A guide to the composer Doreen Carwithen

A guide to the composer Doreen Carwithen

When visitors came to see the composer William Alwyn at his home in Blythburgh in Suffolk, they were always greeted by his wife, Mary.

Their house was silent, almost eerily so. Mary kept it that way so nothing would disturb William as he composed. She was completely dedicated to William and his work – guests remembered her as quiet and unassuming, and terrible at making tea.

Few realised that Mary Alwyn had once been a famous composer herself, and a quite different woman altogether. Born Doreen Mary Carwithen, she changed her name after she and William eloped to Suffolk in 1961, eventually becoming his wife in 1975. It’s at least partly because of this relationship that Carwithen’s name is still relatively unfamiliar today. She put her career aside to promote his.

Doreen Carwithen lived much of her life in the shadow of her husband, fellow composer William Alwyn

It was only after William died in 1985 that she allowed herself a small re-emergence as a composer, and in the 1990s oversaw the recording of her string quartets, Violin Sonata and some of her orchestral works. Carwithen’s fame has been slowly growing since then, and her centenary this year has been celebrated with the first ever festival dedicated to her, and country-wide performances including at the BBC Proms.

It’s unsurprising that Carwithen’s music is enjoying a renaissance. Her style is utterly captivating. She can just as easily write energetic, rhythmically driven music as she can intimate, introspective pieces built on luminous harmonies and lingering chords. And shining through in all her works is a pure, unadulterated love of melody. She never embraced atonality or experimentalism – she belongs to the same brand of 20th-century British composition as William Walton, Grace Williams and Benjamin Britten.

Carwithen received her first musical training from her mother, Dulcie. She had wanted to be a concert pianist herself, and gave music lessons to her two daughters, Doreen and Barbara. Both went on to study at the Royal Academy of Music, where Doreen started out as a pianist and cellist in 1941. Judging by her works that feature the cello and piano, she was clearly an accomplished performer on both instruments, but it was at the Academy that she began the harmony lessons that would change the direction of her life.

It was these classes that ultimately resulted in her shift of focus to composition – and they were also where she first met William Alwyn. He was assigned as her harmony tutor, and even though he was already married, the two began a passionate relationship that would be conducted in secret for nearly 20 years.

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Suffolk, where Doreen Carwithen and William Alwyn lived and which inspired her ‘Suffolk Suite’

Presumably, at least part of what attracted Alwyn to Carwithen was her obvious compositional talent. He recognised her abilities from the songs that she brought to her first lessons, and encouraged her to continue writing larger works. Much of her student pieces have been lost, but those which survive show that Carwithen had a remarkably assured, original voice from very early on. The 1943 Nocturne and Humoresque for cello and piano already have many of the trademarks of her later works – bold rhythms are mixed with piquant harmonies, always with an eye for virtuosic flair.

The most remarkable work of these years is perhaps the Piano Sonatina (1945-6). This is very much a pianist’s piece; its sprightly outer movements that whizz and snap along like firecrackers demand a formidable technique, but they are balanced by a meditative second movement that is so economically constructed that it allows the performer a real interpretative flexibility. The Sonatina was premiered by Carwithen’s classmate and lifelong friend, pianist Violet Graham. She was an important interpreter of Carwithen’s early works, and also premiered some of Carwithen’s songs with the soprano Elizabeth Cooper.

The Serenade for Voice and Piano (1945), and Three Songs to Poems by Walter de la Mare (1946) show quite a different side to Carwithen’s compositional personality. They are whimsical, romantic pieces, and bear the influence of Vaughan Williams more than anything else in Carwithen’s output. They are the closest she ever got to musical declarations of love – the Serenade was privately dedicated to Alwyn, the text proclaiming that ‘My true love hath my heart and I have his’.

After only three years of composing, Carwithen claimed the prestigious Alfred J. Clements Chamber Music Prize with her String Quartet No. 1 (1945). Her String Quartet No. 2 (1950) followed in its footsteps, awarded a Cobbett Prize in 1952. Carwithen considered the quartet to be ‘the most perfect of mediums’, and it shows in her writing. The quartets are among her most powerful works, exploring a more experimental harmonic and timbral palette than in her other chamber music. She began composing a third quartet in her final years, but sadly never lived to complete it. Who knows in what directions this ‘most perfect of mediums’ might have taken the older Carwithen, tempting her back to composition after nearly 15 years of silence?

Carwithen’s style

Carwithen writes extremely evocatively. In her orchestral works, everything from her orchestration to approach to melody is influenced by film composition.

Carwithen’s music is often balancing on the edge of modernism, particularly in her early works, but she was nonetheless heavily influenced by Romantic music and art.

The English landscape was a continuous source of inspiration for Carwithen, particularly the rolling fields and wetlands of Suffolk. In her Suffolk Suite in particular, she presents an idealised vision of the county.

Timbre is all-important in Carwithen’s work, even in her chamber music. Vaughan Williams loved her String Quartet No. 1 except for her use of sul ponticello (keeping the bow near the bridge), which he described as a ‘nasty noise’.

Where Carwithen really made her name, though, was as a film composer. In 1947 she became both the first woman and the first student from the Royal Academy to be selected for the J Arthur Rank Apprenticeship Scheme, which trained composers to write for cinema. The Rank Organisation was Britain’s largest production company, producing such greats as Brief Encounter and Laurence Olivier’s Henry V.

Carwithen couldn’t have hoped for a better platform in the film industry, and she received her first solo credit in 1948 for a short drama called To The Public Danger, about the perils of drink-driving. She went on to score diverse features ranging from the borstal drama Boys in Brown (1949) starring Richard Attenborough and Dirk Bogarde, to the swashbuckling adventure movie Men of Sherwood Forest (1954). And in 1953 she was also selected to score Pathé’s film about Elizabeth II’s coronation, Elizabeth is Queen, which was awarded a BAFTA Certificate of Merit.

As one of the first women in the UK to score films (her contemporaries included Elisabeth Lutyens and Grace Williams), Carwithen was certainly a pioneer, but this also meant that she had to navigate considerable prejudice in a male-dominated industry. Despite her work on Elizabeth is Queen, for example, she was listed not as the composer but as the conductor Adrian Boult’s assistant. And she found it impossible to get an agent to represent her, which resulted in her having to work harder for lower pay than her male counterparts. But when she tried to raise the issue of equal pay after discovering she was being paid less than men for the same amount of work, she was simply told ‘Don’t you think you’re doing very well for a woman?’ Her commission was not increased.

It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that one of her most creatively fruitful collaborations was with the female director Wendy Toye. Not only did Toye treat Carwithen fairly as a professional, but music was integral to her movies. Usually, composers were brought in at the last moment once the edit was complete. But Toye worked with composers from the outset, carefully choreographing sound and visuals. This resulted in some of Carwithen’s favourite films, including The Stranger Left No Card (1952), Three Cases of Murder (1955) and On the Twelfth Day (1955).

Doreen Carwithen: Life and times

Life: Doreen Mary Carwithen is born on 15 November in Haddenham, Buckinghamshire. Her musical talents are encouraged from an early age by her mother Dulcie, a highly talented pianist.
Times: Led by Andrew Bonar Law, the Conservatives win the General Election. A group of the party’s newly elected MPs form a dining club which will later become known as the 1922 Committee.

A fine pianist and cellist, she wins a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London. One of her teachers there is the 35-year-old composer William Alwyn.
Times: Thousands die and many more are made homeless during the Blitz, in which the German Luftwaffe carries out a series of bombing raids on major British cities, from Plymouth to Glasgow.

Life: Now a successful film composer, she works day-and-night on the score for the documentary film of the coronation of Elizabeth II, released just three days after the event itself.
Times: Designer Laura Ashley and her husband Bernard start a new business by selling Victorian-style headscarves printed on a machine that he has built in their attic flat in Pimlico, London. 

Life: Having moved with Alwyn to Blythburgh, Suffolk, in 1961, she composes her Suffolk Suite, commissioned by nearby Framlingham College for the opening of its new concert hall.
Times: Top of the Pops is broadcast for the first time on BBC TV. Dusty Springfield opens the show with ‘I Only Want To Be With You’ and other appearances include The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. 

Life: She marries Alwyn who, despite their decades-long relationship, has only recently divorced his first wife, Olive. Disliking the name Doreen, she adopts the married name Mary Alwyn.
Times: Ross McWhirter, co-founder of the Guinness Book of Records, is shot dead by the Provisional IRA for having offered a £50,000 reward for information that might lead to terrorist convictions.

Life: Paralysed on one side by a stroke in 1999, she dies in Forncett St Peter, near Norwich, on 5 January. She is buried alongside her husband in Holy Trinity Churchyard, Blythburgh.
Times: Concorde makes its last ever flight, departing from Heathrow Airport, flying south over the Bay of Biscay and then returning to the UK to land at Filton Airport in Bristol.

Carwithen’s prowess as a film composer is evident in her orchestral music for the concert hall. She composes pictorially, almost narratively, producing scores so vivid that it sometimes seems as though you are hearing a sequence of audible scenes passing before your ears. She burst onto London’s concert scene in 1947 with her overture ODTAA (One Damned Thing After Another), which caused a storm when it was performed by Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Reviewers loved her ‘genuine melodic invention and … feeling for bright and forceful rhythms and brilliantly effective orchestration’.

This critical enthusiasm stretched into the 1950s, with her 1952 overture Bishop Rock receiving similarly warm reviews when it premiered at the Birmingham Proms. Inspired by the lighthouse on the westernmost point of the Isles of Scilly, Bishop Rock is an unashamedly theatrical piece. It opens mid-tempest with a repeated horn motif that symbolises the lighthouse beam blazing out over the Atlantic, complemented by imaginative orchestration that evokes the waves crashing against the rocks. Again, reviewers sang the praises of Carwithen’s ‘vivid and original’ score.

By all accounts, Carwithen was flourishing as a composer in the 1950s. She had regular film commissions, her work was well received, and her pieces were winning awards. And yet she began to step back from composition in the latter half of the decade. Her relationship with Alwyn had finally taken its toll on her career. Trying to live a double life was intensely stressful for both of them: Alwyn drank heavily and Carwithen chain-smoked to get through the day, often forgetting to eat.

They had to avoid one another at the film studios where they both worked, and they lived in fear of colleagues finding out about the affair and ostracising them. So they made the decision to escape to Suffolk, where Doreen Carwithen became Mary Alwyn. With her support, Alwyn went on to compose major works including two operas. She penned just two more pieces – the 1964 Suffolk Suite, and Seascapes for cello and piano in the 1970s.

Carwithen’s output may not have been large, but as the performances this centenary years are showing, what she did write was exceptional. As her music becomes better known, perhaps Mary Alwyn can once more be known first and foremost as Doreen Carwithen, a formidable composer in her own right.

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