Doreen Carwithen, the first full-time female film composer – with a…

June 29, 2022, 4:05 PM

Doreen Carwithen is known as the world’s first full-time film composer.

Photo: Carwithen Music Festival (c/o Mark Chivers)


2022 is the centenary year of Doreen Carwithen, the pioneering figure in music who became the world’s first full-time female film composer.

In 1946, Doreen Carwithen – also known as Mary Alwyn – became the first woman in the world to work full-time as a film composer. And in 2022, the year of her centenary, she will be celebrated in a new festival dedicated to her life and her music.

Born 100 years ago in Haddenham, Buckinghamshire, Doreen was introduced to music by her mother, an aspiring concert pianist. After trying her hand at composition as a teenager, Doreen entered the Royal Academy of Music in 1941, where she studied under English composer and conductor William Alwyn.

His first orchestral work, the overture ODTAA (One goddamn thing after another), had its premiere at the Royal Opera House in 1947 and was a smash hit. Critics in the 1940s were stunned – surprised not only to see a young composer make his mark with a first orchestral work, but a young woman.

Doreen went on to write over 30 films in the late 1940s and 1950s, many of which were shot at the prestigious Denham Film Studios, home to brief encounter and Great expectations.

She quickly made a name for herself in the film industry for her ability to work calmly and quickly under pressure; his score for the official coronation film of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 was to be completed within a week.

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“A composer working in a man’s world”

“She was a composer working in a man’s world,” says Mark Chivers, violist and artistic director of the Carwithen Music Festival, which takes place in the year of Doreen’s 100th birthday.

“I found out by chance that its centenary was approaching,” adds Chivers in a promotional video for the festival. Deprived of all concert dates during the pandemic, the violist was unable to perform and instead used his time to think about how he could celebrate Doreen’s life and her music.

Chivers eventually decided to hold a festival weekend in his home town of Haddenham. Beginning on June 30 and continuing over a four-day weekend, the Carwithen Music Festival will showcase the composer’s film scores (Mantrap, boys in brown) specially arranged for string quartet, his Violin Sonata performed by violinist Fenella Humphreys, as well as a new commission from Poirot composer Christopher Gunning, who once lived in the old school building where Doreen Carwithen went to school.

“There seems to be a common thread with Doreen Carwithen,” said cellist Nick Stringfellow, who will perform at the weekend festival. “Every time you discover something or research something, there’s an incredible connection to another person, another field, or another composer.

“And that’s very much the spirit of this festival – so you have a lot of influences and connections colliding.”

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Doreen Carwithen, working at Denham Studios

Doreen Carwithen, working at Denham Studios.

Photo: Carwithen Music Festival (c/o Mark Chivers)


A surprising connection with Taylor Swift

One of those connections involves one of today’s biggest pop stars. Doreen, also known by her married name Mary Alwyn, is the step-great-grandmother of English actor Joe Alwyn, longtime partner of American singer-songwriter Taylor Swift.

William Alwyn, Joe’s great-grandfather, was a composer and bandleader. He met Doreen as a professor at the Royal Academy of Music. Years later, they had a 16-year affair while William was still married to his first wife, Olive Pull.

Doreen and William eventually got married and, the former not being too fond of her first name, changed her name to Mary Alwyn.

“A milestone in the history of music”

Debbie Wiseman, Composer-in-Residence of Classic FM and Festival President, said: “I first discovered Doreen’s music through her film music – I was made aware of sake trap, Boys in brown, these film scores which had enormous success, I had the impression. They were melodic themes, big movies, powerful, beautifully orchestrated, very dramatic – and I was drawn to them.

“And the more I listen to music, the more I appreciate it. [and] find subtleties there. I love the mixture of Walton and Stravinsky, a bit of Vaughan Williams, all those influences are there, and yet she delivers the music in her own voice very successfully.

Over the weekend, Debbie will unveil a blue plaque in her birthplace, bringing the pioneering composer’s name to a wider audience.

Decades later, female film composers are slowly beginning to take more prominence in what has always been a male-dominated industry. In 1997, Rachel Portman became the first female composer to win an Oscar for Best Musical or Comedy Score. A year later, Anne Dudley won the award – but it wasn’t until 2020 that a woman won again in the category, with Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir winning the prize for her. Joker score.

“Doreen’s legacy as a woman working in a man’s world is considerable,” adds Chivers. “She paved the way for female film composers today.”

Carwithen’s centenary is “a milestone in music history that we should celebrate,” adds Wiseman, who is one of today’s leading film and television composers with over 200 scores to her credit. . “Yes, you can have a career now as a woman, as a film composer. There are no limits now – there are no more restrictions on the possibilities of your career.

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