A few weeks ago I was at the wonderful Alwyn Music Festival, which takes place in deepest Suffolk, annually at the beginning of October. The William Alwyn Music Festival, as it was originally called, was set up by the William Alwyn Foundation in 2011.
Doreen Carwithen, William Alwyn‘s widow, and a fellow composer, was the driving force behind the Foundation set up to champion the works of her beloved William. She was especially eager that William’s works should be performed more widely, and the Foundation, following her death in 2003, worked to fulfil her vision with a host of Alwyn recordings and performances happening across the country in the years following her death.
Then in 2009 came the first William Alwyn Music Festival (known latterly as the Alwyn Music Festival), which took place in Suffolk at a range of venues, most very close to the Alwyns’ home at Blythburgh. In fact the illustrations on three of the programmes above were drawn by William, looking out across the Angel Marshes that lie between Blythburgh and Walberswick, from his garden in Blythburgh.
Each festival celebrated the music of William Alwyn, and, as the festivals progressed, Doreen Carwithen. Their music featured alongside a range of British composers, many of a similar generation to William and Doreen, and many, like the Alwyns, neglected for some time. There were also contemporary compositions, some special commissions for the festivals, work with local schools, a wealth of up and coming young musicians, some famous names, an artist in residence, and a film show.
In fact the festivals were a reflection of the work and loves of the Alwyns themselves. Both William and Doreen trained at the Royal Academy of Music in London; and teaching was important to both alongside composition. William had to leave the Royal Academy before completing his studies following the unexpected death of his father. He then worked briefly (he was a flautist) as a jobbing musician “depping” across the country – this included playing in seaside bands, and, most memorably to him, playing flute at the Three Choirs Festival in a concert conducted by Elgar. After a relatively short period, he was lucky enough, thanks to the then Head of the RAM, John Blackwood McEwen, to get a job at the RAM teaching harmony and composition. This was vitally important as it gave him the financial security and time to be able to start his career as a composer, and to marry his first wife, Olive Pull, and bring up a young family.
William loved teaching. He was enthusiastic about his pupils, as he was about the music industry generally, and taught at the Royal Academy for 30 years. Doreen’s path into teaching was rather different. She arrived at the Royal Academy in the early 1940s and from the beginning was studying to be a music teacher. I was slightly surprised when I discovered this recently, as I had assumed that she had planned from the beginning to either study an instrument or composition as her main choice. The fact that she chose to commit to teaching from early on may be a reflection of the times. I would suspect that in the 1940s, it was acceptable for a woman to train as an instrumentalist if she was extremely talented (I don’t think Doreen would have ever claimed that she was good enough to make a career as a soloist) or, more normally, as a teacher which was often seen as “women’s work”. To enter a conservatoire as a composer and a woman, would have been virtually unheard of.
However, Doreen had a lucky break, that would change her life. Due to a mix-up in the timetable her harmony teacher was changed to William Alwyn; and, early on, Alwyn realised that Doreen had a real talent for composition. Alongside her teaching studies her composition blossomed, and when she left the Royal Academy, she commenced work part-time as a music teacher at a local school, but, most importantly, she also became the winner of the very first Rank Film Music Scholarship, and started to work at Denham Studios, where she wrote film scores, scribbled off odd bridging snippets when needed, and learned how the film industry worked.
That she was encouraged to go for the Film Music Scholarship might also have owed a lot to Alwyn. Not that long after he’d started work at the Royal Academy, he was asked unexpectedly to write a score for a short documentary film at speed. He completed the score overnight, and it was recorded and synced to film by the end of the following day. His work impressed the studios, and alongside his work at the Royal Academy, he became a well known name in British film circles. This was a bit of a double-edged sword during this period. The work on film music gave him the money to spend less time at the Royal Academy, and devote more time to his art music; however, writing for film didn’t have the status then that it does now, and although it was widely acknowledged that he was a fine film composer, cultural snobbishness led to him finding it increasingly difficult to find an audience for his art music. It didn’t help that musical tastes were changing too, and Alwyn’s style of lush, romantic music was becoming out of favour with arts organizations, who were keen to promote either popular concerts with well-known composers, that would guarantee good ticket sales, or alternatively more avant-garde concerts, that were presumably funded from the sales from popular concerts.
Doreen also suffered from the change in musical tastes. Although her music has an independent voice, and is very different from William’s, both are in a romantic style, and both were falling out of popularity as the ’50s progressed. Doreen was not enjoying teaching, William felt trapped in the world of film music even though he was very successful. Both felt that their art music was unappreciated. Something had to give. They had been in a relationship since around the mid-1940s, and in 1962, William left his wife and film music. The couple moved to Blythburgh, where Doreen re-created herself as Mary Alwyn (it was to be the 1970s before they were able to marry), turned her back on her musical career, and set out to promote William’s.
He had the space and time to dedicate himself to his art music, and composed some wonderful works finishing his opera Miss Julie, a final symphony, two string quartets, and a number of song cycles including the one that this post is named after A leave-taking. Alwyn also had time to write poetry – much of which he self-published, a biographical and charming sketch of his early life, and a novel. Art had always been a love of his. At one point he owned one of the best collections of Pre-Raphaelite art in the country, and in Blythburgh he experimented with painting and sketching techniques, and seemed to be as proud of his art as he was of his music.
Mary / Doreen devoted herself to promoting his works, and after William’s death she threw herself into setting up the Foundation. It was only towards the very end of her life, that a few musicians and researchers came forward, intrigued to discover another composer in Blythburgh, who had been forgotten. Doreen was touched by their interest and, who knows, if she had lived longer, might have started composing again, but it was too late.
Doreen always wanted the world to hear William’s voice. She was passionate about this, and advocated tirelessly for him. And there is no doubt that without her work he would not be as well known today as he is. While the recordings and the Festival promoted his work, it was inevitable that eventually they promoted Doreen’s work, and so, she too was finally re-discovered.
This year’s festival was to be tinged with sadness for me, as it was to be the very last. It was always a wonderfully friendly festival. I have so many happy memories of its ten years. Julian Lloyd Webber playing in Southwold Church on such a stormy night that it felt as though the church was about to take off and fly into the North Sea, a dancing conductor filled with enthusiasm for Alwyn at Orford Church, and delicious homemade cakes which appeared as if by magic unexpectedly at an interval. And then there was the music – for me the wonder of hearing Doreen’s violin sonata played publicly for the first time in a very long time, and the impression it made on everyone is one of my outstanding memories, alongside the vivacity of the musicians, who made the festival what it was.
One of the concerts at the last Alwyn Festival was dedicated to songs by female composers. Doreen of course was there, along with Rebecca Clarke and Madeleine Dring (James Gilchrist was an exceedingly fine nightclub proprietress), but the moment that touched everyone was the encore – A leave-taking by William Alwyn, never was it more appropriate, or moving.
So the Alwyn Festival is over, ten years of glorious music in a stunning setting. Next year there will be a Doreen Carwithen Festival in her birthplace of Haddenham, Buckinghamshire in celebration of her centenary. I think both William and Doreen would be thrilled.