Born in 1905, William Alwyn was among the large group of post-Romantic English composers who gained popularity in the wake of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst. A prolific composer, as well as a flautist and teacher, he worked successfully in various forms and idioms.
Alwyn was educated at the Northampton Grammar School, where he proved a promising student in both music and art. He attended the Royal Academy of Music from 1920 to 1923, by which time he had settled on composition as his main interest in life. His studies were interrupted by the death of his father when he was eighteen, and he was forced to go to work. He taught in a preparatory school and made the rounds of theater orchestras as a flautist before returning to the Academy three years later as a composition teacher. Alwyn's own breakthrough as a composer took place in 1927, when Sir Henry Wood conducted the premiere of his Five Preludes for Orchestra at a promenade concert in London. His Piano Concerto was finished in 1930, and his oratorio, a setting of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake, was completed in 1936. Despite many honors and awards, Alwyn abruptly abandoned all of his early works in 1939, regarding his technique as inadequate.
Alwyn turned to neo-classicism in the 1940s, and found inspiration for a resumption of his career. His later work included four symphonies, the first dating from 1949, two concerti grossi, a series of four Scottish Dances, and several programmatic orchestral works including the symphonic prelude The Magic Island, the gorgeous and haunting Lyra Angelica for harp and strings, and Autumn Legend, as well as a pair of string quartets and other chamber pieces, and the operas The Libertine and Miss Julie. His seventy film scores include Penn of Pennsylvania (1941), Green For Danger (1946), Odd Man Out (1946), The Fallen Idol (1948), and The Rocking Horse Winner (1950), as well as many documentaries. He was made a Fellow of the British Film Academy. In 1955, Alwyn gave up his teaching position, and from 1961 onward pursued composition virtually exclusively. In 1978, he was knighted. Alwyn died in 1985.
There was something of an Alwyn renaissance in the 1970s, both in performance and a series of landmark recordings by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by the composer himself, for the Lyrita label. In the 1980s and 1990s, younger conductors on other labels -- most notably Chandos -- began recording the symphonies and other orchestral works.
Alwyn's music is melodic and eminently accessible, if not always as adventurous as modern listeners might expect. His tunecraft could be both subtle and profound, as in The Magic Island (inspired by Shakespeare's The Tempest and the Lyra Angelica, both compelling visions of beauty and mystery that rank among the finest pieces of program music of their era. His symphonies are plainer and dryer, but only slightly less attractive, with beautiful scoring and great technical vitality. All of these pieces were often regarded as out-of-date in the relentlessly avant-garde world of contemporary music at the time they were published, and they were largely ignored outside of England at the time. With the rebirth of interest in twentieth-century English music, however, Alwyn's work has gradually been finding a wider audience since the 1980s.