A few years ago, listeners would have been forgiven for not realising that William Alwyn had composed any music before his Divertimento for flute (1940). Alwyn felt that his early music had suffered from ‘a woeful inadequacy of technique.’ He ‘disowned’ all music written before this date. In recent years, several early works have been discovered (clearly, he did not destroy the scores) and have received premiere recordings. Whilst many of these compositions may not be masterpieces, the listener will soon come to the opinion that Alwyn was too harsh on his ‘early horrors.’
These ‘prentice works include the Peter Pan Suite (1923), a Prelude for orchestra (1925), Prelude and Derrybeg Fair music from the opera The Fairy Fiddlers (1925), Five Preludes for orchestra (1927), Ad Infinitum: a satire for orchestra (1929), Aphrodite in Aulis (eclogue for small orchestra after George Moore (1932), Serenade (1932), Seven Irish Tunes (1936) and the Tragic Interlude for small orchestra (1936)
One of my favourite early works dates from 1926, when Alwyn was only 19 years old. Blackdown: a tone poem from the Surrey Hills was completed in London on 9 March 1926. Andrew Knowles’ liner notes for the only recording (at present) of this work, notes that the title refers to the summit of a hill situated near the town of Haselmere. The work is a ‘musical portrait of the area.’
Alwyn, himself, has written that ‘the pastoral opening depicts the quiet beauty of the whole wide expanse of country which extends as far as the eye can see. The oboe ushers in a chromatic tune which, like a breeze, disturbs the calm. The breeze freshens to a blustering gale, swaying the pine trees in the ‘Temple of the Winds’ till it reaches a crashing climax. Then the music dies away, finishing in the song-like mood of the opening.’
I felt that one major problem with this work was that it was too short for the wide ranging musical material presented. The piece is in an arch form, which opens and closes in a Delian mood. The middle section owes much to Arnold Bax and his November Woods. However, commentators have picked up on the influence of Rimsky Korsakov.
Roger Hecht in the American Record Guide (May 2010) connects the middle section of Blackdown with the storm in Rimsky-Korsakoff's Scheherazade but considers Alywn’s music is ‘darker and heavier.’
The tone poem was first performed at the Guildford St Nicholas Hall on 23 November 1926 by the Guilford Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Claud Powell. Adrian Wright (The Innumerable Dance, Boydell Press, 2008) cites an unattributable reviewer of the premiere who considered that Blackdown was ‘slight, pleasing and – a good point -concise.’ As noted above, I feel it could have been longer!
Blackdown: a tone poem from the Surrey Hills was released in Dutton Epoch (CDLX 7237) coupled the Overture in the form of a Serenade, Prelude for orchestra, the Peter Pan Suit and, Ad Infinitum: A Satire for orchestra. Other composers represented on this disc include Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s Hypathia: Incidental music, Vaughan Williams’ Heroic Elegy & Triumphal Epilogue and York Bowen’s Orchestral Poem: Eventide.
Ian Lace reviewing the Dutton release for MusicWeb International (9 December 2009) considered that ‘incredibly this dynamic piece was never performed in Alwyn’s lifetime. Blackdown – a Tone Poem of the Surrey Hills is a beautiful pastoral evocation beginning serenely but with developing storm-clouds that recall Bax’s November Woods.’
Writing in The Gramophone (June 2010), Andrew Achenbach considers that all four of Alwyn’s works in this CD ‘demonstrates a budding orchestral mastery…’
The Fanfare magazine had three critics review this work: Barry Brenesal; Arthur Lintgen, and Ronald E. Grames. They reported that William Alwyn's Prelude, Blackdown, Peter Pan Suite, and Ad Infinitum are all distinctly minor works that are technically competent and stylistically anonymous…Blackdown is a brief tone poem that gives an early glimpse of Alwyn's cinematic style. Interestingly, it was considered that Blackdown’s ‘opening briefly pays tribute to Vaughan Williams before settling into an idiom that mixes modal themes with Impressionistic harmonies and coloration to excellent effect.’ Certainly, this is where the allusions to Delius are found. Finally, Blackdown…shows the influence of Vaughan Williams and lacks only a distinctive melody to make it striking.
Later this year, (3 March, 2017) Chandos is releasing British Tone Poems: Volume 1 (CHAN 10939) This will include William Alwyn’s Blackdown, as well as Frederic Austin’s Rhapsody: Spring, Granville Bantock’s The Witch of Atlas, Balfour Gardiner’s A Berkshire Idyll, Ivor Gurney’s Gloucestershire Rhapsody and Vaughan Williams’ The Solent. Only the Balfour Gardiner is a premiere recording.