We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
  Alan Rawsthorne (1905–1971), by Sir Cecil Beaton, pubd 1948 Alan Rawsthorne (1905–1971), by Sir Cecil Beaton, pubd 1948
Rawsthorne, Alan (1905–1971), composer, was born on 2 May 1905 at Deardengate House, Haslingden, Lancashire, the younger child and only son of Hubert Rawsthorne (1868–1943) and his wife, Janet Bridge (1877/8–1927). His father, a qualified doctor, came from a middle-class landowning family, and the young Rawsthorne's early years were spent amid beautiful rolling Lancashire moorland. He suffered much ill health as a child, his education being from private tutors apart from brief spells at schools in Southport. In his early years he evinced both musical and literary talent, but his parents at first opposed his wish to become a musician, and it was not until 1925, after abortive periods of studying dentistry and architecture at Liverpool University, that he was able to enter the Royal Manchester College of Music, where he studied the piano with Frank Merrick and the cello with Carl Fuchs. The Rawsthornes, including Alan's elder sister, Barbara, were an extraordinarily close-knit and affectionate family, giving the two children a secure and caring background, and his mother's death in 1927 at the age of forty-nine was a severe blow.

After leaving college in 1929, Rawsthorne continued his piano studies with Egon Petri, first in Zakopane, Poland, and later, briefly, in Berlin. During 1932–4 he provided the music for the school of dance and mime at Dartington Hall, Devon, composing, playing the piano, and teaching there. On leaving Dartington, he moved to London and concentrated on composition. In 1934 he married the violinist Jessie May Hinchliffe (1908–1989), who had been a fellow student at Manchester and was now in the BBC Symphony Orchestra. After some chamber works had made local impact, Rawsthorne's first international breakthrough came with his Bagatelles for piano, Theme and Variations for two violins (both 1938), and Symphonic Studies for orchestra (1939); the latter two were performed at festivals of the International Society for Contemporary Music in London and Warsaw respectively, and the Bagatelles in Oslo. By the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Rawsthorne's left-wing political affiliations and pacifist beliefs were deeply established, but he nevertheless felt impelled to join the armed forces in order to fight the racism of the Nazi regime.

Rawsthorne's pre-war works were greeted by British critics as representing the influence of continental European trends, with their emphasis on contrapuntal techniques, freely and quickly moving tonality, and a highly chromatic style. The alertness, sensitivity, and underlying passion of his music were retained through the war years, during which he managed to complete the full orchestral version of his first piano concerto (1942) and the overture Street Corner (1944–5), both works achieving immediate success and sustained popularity. (The concerto's finale was encored at its Viennese première in 1950 in response to a great ovation.) The fantasy overture Cortèges (1945) is an especially dazzling display of contrapuntal wizardry. During the early war years Rawsthorne had sketched what became his first violin concerto (finally completed in 1947), but the sketches were lost when his flat in Bristol was bombed, and other works were also destroyed, notably Kubla Khan, a cantata for tenor, chorus, and orchestra of strings and percussion.

Following the war Rawsthorne became steadily productive across a range of mostly instrumental genres. He produced a fine Concerto for String Orchestra in 1949, his first symphony in 1950, and his greatest popular success, the second piano concerto, for the Festival of Britain in 1951, when it was first performed by Clifford Curzon, who recorded it. Curzon played it in numerous countries with conductors such as Sir John Barbirolli, Sir Thomas Beecham, Eduard van Beinum, Sergiu Celibidache, and Josef Krips. Other outstanding instrumental pieces from this period include a sonata for cello and piano and a sonatina for piano (both 1949), as well as the intense and passionate quartet for clarinet and strings of 1948. In these works, an added degree of romantic warmth seemed to be entering his music, though the magnificent second string quartet of 1954 combined this with exceptional economy of material. Parallel to this output was an increasingly important succession of major film scores, including The Captive Heart (1946), Uncle Silas (1947), Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1950), and The Cruel Sea (1952): Rawsthorne became an outstanding practitioner of this art, and often greatly enhanced the dramatic or emotional impact of his films.

During the mid-1950s, however, Rawsthorne's concert music was less consistently inspired, and it seemed that his mannerisms were constricting his imaginative fluency. In 1953 he moved to a remote Essex village, Little Sampford, leaving behind his somewhat bohemian existence in London and, as he himself said, giving himself an ‘escape to reality’. This return to the peace and tranquillity of the countryside gave him a new lease of creative life. The year after his divorce from Jessie in 1954, he married the painter Isabel Agnes Lambert, née Nicholas (1912–1992), the widow of one of Rawsthorne's closest friends and colleagues, Constant Lambert, and previously the wife of the journalist Sefton Delmer. Rawsthorne's second marriage was one of immense happiness, and it is significant that he and his new wife remained on terms of great friendship with his former wife. Isabel Lambert designed the décor of Madame Chrysanthème (Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 1955), Rawsthorne's only stage work.

In 1958, writing his sonata for violin and piano for Joseph Szigeti, Rawsthorne embarked on a final period of intense creativity, foreshadowed by the remarkable second violin concerto of 1956, whose disastrous première distracted attention from its great qualities and significant developments in style and technique. The violin sonata, a remarkably unified and resourceful work even for him, showed how he could integrate new elements into his familiar manner, and he continued to expand his technical and imaginative horizons over the next decade. The second symphony (Pastoral Symphony, 1959), with its soprano soloist in the reflective finale, shows an unexpected rapprochement to an English pastoral tradition that had always seemed inimical to him, without in any way diluting the individuality of his own musical personality, and in several works he made an equally successful linkage with Schoenbergian techniques, as in the quintet for piano and winds (1963). Perhaps his most striking and profound utterances from this period are the suite (really more of an oratorio) for soprano, chorus, and orchestra, Carmen vitale (1963), in which he uses medieval texts to make a personal statement of enormous power and demonstrates a remarkable insight into the medieval mind, and his third symphony (1964), music of passionate commitment in which he uses a twelve-note row in a distinctive and personal way to resolve cathartically the conflicts of earlier symphonic works.

In his last few years Rawsthorne's creative energies dimmed, but at the last, with his unfinished Elegy for guitar (1971), completed by its dedicatee Julian Bream, he proved still capable of the utmost delicacy and depth of thought, the passion beneath the surface of the music being as fresh and vivid as ever. He received increasing official recognition: he was made a CBE in 1961 and an honorary fellow of Downing College, Cambridge, in 1969, and received honorary doctorates from the universities of Belfast and Liverpool (1969) and Essex (1971). Rawsthorne was a most cultivated and charming man, whose precise use of language was particularly effective in expressing his dry wit. He was a courteous and gentle companion, and a writer of exceptional authority: his famous article on Chopin's ballades, fantasy, and scherzos (in Frédéric Chopin, ed. A. Walker, 1965) remains an exceptional contribution to Chopin scholarship. After his death in Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge, from pneumonia complicated by a haemorrhage on 24 July 1971, and subsequent burial at Thaxted parish church, Essex, a number of works retained a hold on the repertory, and towards the end of the 1980s there was a marked increase in performances and recordings. Rawsthorne's music is wider-ranging than has been acknowledged. Its wit and delicacy, as well as strong intelligence, have always been recognized, but only recently has the range of its power and depth begun to be properly appreciated. He made a unique, and one must believe enduring, contribution to British musical life.

John McCabe


J. McCabe, Alan Rawsthorne: portrait of a composer (1999) · personal knowledge (2004) · private information (2004) · Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, Rawsthorne archives · Oxford University Press, Rawsthorne archives · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1972)


Oxford University Press, archive files · Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, papers  







BBC WAC · BFINA · BL NSA, documentary recordings · BL NSA, oral history interviews · BL NSA, performance recordings · BL NSA, ‘The piano music of Alan Rawsthorne’, 6 April 1966, 1CO R0000597 B22 · BL NSA, ‘Rawsthorne at 60’, M365R TRK2 · BL NSA, recorded lecture · BL NSA, Talking about music, 70, 1LP015167552 BD1 BBC TRANSC · British Music Information Centre, London


C. Beaton, photograph, pubd 1948, NPG [see illus.] · J. Pannett, chalk drawing, c.1957–1958, NPG · R. Noakes, bronze cast of bust, 1965, NPG · I. Lambert, mixed media on canvas, 1966, repro. in Isabel Rawsthorne, 1912–1992: paintings, drawings and designs (1997–8) [exhibition catalogue, Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate, and October Gallery, London] · I. Lambert, oils, 1966, NPG · I. Lambert, mixed media on canvas, 1967, repro. in S. Doyle, Isabel Rawsthorne, 1912–1992: paintings, drawings and designs (1997) [exhibition catalogue, Harrogate and London, 1 Nov 1997–1 Feb 1998] · R. Noakes, plaster cast of death mask, 1971, NPG · J. Blake, photographs, priv. coll. · D. Glass, photographs, priv. coll.

Wealth at death  

£17,085: administration with will, 6 Jan 1972, CGPLA Eng. & Wales