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William Alwyn: The Art of Film Music

William Alwyn: The Art of Film Music

Ian Johnson
Copyright Date: 2005
Edition: NED - New edition
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 368
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    William Alwyn: The Art of Film Music
    Book Description:

    William Alwyn was a leading composer of British film music in the 1940s and '50s, a time when the British film industry was at its peak. His scores ranged from documentaries to almost 80 full-length feature films, including classics such as Fires were Started, Desert Victory, Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol, and The History of Mr Polly; he was adept at any musical genre, from classical to cartoon slapstick, and in the process worked with legendary directors, including Carol Reed, David Lean, Humphrey Jennings, and Anthony Asquith. Alone with Vaughan Williams he was granted the distinction of a separate title credit; columnists mentioned him alongside Bliss, Bax and Walton. However, as the reputation of the British film industry declined in the 1950s, so musical snobbery against those who were its leading lights became unpleasantly raw. In recent years, however, with sensitive performances of his film and concert music available on CD, this most appealing of composers has enjoyed something of a renaissance. In this long overdue reassessment, Alwyn's films are analysed and put into the context of his biography, the film industry, and of society at large: the author shows in particular this remarkably versatile composer developed a hitherto unrecognised grammar of film music which enhanced every film on which he worked. He also examines his work for war propaganda, radio, and the concert hall. The volume is enhanced by the most complete filmography, discography, and bibliography of the composer's works yet published, as well as listings of his concert and radio music.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-511-6
    Subjects: Music, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of Plates
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-x)
  5. Introduction: Music in the Shadows
    (pp. 1-9)

    William Alwyn’s good fortune was to join the British film industry near the close of the 1930s, just before it ripened in the hothouse of the second World War. He left at the beginning of the 1960s, as the first signs of decay were setting in.

    He was fortunate in another way, too. The period coincided with developments in sound: within months of his joining, improvements in the optical sound track freed the composer from subjection to wind instruments; when he left, combos and electronic contrivances were partially eclipsing the traditional orchestral score.

    In the years between he was easily...

  6. 1 A New and Foreign Land
    (pp. 10-16)

    Finding himself in Birmingham one Sunday in October 1955, William Alwyn, approaching fifty and still one of the most prolific and experienced British film composers, listened to the “church bells ringing their tumbling changes across the city – a liquid stream of uneven sound which drifts close then away again as the breeze takes and the ear attends”. He went on,

    The Sunday sound of distant bells never fails to transport me across the years to the golden villages of Northamptonshire; the evening summer sun pencils long shadows from the hedgerows and sheltering spinneys above the ripening corn. Memory magically lights...

  7. 2 Experiment, Experiment, and Again Experiment
    (pp. 17-28)

    Of several momentous developments in the film industry of the 1930s, two were of special significance for William Alwyn. The first was the growth of the documentary movement; the second was the invention and improvement of the sound track.

    In the 1930s the documentary idea, as defined by the “father of documentary” John Grierson and his followers, was specific: a documentary was rooted in realism and a sense of social purpose. The movement was centred on the film unit of the General Post office, a valuable school for a small coterie of university-educated, socialist-minded directors like Basil Wright, Arthur Elton,...

  8. 3 Enter Mathieson
    (pp. 29-35)

    In 1940, Alwyn decided to evacuate his family from their London house in Hampstead Garden Suburb to a small rented house in Welwyn Garden City in Hertfordshire. Alwyn was never called up – he claimed a heart problem caused his rejection from military service¹ – and at night he became an air raid warden: listening, listening out – a vital warden’s skill. in the ten-minute shortPost 23(1941) Ralph Bond introduces a group of air raid wardens, men and women from ordinary walks of life. They make their little speeches and are called out to a bombed-out house.Fires Were Startedthis...

  9. 4 Intoxicating Documentary Days; First Feature
    (pp. 36-45)

    Documentary films had small budgets and tiny orchestras, and they paid poorly, but – compared with the composer’s solitary toil at piano and manuscript -the milieu was exciting. Alwyn’s passionate belief that the art of film lies in its “co-ordination of a team, director, producer, designer, cameraman, musician and actor, all working together and interlocking”¹ had its seed in his intoxicating documentary days. This can be sensed inSOS(1941), produced and directed in the earlier part of 1940 by the young John Eldridge, who at the age of 23 had set up his own company after working as an assistant...

  10. 5 An Art of Persuasion
    (pp. 46-55)

    By the end of 1941 America had entered the war, and in 1942 Strand’sBattle for Freedomcould use the term “United Nations” and depict a global theatre of war. This film’s attempt to précis every war front overloads its fifteen minutes, which was perhaps the propagandist intention – by inducing mental indigestion and awe at the scale of the allies’ deployment and organisation. The script by Dylan Thomas is over-literate and over-packed (“liberty against butchery, against the German locust and the mechanised plague of Japanese annihilation”). With a proliferation of shots struggling to follow the words, music is very much...

  11. 6 “Pulling Together”
    (pp. 56-71)

    Long after they had left their film careers behind them, Rotha wrote to Alwyn proposing an LP record called “ Music for Documentary”.¹ One of his suggested tracks was fromWorld of Plenty(1943), with its score now archived, said Rotha, at the University of California. Alwyn was not opposed to re-shaping film music for the concert hall or for recordings,² but the visual, musical, and sound components ofWorld of Plentyare so interconnected that rotha could hardly have suggested a less suitable score.

    When the MoI commissioned Rotha for this survey of “the problems of world food, its...

  12. 7 The People’s War
    (pp. 72-82)

    Documentaries about the battle front came under the aegis of the forces film units. in charge of the Army Film and Photographic unit (AFPU) was David Macdonald, a director of bad-to-middling features and a 25-minute documentary,Men of the Lightship(1940), which arguably owed its artistic success to its editor Stewart McAllister.¹ At the AFPU, Macdonald set in motion a series of feature-length compilation documentaries:Desert Victory (1943), Tunisian Victory(1944), andBurma Victory(1945). Alwyn wrote the score forDesert Victory, “co-wrote” with Dmitri Tiomkin forTunisian Victory, and scored a similar AFPU compilation featureThe True Gloryfor...

  13. 8 Ordinary People
    (pp. 83-98)

    OurCountryis a documentary masterpiece, and one curiously neglected: an alchemy of moving poetic commentary by Dylan Thomas, captivating photography by Jo Jago, and painstakingly apt, lyrical musical composition by Alwyn. its celebration of landscape and countryside, of industry and labour, and of the spirit of the people is a model of inspirational propaganda. “Our Country”, writes John Ackerman, “has a pastoralism that is both refuge and touchstone of innocence and joy, in contrast to war’s constant present and threat.”¹ Alwyn put it more simply: “Our Country– most lovely of wartime documentaries.”² Directed by the talented John Eldridge, originally...

  14. 9 The Success of the Season
    (pp. 99-108)

    Around the time he was working onThe Way AheadAlwyn was also composing forOn Approval, an adaptation of Frederick Lonsdale’s 1920s drawing-room classic. The two films could not have been more different in mood.

    On Approvalwas set up by the actor Clive Brook and produced by Sydney Box, for whose thriving documentary company, Verity Films, Alwyn had contributed several scores. it was Box’s first feature and its production was cluttered with mishaps¹ culminating in the front office shelving it, convinced it was unshowable. A few months later Brook retrieved it from the shelf, spent three weeks reshooting...

  15. 10 War’s End
    (pp. 109-122)

    The elegance and sophistication acquired by the British propaganda machine after some five years of war is suggested by Frances Thorpe and Nicholas Pronay:

    A film apparently designed to provide straightforward “instruction” on how to approach a government agency for relief might in fact be effective propaganda designed to show how comprehensively the government cared for those suffering from needs resulting from the war.¹


    a series of beautifully made “educational” documentaries about the history of various medical discoveries with apparently no “propaganda” purpose . . . were in fact part of a propaganda campaign designed to bring home to...

  16. 11 Reconstruction
    (pp. 123-132)

    Rotha’s companies Paul rotha Productions and Films of Fact had not been short of work. Between 1942 and 1945 Rotha produced eighteen issues of his newsreelWorker and Warfrontfor screening to war-industry workers, pushing out five final issues in 1945. To these Alwyn contributed title music, breaks, and end titles. The company was also occupied with documentaries. Alwyn wrote the scores for two, and although release was delayed until the following year they reflect the national mood of early 1945.

    Rotha’s intention inTotal War in Britain(1946) was to show that central planning was as important to winning...

  17. 12 Launder and Gilliat: Soundtrack as Art Form
    (pp. 133-144)

    With confident financing – by Korda, Del Giudice, and especially Rank – British feature technicians had emerged at the end of the war possessed of a bravura the equal of Hollywood. Alwyn shared in the blossoming, his name joined on the credits with Boulting, Launder and Gilliat, Neame, Roy Baker, asquith, Pélissier, Lean, Frend, Negulesco, Mackendrick, Hamer, Dearden . . . and others, including Carol Reed.

    Quite possibly it was the association with Reed that brought Alwyn his first contract with launder and Gilliat. Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat had made their name as the directors ofMillions Like Us(1943), but...

  18. 13 A “Big Score”
    (pp. 145-158)

    Alwyn was instilling a good deal of Irish atmosphere at this time. Amongst a busy schedule in 1945, scoring perhaps eleven short documentaries,The True Glory,Great Day,The Rake’s Progress, and seven compositions for radio, he still had time in November 1945 to set off for Belfast with his friend the poet Louis MacNeice. Ostensibly the purpose was to oversee the music for MacNeice’s local radio production about the city of Armargh,City Set on a Hill, but the trip was as much an excuse to visit Dublin for a rugby match, a passion of MacNeice’s. After the recording...

  19. 14 Outcasts and Idioms
    (pp. 159-176)

    OddMan Outwas generally released on 17 March 1947, St Patrick’s Day. A week earlier Sidney Gilliat’sGreen for Dangerwent the rounds with another score by Alwyn. The film was well received, although later Gilliat wrote that “it mortified me somewhat that nobody at all spotted that it was, so to speak, a film presented in quotation marks, dotted with stereotypes of half a century of detective fiction, with an affectionate side-swipe at the arrogantly omniscient Detective figure of the genre”.¹ If the critics had paid more attention to the musical clues, they might have picked up on...

  20. 15 Pennies from Hollywood
    (pp. 177-185)

    Despite a sublime confidence in their craft and artistic skills, the British studios were nevertheless unbalanced by a shaky financial superstructure. Having lost £1,667,000 on production in 1946, J. Arthur Rank could hardly afford to have his distribution negotiations with the united states ruined the following year by the government’sad valoremduty on American films. A subsequent crash production programme to compensate for the shortage of American product came to grief after the spring of 1948, when the duty was removed and cinemas were swamped by the backlog. At the same time the government encouraged American companies to invest...

  21. 16 Reed Again, and Asquith
    (pp. 186-198)

    Carol Reed had left Two Cities Films and Rank in early 1947 after a quarrel over the budget and final edit ofOdd Man Out. He joined Korda’s new London Films set-up at Shepperton, where (bolstered by a loan from the National Film Finance Corporation, and a distribution deal with 20th century–Fox) accountants had lower priority, and the atmosphere was more creative. An invitation to score Reed’s first Korda production,The Fallen Idol, as well as Anthony Asquith’sThe Winslow Boy(1949), meant Alwyn now worked without his usual ally Mathieson, who was under contract to Rank. At London...

  22. 17 Pélissier, a Forgotten Talent
    (pp. 199-220)

    Towards the end of the war, William Alwyn was elected to the committee of the Composers’ Section of the Society of Authors. It was initially a frustrating experience. Most of the board members were elderly and pompous, and, according to Alwyn, its chairman ruled out of order everything that could further the cause of British music. So in 1947, with the help of colleagues, Alwyn initiated the Composers’ Guild of Great Britain. Retaining its affiliation to the parent society, the Guild aimed to protect the legal rights of his fellow musicians (in which it hit), and to secure minimal concert...

  23. 18 Kitsch or Art?
    (pp. 221-233)

    In the spring of 1950 Hans Keller sawThe Cure for Loveand expressed himself in the pugnacious manner for which he was notorious:

    I have seen or heard no comment, let alone the overdue outcry, about the alarming fact that a leading member of our official musical institution par excellence, a professor of composition at the Royal Academy of Music who has quite rightly earned himself the reputation of being one of our most important film composers, has of late turned out not merely such indifferent scores asGolden SalamanderandMadeleine[1949], but also the reeking Kitsch that...

  24. 19 “Choosing my Palette”
    (pp. 234-240)

    Despite a heavy feature schedule, there was time for a television score – William Alwyn’s first – for John Read’sHenry Moore:Sculptor, transmitted in April 1951. Filmed documentaries were uncommon, and critical praise went to Alan Lawson’s fluid circling camera movement of Moore at work on an eight-foot reclining bronze figure for the Festival of Britain. The film went on to win a prize at the Venice Film Festival, although its viewer reaction was the lowest of the period.¹ For the music Alwyn composed aPassacagliafor string quartet, bass clarinet, and vibraphone, linked to the sculptor’s actions. Moore commented to...

  25. 20 Seeing Another Meaning
    (pp. 241-249)

    In a scene inLady Godiva Rides Again, Alistair Sim as a bankrupt film producer cynically reflects that, “What with television to the left of us, Hollywood to the right of us, and the government behind us, our industry – laughable term – is forever on the blink.” it was a cry from the heart: by 1952, the independent companies formerly under Rank’s umbrella had found the rain getting in, several of the major studios had been disposed of, the Crown Film Unit was closed, and the “X” certificate was introduced to tempt audiences to the previously forbidden. Yet, while television and...

  26. 21 Swashbucklers and Noir
    (pp. 250-260)

    In diametric contrast toMandywas Robert Siodmak’s buccaneering yarn,The Crimson Pirate(1952). Alwyn’s enjoyment oozes from every stave of this score – one senses a relief from serious-minded assignments, a satisfaction of his romanticism and his sense of fun. financed by Warner Brothers – director and stars Burt Lancaster and Nick Cravat were American, other actors and film crew were British – it found inspiration, as the title suggests, in the 1926 Douglas fairbanks swashbucklerThe Black Pirate: several stunts were alike, and both were irreverent extravaganzas typified by the fixed grins of their heroes.

    Alwyn’s often tongue-in-cheek composition lies in...

  27. 22 Music and the Spoken Word
    (pp. 261-265)

    According to Mary Alwyn,¹ William was particularly satisfied with the scores ofOdd Man Out,The Rocking Horse Winner, andThe Ship that Died of Shame. for Dearden’sThe Ship that Died of Shame, Alwyn’s proportioned and complex score in 1955 is in contrast to his spare contribution to the same director’sThe Rainbow Jacketthe previous year. The heroine of this excursion into the paranormal is motor gunboat number 1087, with a noble wartime history and commanded by Bill randle (George Baker), whose young wife helen (Virginia Mckenna) is killed in an air raid. With the war finished, he...

  28. 23 “Music My Task-master”
    (pp. 266-271)

    On 7 November 1955 William Alwyn’s birthday was marked by a broadcast of his festival march on the Home Service. He was 50 years old, and it was time to take stock. His diary, polished for publication in 1967, records his daily life for the twelve months following September 1955:¹ he had already retired from his professorship at the RAM, he started composing his Third Symphony (1955–6). There were meetings with Roger Manvell and John Huntley about a major book on film music,² and after much heart-searching he turned down the prestigious appointment of head of music for BBC...

  29. 24 I Labour On . . .
    (pp. 272-285)

    Thus the following March saw the release ofFortune is a Woman(1957), afilm noirfrom Frank Launder, critically undervalued in its day and since slighted by its producer Sidney Gilliat, who hated its elements of the whodunnit¹ – which are precisely what sustain the tension. The script is intelligent yet complicated, involving an insurance assessor, Oliver Bramwell (Jack Hawkins), who investigates a fire at a country house where he meets Tracey Moreton (Dennis Price) and his wife Sarah (Arlene Dahl), with whom he has previously had an affair. When Oliver returns to the house alone, he finds Tracey dead...

  30. 25 And On . . .
    (pp. 286-288)

    The paths of Alwyn and Peter Graham Scott had crossed as early as 1942, when Scott was the young editor ofA Modern Miracle(1942). Scott remembers working with Alwyn after the war onProud City: “Bill and I had to run through each sequence on the Moviola, a rackety and noisy viewing machine then universally used for editing . . . many many times until he had the precise footage and action written down, and impressed on his fertile brain.”¹ By the end of the 1950s Scott was carving a successful career in television, but he made a rare...

  31. 26 Dark Themes
    (pp. 289-294)

    The director Michael Anderson’s penchant for melodrama, already noticed inShake Hands with the Devil, led in 1961 to almost unanimous critical disdain forThe Naked Edge. The composer received brickbats too: the anonymousGuardiancritic wrote of “so insistent a weight of background music”,¹ whileTimemagazine observed that the “cellos groan ominously in what ought to be called the film’s foreground music”.² Background, foreground . . . Alwyn’s defiantly confrontational cues seem to fly in the face of his maxim that music should be “sensed and not predominant – predominant but only sensed”.³

    Yet Anderson, Alwyn, and photographer Ewin...

  32. 27 Endings
    (pp. 295-301)

    Very different fromNight of the Eaglewas Alwyn’s final work for Disney, recorded at the beginning of March 1962. His first plan forIn Search of the Castaways(1962) was a chorus “sung like a sea shanty”,¹ based on Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman’s main theme “Castaway”. The plan was later abandoned in favour of an orchestral arrangement, but it was a sensible one for what was billed as “Jules Verne’s fantasy-adventure”. It is a tale of a young girl, Mary Grant (Hayley Mills), who sets off with her brother Robert (Keith Hamshere), the eccentric Professor Paganel (Maurice...

  33. 28 Utopian Sunset
    (pp. 302-306)

    Alwyn may have regarded the scrapping of his title music toThe Running Manas a quid pro quo of working for the film industry. Perhaps, though, it was a blow to his pride in a stressful employment, which he was coming to think he no longer needed. it was time to get out; the pop titles ofThe Running Manwere the writing on the wall: pop, jazz, and electronic underscores were proving that expensive orchestras could be dispensed with. The classic film with the large orchestral music track was about to be eclipsed.

    In any case he was...

  34. Glossary of Musical Terms
    (pp. 307-310)
  35. Filmography
    (pp. 311-326)
  36. Select Discography
    (pp. 327-331)
  37. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 332-334)
  38. Index
    (pp. 335-357)
  39. Back Matter
    (pp. 358-358)