odd Man Out and Shake Hands with the Devil , the latter being the only one of his film scores issued as a record album. He retired from the screen with The Running Man in 1963.

Despite his high academic standing and his success with serious music, Alwyn never considered film composition a lesser form. "I am passionately fond of films and I think all good film composers are. You must believe in pictures, have faith in your artistic medium, and you can produce good scores." He did, however, fully realize the different intent of concert and film music. "The whole art of the cinema is in its planning. It is coordination of a team, director, producer, designer, cameraman, musician, and actor, all working together and interlocking to obtain a dramatic whole in which no single aspect is predominant. I am always a little worried if somebody says to me, 'I liked your score for such-and-such a picture.' It makes me wonder whether I have stepped outside my brief, which is to provide music which is as indigenous to the film as the camera angles and the film sets."

—Tony Thomas

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