William Alwyn was born in Northampton where he showed an early interest in music and began to learn to play the piccolo. At age 15 he entered the Royal Academy of Music in London where he studied flute and composition. He was a virtuoso flautist and for a time was the principal flautist of the London Symphony Orchestra. Alwyn served as professor of composition at the Royal Academy of Music from 1926 to 1955.
William Alwyn had a remarkable range of talents. He was a distinguished polyglot, poet, and artist, as well as musician.
His compositional output was varied and large and included five symphonies, four operas, several concertos and string quartets.
Alwyn wrote over 70 film scores from 1941 to 1962. His classic film scores included Odd Man Out, Desert Victory, Fires Were Started, The History of Mr Polly, The Fallen Idol, The Black Tent and Crimson Pirate. Many of the scores have been lost, but in recent years CD recordings have been made, reconstructed by Philip Lane from the film soundtracks themselves.
Alwyn could be considered a late Romantic composer whose style is not dissimilar to, for example, William Walton. He relished dissonance, and devised his own alternative to twelve-tone serialism, explained in his own programme note to his Third Symphony (1956): "the twelve notes used in a different way – in a tonal manner". Eight notes of the possible twelve are used in the first movement, with the remaining four (D, E, F, and A-flat) constituting the middle movement, and all twelve being combined for the finale. (The composer adds "This all sounds very complicated, but I don’t think you will find it a difficult work to listen to.")
Alwyn's concerto for harp and string orchestra, Lyra Angelica, became popularly known when figure skater Michelle Kwan performed to it at the 1998 Winter Olympics.
William Alwyn lived at 'Larkrise", Dunwich Road, Blythburgh, Suffolk and died in Southwold, Suffolk, England in 1985. He was survived by his second wife, the composer Doreen Carwithen.