Doreen Carwithen’s Violin Sonata

The fortunes of a piece of music can change significantly over time. In 1952, a violin sonata by the young composer Doreen Carwithen was rejected by the BBC Music Panel – a powerful gate-keeping body who decided which new works were suitable for broadcast. But 65 years on, a recording of the same sonata by Fenella Humphreys and Nathan Williamson was given a five-star review by BBC Music Magazine.

If you’re new to Carwithen’s music, an inescapable fact of her life is her relationship with the composer William Alwyn, with whom she settled down in the 1960s and later married. Thereafter, her young ambitions in composition were mostly laid aside as she focussed on supporting him.

It’s a depressingly familiar story. And it’s of no disrespect to her remaining works to say that this early sonata is both a beautiful piece in its own right, and also a poignant suggestion of what more might have been.

Still, we should be grateful for the music we have. And perhaps it’s a fitting time of year to discover this impressive work – there’s an autumnal melancholy to the first movement, with a windswept piano part that rises into whirlwinds of blustery passion, as the violin line surges high above.

The music certainly wears its heart on its sleeve. But this is a sonata with a disarming habit of soft endings. In a coda of unexpected serenity, the movement turns quite magically to the major-key, beautifully realised by Humphreys and Williamson.

There’s no such calm in the second movement, which jumps out at us in a rapid machine-gun of notes, lightened by clownish piano chords. A mercurial scherzo – but the first movement’s billowing moods burst through, in chilly gusts of deeper feeling.

It’s quite the roller-coaster ride in these sure hands, and for a few bars it sounds like we’re heading for a triumphant climax. But at the last Carwithen pulls the rug, and the music tip-toes away with a wink.

After two energetic movements, Carwithen ends the sonata with a slow one, and an expressive melody in the violin’s lower register suggests that passion has become sorrow. But a fit of increasing agitation leads to an extraordinary transition – a delicate wonderland of tinkling runs on the piano, and sustained high notes on the violin. It has the naive innocence of a childhood memory, and quickly fades away before a brief cadenza, and a fragile close.

Another composer might have added a fourth movement, to tie this sonata together more emphatically. And while I don’t know the BBC Panel’s rationale for their rejection, perhaps they found this structure unsatisfying.

In any case, I’d question this assumption – as much as I’d question the larger edifice of social values under which women like Carwithen ended up sacrificing their creative ambitions.

Some things in life do wane away, and end in repose. There are fractures and unexpected endings, and sometimes we have to cherish the moments of serenity when they come.

And when the passage of time gives us new perspectives, we can also be thankful. To have a recording that is such convincing advocate for this sonata is, perhaps, a triumphant ending enough.

Download the whole album from Chandos, read the liner notes here

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