Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Getting to know the Alwyns

Another highlight from our Autumn 2008 publishing season is a new biography of the composer, William Alwyn, by Adrian Wright. Perhaps best known now as a film composer, Alwyn’s output included five symphonies, two piano concertos, three string quartets, and several operas and ballet scores, as well as numerous songs and pieces for solo piano. Adrian Wright’s book will be a magnificent addition to our list of books on British composers, but how did he discover the music of William Alwyn? He explains in this extract from the preface to The Innumerable Dance:

I never met or knew William Alwyn. I was alerted to his music in the 1960s by the Stock Editor (a now defunct post) of Norfolk County Library, Robert Illsley. ‘Mr Illsley’, as he was known to most - and certainly by a teenage library assistant in his first job - came from Derby, and had not only an astounding knowledge of books and the people who wrote them but a catholic relish in the arts, however humble or self-important. One of the joys of turning up for work was knowing he would appear (rather like a Demon King coming up through a trapdoor) sometime during the morning and expound on subjects he thought might interest me: perhaps the most recent episode of the TV series Z Cars (he was a keen admirer of the waspish Inspector Barlow), or, a prized favourite of Mr Illsley’s, the soap opera Crossroads, in whose absurdities he delighted. His knowledge and caustic wit ranged widely over the extraordinary and the neglected, from such ridiculous authors as Amanda McKittrick Ros and the novelists employed by Messrs Mills and Boon (he loved to read extracts from the closing passages of their publications), to the less well known British composers of the twentieth century. It was then that I heard of William Alwyn, and my first thanks must go to the late Mr Illsley, whose dress always comprised a suit, trilby and Gannex raincoat, but whose appreciation of art was always worthy of serious attention.

It was much later, in the 1990s, when I rediscovered, or perhaps began to appreciate for the first time, Alwyn’s music, through the long series of his work recorded by Chandos Records. The booklets to the CDs often included a photograph of the composer’s widow Mary, apparently Margaret Rutherford-like in sensible blouse, homely cardigan, plaid skirt and (out of sight in the picture) almost certainly sturdy brogues. She was seen smiling helpfully up at the conductor on his podium. It was now that I began to listen to Alwyn’s music and discover the breadth and ambition of his work. I had left it too late to meet the composer, but eventually I sent a letter for Mary Alwyn to Chandos which led to an invitation to visit her at Lark Rise, the Alwyns’ home at Blythburgh, a half an hour journey from my home just outside Norwich. It was probably at our first meeting that I told her I was some sort of writer, having already written a biography of the novelist L. P. Hartley, and from that moment she suggested I should write the life of her husband. An easy prey to flattery, I was elated, and hadn’t this book fallen into my lap just as my other biographies had, as if there was something fateful about my association with the subjects I wrote of?

I cannot recall now how long it took me to realise that being Mary’s anointed biographer had its problems. Mary was not only extraordinarily strong-minded but revered William and everything he had ever produced – music, poetry, librettos, essays, translations and paintings. It was some months before I finally agreed I would write it, but I was already aware that behind me stood a small army of prospective biographers who had one way and another fallen into disfavour, usually when she suspected a whiff of even the most tentative criticism of Alwyn. Some of these would-be biographers hovered still on the fringes of Mary’s life. At every visit to Lark Rise and to the nursing homes where she spent her last years I was quizzed; how was the book coming along? The progress was snail-like, for I knew that any attempt at a meaningful biography was impossible during Mary’s lifetime. I was aware by now that the story was a complicated one with three leading characters, and that a proper understanding of Alwyn’s personal life was crucial to any appreciation of his career.

Further excerpts from this new biography will appear over the coming months. The Innumerable Dance will be published by the Boydell Press in September.

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