Film Music of William Alwyn

April 10, 2012

Did you know that William Alwyn (1905-1985) contributed to nearly 200 film scores? He could be considered the Max Steiner of Britain. In addition he taught composition for thirty years at the Royal Academy of Music. He also has a long list of classical compositions and I suspect that many of you reading this review are unfamiliar with this fine composer. In addition to all of that his hobby included painting. I first became aware of William Alwyn through a series of Chandos Film Music CD’s which are still available. The CD numbers are Chandos 9243, 9959, and 10349 and all come highly recommended. The Alwyn works are arranged and re-constructed by Philip Lane and Christopher Palmer as little of his material exists in original soundtrack format. Written full scores no longer exist due to the stupidity of film studios which destroyed them during a clear out! This release is made possible by the William Alwyn Foundation along with superb arrangements from Martin Ellerby who created a sound that is unlike other wind arrangements. I felt like I was listening to a symphonic interpretation of his work!


The Crimson Pirate (1952) directed by Robert Siodmak, starred Burt Lancaster and Eva Bartok and was a fun swashbuckling adventure that could have served as a template for the Pirates of the Caribbean series. The suite captures four of the major themes which includes the main title, a courtly march, a comical selection, and love theme. The fine playing makes one want to see the film! The recording brings out a distinct separation in individual instruments which further enhances the listening experience.

The History of Mr. Polly (1949) a novel by H.G. Wells starring Sir John Mills follows the somewhat unusual life of Mr. Polly. The suite is a highlight, approximately one half of the Philip Lane re-construction that includes five of the six cues. It has the feel of a silent film score featuring comical, serious, romantic, march, and waltz material.

The Way Ahead (1944) starring David Niven and directed by Carol Reed offers an upbeat military march with some excellent work being done by the brass section. It is a catchy tune that you’ll want to re-visit and listen to over and over.

State Secret (1950) is a spy thriller starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and the soundtrack is presented as a four part suite. A thematic military march very stoic begins the suite. Following the “Main Title,” a shortened version from the Chandos recording is “Grand Ball” a sprightly upbeat tune. “Theatre Music,” perfectly suited for the wind band is a frantic circus underscore cue that will conjure up magic in your head. The mood dramatically shifts in “On the Barge” to a soft quiet offering with a nice interchange between flute and saxophone. “Finale” concludes the suite with a re-statement of the “Main Title”

The Million Pound Note (1953) was based on a story by Mark Twain that starred Gregory Peck and dealt with a million pound note.  Alwyn wrote a slower paced waltz that sets the mood for the film.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960), one of three films Alwyn did for Disney. A lot of the melodic content comes from the song “My Heart Was an Island” written for this film by Terry Gilkyson. Alwyn was very creative in the disguises he used to incorporate the wonder theme.

True Glory (1944-1945) an award winning documentary is a solid example of what a British victory march should sound like when they overcame the German troops and Berlin falling to the Allies.

Geordie (1955) a film which takes place in Scotland stars Bill Travers and deals with the taking of a physical correspondence course which results in an Olympic hammer-throwing champion. Alwyn makes use of the Scottish melodies “Hearken My Love,” and “Highland Laddie” which gives it that very special flavor. Never over the top this is a well rounded suite which tells the story of love, tragedy, and victory.

In Search of the Castaways (1962) another Disney film starring Hayley Mills with story by Jules Verne with the often used plot of a message in a bottle offers a special rumba with the brass and percussion performing quite nicely.

Desert Victory (1943) is another of the many documentaries that Alwyn did for the British Army film unit. This film dealt with Montgomery pursuing the Axis forces through Tripoli. It is a series of nicely crafted marches, a style Alwyn was quite comfortable with.

This Naxos release offers distinct separation between the instruments along with good dynamic range which makes for a nice listening experience. It is a nice introduction to wind band arranging and performing as well as the music of William Alwyn.


Track Listing:

1… The Crimson Pirate (7:59)

The History of Mr. Polly Suite

2… The Wedding and Funeral (2:27)

3… Fire (2:13)

4… Christabel (2:46)

5… Punting Scene (1:32)

6… Utopian Sunset (2:26)

7… The Way Ahead-March (1:46)

State Secret Suite

8… Main Titles and Grand Ball (1:59)

9… Theater Music (2:16)

10… On The Barge (2:09)

11… Finale (1:10)

12… The Million Pound Note (3:08)

Swiss Family Robinson

13… Main Titles (3:05)

14… At Home (2:46)

15… Ostriches and Waterslides (3:42)

16… The True Glory (2:44)


17… Main Titles (1:59)

18… The Samson Way (2:47)

19… Father and Son (2:39)

20… Geordie and Jean (2:00)

21… The Hammer Reel (1:34)

In Search of the Castaways

22… Ship’s Waltz (3:03)

23… Rumba (2:40)

24… Desert Victory (8:56)

Total Time: 69:46



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