- William Alwyn: The Art of Film Music
William Alwyn (1905–1985) was one of the most important and prolific composers in the history of British film music. He entered the profession in 1936 and quickly became a major participant in the British Documentary Movement. During the Second World War, he scored such influential propaganda films as Fires Were Started (1943) and Desert Victory (1943). Around the same time, he began his fruitful collaboration with director Carol Reed, who inspired Alwyn to produce his two most famous scores: Odd Man Out (1947) and The Fallen Idol (1948). As the British film industry began to decline in the late 1950s, Alwyn gradually curtailed his activities as a film composer. He wrote his last score, The Running Man, in 1963.
Ian Johnson's William Alwyn: The Art of Film Music is without doubt a labor of love. In the acknowledgements, the author reveals: "In the autumn of 1958, William Alwyn gave a lecture at London's National Film Theatre. In a dark grey suit, quietly spoken, and dwarfed by the cinema screen, his modest appearance camouflaged a talk that seemed to me so radical and inspirational that it has boiled and bubbled under my skull ever since" (p. vii). Johnson's longstanding interest in and love of Alwyn's music is revealed on every page of this book. Given that film credits of this period are often incomplete, one has to admire the author's efforts in determining which films the composer actually scored. One is also struck by Johnson's persistence in locating, watching and analyzing almost all of Alwyn's 200+ films—some of which are extremely obscure. Given this, I wish I could be more enthusiastic about the results. The book begins with a useful introduction that outlines Alwyn's thoughts on film music. Three points are emphasized: Alwyn's belief that films should be truly collaborative works; his conviction that film music's main purpose is to enhance a film's dramatic atmosphere; and the value that he places on the use of silence in a film score.
Unfortunately, the introduction also exposes the fact that the author lacks a broad knowledge of either film music studies or the Western symphonic tradition. In a footnote on page 2, Johnson acknowledges Royal S. Brown's book Overtones and Undertones: Reading Film Music (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), and then states that Brown's influence "probably encouraged" recent writers to use the term "diegetic." Since this term became a staple in film music studies much earlier, this casual statement forces one to wonder whether the author is familiar with any scholarship on film music published before 1994. Later in the introduction, Johnson asserts that Alwyn's "film composition may have influenced his concert works more than he would have admitted: from his second symphony (1953) to his final fifth symphony (Hydriotaphia, 1972–73) he employs a cyclic tendency, the use of common material to relate each movement and conform the overall structure, which has an obvious affinity to the operatic and cinematic device of leitmotif" (p. 6). Given that the "cyclic symphony" has had a significant and continuous history since the mid-nineteenth century, one wonders how Johnson can expect readers to believe—without presenting any further evidence—that Alwyn's use of cyclic [End Page 381] forms is related to his experience as a film composer.
The first chapter is a brief biography of Alwyn up to his debut as a film music composer, and the remaining twenty-seven chapters are essentially a set of program notes for Alwyn's film scores. Here, one can find useful background information about Alwyn and his collaborators, brief plot summaries, evaluations of non-musical aspects of the films and, most important, analyses of Alwyn's approach to scoring each film. In these chapters, Johnson presents many interesting historical tidbits and offers a number of insights. His commentary about Alwyn's use of silence and the ways his music...