The joy of mistakes

Reproduction of Alwyn's manuscript, as used for the premiere of the first symphony. Card indicates cuts made by Sir John Barbirolli. Wallpaper was originally used!

Photocopy of Alwyn’s manuscript, as used for the premiere of the first symphony.
Card indicates cuts made by Sir John Barbirolli, who originally used wallpaper!

A few weeks ago I attended a music librarians’ conference. Among the many interesting talks was a panel discussion on issues around music digitisation. One of the items raised made me think about digitisation in a completely new light. A panellist from a prominent UK music publisher commented that with the rise of easily available digitisation, music was arriving at the publisher in an almost completed state. Gone are the days of waiting around for copyists to do their work, or trying to figure out whether the composer really meant to put that accidental where s/he appears to have put it, gone are the crossings and rubbings out. This must be a good thing surely with music arriving at the publisher fully polished,  produced more quickly and easily, and becoming rapidly more accessible. But are there any drawbacks to this improvement?

For some years I’ve been looking after the William Alwyn Archive in the University Library, and thinking about that collection alone, I’m relieved that William never discovered digitisation.

The Alwyn Archive is a large collection, which includes film and art music scores and sketches, there are also diaries, correspondence, literary works (both fiction and non-fiction), and the ephemera that every life gathers. So within this collection how can pre-digitisation mistakes and amendments add to our knowledge? Obviously at a very basic level they show us the thoughts of the composer – the road that wasn’t followed, and the development of the path that was.

With film music, you may not just be looking into the composer’s mind, but also into the mind of the film-maker. There are snippets of music, even cues, which are not present in the completed film; these may have been sections that ended up on the cutting room floor and were subsequently destroyed. They may even have been sequences that never made it beyond the draft script and were never fully realised except in the minds of the scriptwriter and the composer (an intriguing concept of the metaphysical film that exists behind the physical object).

William Alwyn's sketches for "In which we serve". The words "Damaged Kelly" link the music to the original concept, and the tune bears a distinct resemblance to the final title sequence.

William Alwyn’s sketches for “In which we serve”.
The words “Damaged Kelly” link the music to the original concept, while the tune bears a distinct resemblance to the opening title sequence.

In the archive, for instance, are sketches for In which we serveThe music is commonly credited to Noel Coward, although it is generally believed that Clifton Parker was principally responsible for the score, though the brief sketches here suggest that Alwyn also had substantial input at an early stage. Furthermore these sketches suggest that originally the script was to be modelled much more firmly on the history of Lord Louis Mountbatten‘s ship HMS Kelly (changed to Torrin in the film).

Alwyn’s first symphony was heavily influenced by the conductor, Sir John Barbirolli, who made cuts (with the composer’s consent) to the work for its first performance at Cheltenham in 1950. The symphony was savaged at its premiere by W.R. Anderson of The Musical Times “The thinking doesn’t stand up to the length…”. Perhaps unsurprisingly after such a criticism the cuts were maintained in the published edition by Lengnick. Now replaced by conservationally friendly card, the cuts were originally marked by some retro-’40’s wallpaper! The sketches, final version, and the paste overs including cuts, all show the process that the composer (and others) took to get to the published version. And at some point in the future, it would be relatively easy to restore the work to an earlier incarnation, if there was a desire to do so.

Excerpt from the score used at the premiere of Alwyn’s first symphony, with pasteover revealing what lies beneath.

Sometimes too an earlier hard-copy world can reveal the complexities that lie behind what appears to be a straightforward piece of writing. In the late ’60s an article by Alwyn, Ariel to Miranda, was published in the ADAM international reviewThe article purported to be Alwyn’s diary; written during the time he was struggling with the composition of his third symphony.

Most readers, I suspect, would take published diary entries by a living author with a pinch of salt, believing that they are probably not the diary as originally written, but as the author would prefer to be portrayed. This is indeed true of Ariel to Miranda, but there is also something more going on here. There are in fact three different versions of the diary in the archive: the original (generally “warts and all”, but with one enormous area of his life air-brushed out – his relationship with the composer, Doreen Carwithen), the what-I-would-like-to-have-published version (expansive, extensive, generally honest but also looking to present himself as a literary, erudite individual – that’s not to say that Alwyn was not literary and erudite, but that this is a rather more idealised portrait of himself), and then there’s the published version, which ends up having elements of both the previous diaries along with something rather different too. Andrew Palmer’s book Composing in words unites the three diaries to finally produce a coherent whole. It’s well worth reading, both for the insight into the production of a major musical work, and as an introduction to the life of an entertaining man and the era in which he lived.

Curiously as I was about to complete this post there was some related breaking news. Seven songs and a ballet that had been deleted from My Fair Lady, have been discovered in a folder at the Library of Congress. Proving yet again that there can be a great deal of joy in re-discovering what was once considered to be a mistake.


About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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2 Responses to The joy of mistakes

  1. William Alwyn told me when I interviewed him in 1979 that he actually wrote the score for ‘In which we serve’ but that Noel Coward took all the credit, and Alwyns name wasn’t mentioned in the film. He was quit crossed about this.


    • mj263 says:

      That’s fascinating, Curt, as I can find no mention elsewhere about this. Alwyn was certainly not credited, and there are no contracts / PRS returns / cue sheets in the Archive to suggest that he ever received anything, or was ever acknowledged for writing it. The manuscript is indisputably though a very rough sketch in Alwyn’s hand for the main theme.


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