Alwyn - The Sun is Setting
Interpreting the Music
Teaching & Learning the Piece
Alwyn: The Sun is Setting
• C major with some colourful harmonies
• Slow, pensive mood
• Song-like melody, varied accompaniment
• One awkward stretch, otherwise small hands should manage
• Use of both (sustain and una corda) pedals
• Variety of techniques needed
• Balance between melody and accompaniment
William Alwyn was a prolific English composer of operas, symphonies, chamber music and film scores – of which he wrote over 70 in only 21 years. He was a virtuoso on the flute and spoke several languages.
This piece could easily be part of a film sound track, and should be played with a clear imagined picture of the scene as the sun sets. The musical language is loosely based around C major with some unexpected harmonies. There are also references to the whole tone scale (bar 53 onwards). This scale includes the two notes of a C major chord that finish the piece with a sudden but understated finality – rather like the moment the sun slips below the horizon.
It will be an adventure for the student to explore the effect of the strange harmonies, and to use their experience of different sunsets to help with interpretation. Photographs, videos and their own memories can be freely drawn upon. In particular, the relationship between colour and sound is a rich source of discussion and experiment.
In developing the interpretation, consider also whether the sunset experience includes sounds such as evening birdsong, distant sounds of animals or people, scents of the sea or of flowers, how many people are present, how the player feels about it all, and even the temperature of the air!
There is a clear melody/accompaniment, split between the hands throughout, which swaps between RH and LH during bars 26-45. The melody must sing out above the accompaniment.
For some students there may be a need to go carefully through the initial note-reading process to prevent misreadings. Unusual harmonies may get accidentally “corrected” or accidentals overlooked.
Fingering is helpfully marked. Remind your student to slide the hand forward for the thumb to reach black keys where necessary. For small hands there is one awkward stretch in bar 40 LH where the second finger is on F over a G. If necessary this could be changed to a thumb but will need to be pedalled to maintain the legato.
Pedalling is generally easy to manage in bars 1-8, with a change of pedal at each new chord. In the following bars where C is tied through, remember to continue holding the note down so that it is not lost at a change of pedal. The chromatic harmonies in bars 16 and 17 are best left unpedalled. From bar 26 through to 35 pedal would be difficult to add without risk of blurring the semitones. Bars 38-45 can be pedalled with one change per bar.
From bar 46 to the end pedal markings are given but there are places where some extra pedal could help with continuity. The composer clearly means the pedal to be lifted at the start of bars 47, 49, 51 and 53, but repositioning the hands then leaves a gap which can be covered with pedal. The whole-tone scale (bars 53-4 and 57-9) lends itself to being pedalled for a cloudy, mysterious effect.
Use of the una corda in bars will help to keep the dynamic level as low as possible at the end. The order and manner of lifting the pedals at the end will need its own practice as thoughtlessness could ruin a magical ending. The sound of dampers dropping on to strings is preventable with care. Decide whether the hand and foot will move together or if not, which will move first. Lift the left foot gently off the una corda during the last chord to reduce the risk of pedal noises coinciding.
Dynamics are marked in detail by the composer, along with other expression marks such as dolcissimo and cantabile. These markings often come in bars where the dynamic level is louder, and should help to remind the player that loudness needs to be achieved without any harshness or force. The mood remains extremely gentle. Even at bar 26 which is marked forte, the espressivo direction means the LH melody should be warm rather than striking.