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  • The Innumerable Dance: The Life and Work of William Alwyn
  • John C. Dressler
The Innumerable Dance: The Life and Work of William Alwyn. By Adrian Wright. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press, 2008. [xii, 336 p. ISBN 9781843834120. $60.] Illustrations, work list, discography, bibliography, indexes.

Between 1936 and 1963 William Alwyn scored nearly 200 documentary and feature films in Britain. He was born in 1905 in Northampton, the son of a grocer. He had been a pupil at the Royal Academy between 1915 and 1919 and again from 1921 until 1924, having received both the Ross Scholar ship (flute) and the Sir Michael Costa Scholarship (composition). In 1927 he was appointed professor at the Royal Academy, where he would teach until 1955. His flute work would be featured before 1940 by such groups as the London Symphony Orchestra, the Iris Lemare Orchestra, and solo recitals throughout London and on BBC broadcasts. He was also a founding member of The Composers’ Guild of Great Britain, of which group he would serve twice as Chair; he actively fought for the Copyright Bill of 1956. In addition to film scores he composed a variety of chamber and piano works, two concerti for piano and orchestra, a violin concerto, five symphonies, and several operas. He was made a Fellow of the British Film Academy in 1958 and was awarded a C.B.E. for services to English music in 1978. The University of Leicester recognized him with an honorary doctorate in 1982. Did I mention that in his retirement days in Suffolk (which lasted for over twenty years) he translated and had published a collection of French poetry, became a rather successful amateur painter, and kept a fascinating set of diaries? Within these pages is an amazing story about a remarkable man, his rise in the musical world of London between the world wars, his major contribution to the new medium of film music, and his ability to write serious art music as well. Amid the complications and strain of a divorce and a rebirth in a second marriage, the continual criticism by many in London of his selling out to film music, and the challenges of bringing to fruition the 1972 recordings of all of his symphonies by Lyrita, Alwyn constantly bounced back with more and more achievements as Adrian Wright so keenly informs us. Because he was allowed access to a wealth of family and professional letters of Alwyn, colleagues, relatives and the like, his writing grabs and holds the reader’s attention. The writing is a pleasing blend of eloquent, friendly, and endearing phrases, and at times it is blunt in its presentation and reactions to the ever-changing scenes in Alwyn’s life and career. Lives unfold before the reader as Wright relates the stresses and struggles experienced by Alwyn, Olive (his first wife), his two sons, and Doreen Carwithen (Alwyn’s pupil and later second wife):

Each evening he would leave Olive at North Square and go to the Savile where he downed several double whiskies. On those nights when he visited Carwithen at her flat, he would drink another half a bottle; in all, he was drinking a bottle a day. . . . His condition deteriorated and he lapsed into a coma that lasted for three days. . . . There had been complications, and for two days he had been delirious. When he came to, he was given a sharp warning about his drinking by Dr. Shepherd. . . . Alwyn recalled, “Doctor Shepherd said to me . . . ‘If you don’t go away at once—with Mary (Doreen)—I can’t vouch for your sanity or health at all.’ . . . There was only one answer: Alwyn must leave Olive and his family behind and begin a new existence with Carwithen.”

(pp. 181–2) [End Page 321]

But even with these words from letters, Wright’s interview with Nicholas, Alwyn’s youngest son, reveals that Nicholas “disputed his father’s recollection of what happened: I would have thought it was extremely unlikely that Shepherd did that. He might have been blackmailed or persuaded by my father, but that wasn’t the story I heard” (p. 182). The author leads the reader through several instances of contradiction...


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