ALWYN; CARWITHEN Music for String Quartet
The string quartet as a genre always held a special fascination for William Alwyn and while a young composer he produced no fewer than 13 works for what he later referred to as ‘the most perfect of mediums’. Taught at the Royal Academy by John Blackwood McEwen, himself the author of 17 quartets between 1893 and 1947, he developed an affinity and fluency for this most abstract of instrumental idioms. Attempting to dispel the stereotype of a ‘film composer’, a profession at which he proved immensely competent, creative and prolific in the 1930s and ’40s, he set himself a challenging agenda after the Second World War with the composition of a more ambitious output of symphonies (notably Nos 1 4 between 1949 and 1959), works that illustrate his impressive powers of intellectual organisation and structural fecundity as well as his talent for colourful, post-Straussian orchestration. At the same time he also embarked on a more challenging odyssey of chamber composition of which the Three Winter Poems trilogy of 1948 provides an unusual example of his flair for pictorialism (which he had learnt through his composition for the big screen) combined with the sparer textures of the quartet.
The two quartets of Doreen Carwithen, one time pupil of Alwyn at the Royal Academy and later his second wife, date from early in her career. No 1 in three movements is in fact a student work of 1945, somewhat neoclassical in its austere, modal harmonies and studied polyphony. An increased warmth lifts the attractive slow movement before a sprightly contrapuntal finale returns to the neoclassical world of the first movement. No 2, dating from 1950, experiments with a cyclic two-movement paradigm (anticipating that of Alwyn’s Symphony No 2 of 1953) whose expressive molto adagio functions as an extended anticipation of the second movement, an invigorating Allegro with a distinctive, slower and more lyrical developmental phase.
Alwyn’s String Quartet No 3 of 1984, written the year before his death and inspired by a poem of Joy Finzi, was the last of his chamber works. Also in two movements, it reverses the paradigm of Carwithen’s Quartet No 2 by placing the Allegro first and situating the emotional emphasis on the substantial slow movement which follows. The first movement, which combines elements of scherzo, is a big-boned sonata. Alwyn’s generous romanticism surfaces in the spacious second subject, which is later recapitulated with even greater munificence. The slow movement, which unusually combines elegy and waltz, has all of Alwyn’s passionate hallmarks. The Tippett Quartet should be congratulated for their sympathetic interpretations of a neglected repertoire, though one that should be more often performed.