Alan Rawsthorne


Alan Rawsthorne as a young man

Early Life

Alan was born in on the 2nd May 1905 at Deardengate House, Haslingden, Lancashire, to Hubert Rawsthorne (1868–1943), a well-off medical doctor, and his wife, Janet Bridge (1877/8–1927) (McCabe 2004).

He did at various times attend schools in Southport, much of his early education came through private tuition at home (McCabe 2004).

“His childhood and boyhood must have been both happy and fruitful. Of its happiness I know only by inference and from frequent spontaneous and entertaining references as a student to parents, sister, home and incidents of early life. Of its fruitfulness: from the first one was impressed by the breadth of his general reading, the variety of his interests and the fact that already his social sympathies extended outside the confines of the general and cultivated milieu into which he was born.” (Gordon Green)

Despite a childhood aptitude for music and literature, his parents tried to steer him away from his dreams of becoming a professional musician.

As a result, he unsuccessfully tried to take on degree courses at Liverpool University, first in dentistry and then architecture. Rawsthorne is on record as having said “I gave that up, thank God, before getting near anyone’s mouth”. His friend Constant Lambert quipped “Mr Rawsthorne assures me that he has given up the practice of dentistry, even as a hobby” (Anon. 2006).


“We met in January 1925 when he first appeared as a student at the Royal Manchester College of Music. He was nineteen years and eight months old.
As a young man he was strikingly handsome: slim with blonde hair, pale complexion, exceptionally broad forehead and an oval face narrowing steeply towards the chin. Beneath the face the fine bony structure was clearly marked. There was a hint of Modigliani about the head and the face was Chopin-like, but with a mouth even more firmly moulded than Chopin’s and without the disfigurement of Chopin’s too large aquiline nose. His conversation was the most alert I have known.”(Gordon Green)

Alan Rawsthorne at RMCM


“He studied composition with Dr. Thomas Keighley, cello – a side-line – with Carl Fuchs and piano with Frank Merrick.

Keighley’s outlook was conservative – “if Elgar or Bantock do it, then it is permissible” was the dictum – and though Alan received useful technical guidance from him he must have gained little stimulus.

But in those days Alan’s interest in composition was equalled by his regard for the piano, and it was Frank Merrick who influenced him most, and whose lessons – more concerned with Music than with the piano – were most eagerly anticipated. Merrick showed the liveliest interest in contemporary music and also encouraged his brighter pupils to explore the less familiar regions of the repertory: early English keyboard music and the sonatas of Haydn and Schubert – music at that time almost unknown to concertgoers,

I remember a broadcast by Alan of the Haydn Sonata in A flat (Hob.46) in which the Finale fairly sparkled, and my first hearing of a Purcell keyboard piece occurred when he played the beautiful Ground in C minor. On the other hand – this was forty-five years ago – he also played Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain.

Fellow students soon realized that Alan’s was the one genuinely creative talent in the College, and were not slow to come forward and perform his compositions. ” (Gordon Green )

Training in Europe

After graduating from the Royal Manchester College of Music around 1930, Rawsthorne spent the next couple of years pursuing his piano training with Dutch painist Egon Petri at Zakopane in Poland, and then briefly also in Berlin (McCabe 2004).

Dartington Hall

On his return to England in 1932, Rawsthorne moved to Devon taking up a post as pianist and teacher at Dartington Hall. where he became composer-in-residence for the School of Dance and Mime (Belcher 1999a). He stayed for two years before moving to London.

Dartington Hall from Above

A dance mime performance at Dartington Hall

Alan Rawsthorne by Cecil Beaton


In 1934, Rawsthorne left for London to try his fortune as a freelance composer.

His first real public success arrived four years later with a performance of his Theme and Variations for Two Violins at the 1938 International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) Festival in London.

This photograph of Alan Rawsthorne was taken by Cecil Beaton



Becoming Established

The next year, his large-scale Symphonic Studies for orchestra was performed in Warsaw, again at the ISCM Festival.. The first in a line of completely assured orchestral scores, the Symphonic Studies, which can be heard as a concerto for orchestra in all but name, rapidly helped Rawsthorne establish himself as a composer possessing a highly distinctive musical voice (Evans 2001; Belcher 1999b).

Alan Rawsthorne at Home - Getty Images

Acclaimed Works

Acclaimed works by Rawsthorne include: a viola sonata (1937), two piano concertos (1939, 1951), an oboe concerto (1947), two violin concertos (1948, 1956), a concerto for string orchestra (1949),

Other works include a cello concerto, three acknowledged string quartets among other chamber works, and three symphonies.

Film Scores

Rawsthorne wrote a number of film scores. His best–known work in this field was the music for the 1953 British war film The Cruel Sea (Swynnoe 2002, 161), and his other scores included many popular British films, such as The Captive Heart (1946), School for Secrets (1946), Uncle Silas (1947), Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948), Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951), Where No Vultures Fly (1951), West of Zanzibar (1954), The Man Who Never Was (1956) and Floods of Fear (1958).


Using Alan’s Work

Isabel Rawsthorne

In 1954 Alan married Isabel (née Isabel Nicholas). Trained as a painter at the Liverpool School of Art & at the Royal Academy, Isabel was well known in the Paris & Soho art scenes, modelling  for Epstein, Giacometti, Bacon & Picasso,

Isabel  was the widow of Alan’s friend composer Constant Lambert.  Alan was her 3rd husband.

‘Isabel Rawsthorne: Artist & Muse’

By Philomena Epps

Art UK

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Isabel Rawsthorne

‘Isabel Rawsthorne: Elusive Painter’

By Maev Kennedy

The Guardian

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‘Isabel Rawsthorne: living with Giacometti, drinking with Bacon and painting Nureyev’

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Isabel  at the Tate

‘Picasso’s Portraits of Isabel Rawsthorne’

By Carol Jacobi

Burlington Magazine

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‘Out of the Cage: The Art of Isabel Rawsthorne’ 

by Carol Jacobi

About the Author

Carol Jacobi is Curator of British Art at Tate Britain.  Jacobi has been lecturing and publishing on Isabel Rawsthorne and her circle for more than a decade, with works including the award-winning British Art in the Nuclear Age. Out of the Cage: The Art of Isabel Rawsthorne is her eleventh book.

‘Exhibited from the early 1930s, Isobel’s startling work first garnered serious attention in the 1940s and she was well-known in the 1950s and 1960s, exhibiting up to the 1990’s. This richly-illustrated book takes the lead from Rawsthorne’s compelling biography to reconsider sixty years of her art, now housed in several major public collections. Jacobi re-examines the pre- and post-war art history of which Rawsthorne was a part, tracing the painter’s life and art through the upheavals of the 20th century and her intense and often unconventional relationships with some of its most revered figures.’

More About Isabel

Head of Alan Rawsthorne by Roy Noakes

Roy Noakes artist, and friend of the couple, with plaster cast of his 'Head of Alan Rawsthorne' 1960's Private Collection

Head of Isabel Rawsthorne by Roy Noakes - The only portrait of herself that Isabel ever commissioned


Alan died 24th July 1971 in Cambridge. He was buried in St John the Baptist Churchyard, Thaxted,  Essex, England

He was survived Isabel,who herself died in 1992. and is buried in the same grave.

The Elegy for guitar (1971), was written for, and completed by Julian Bream after Alan’s death.

Left: plaster cast of death-mask, 1971 by Roy Noakes

‘There were some who found Alan reserved, and perhaps not too many knew him really well, but his outward formality was of the studied kind cultivated by an essentially private person. It would often mask a pervasive dry wit, coupled to a conspicuously caring, warmly generous and compassionate nature (…and ) a fine, lively and very agile mind.

Gerard Schurmann (Right)

Gerard Schurmann at the Piano

Alan Rawsthorne:

Portrait of a Composer

by John McCabe

Oxford University Press, 1999 

Biography & Autobiography311 pages

“This is the first comprehensive study of the life and music of Alan Rawsthorne (1905-71), one of the leading British composers of the twentieth century. Almost every one of his works is discussed, many of them in detail, demonstrating the versatility and range of Rawsthorne’s vision, from popular works, such as Street Corner and the piano concertos, to the remarkable power of his lesser-known later works.

In particular McCabe draws attention to the astonishing renewal of Rawsthorne’s creative energy during his later period, and the immense broadening of his emotional and technical horizons leading to such masterpieces as the Third Symphony and Carmen Vitale. He makes a powerful case for a thorough reassessment of Rawsthorne’s oeuvre.”

John Mcabe at Sudbury Cottage, Little Sampford, Essex, where Rawsthorne lived between 1953 and 1971

Alan Rawsthorne

A Bio-bibliography

by John Clay Dressler

Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004 – Biography & Autobiography – 363 pages

Alan Rawsthorne was a British composer, film scorer, music editor, author, and radio talk show presenter. At the heart of his musical contribution was a unique blend of European and English 20th-century techniques which concentrated on instrumental rather than vocal music. While most of this volume is dedicated to Rawsthorne’s original musical works, the reader’s attention is also drawn to his articles, radio talks, and arrangements of works of other composers. His disposition placed his career in the background of others who were more public; his preference was to write music for its own sake rather than for notoriety and monetary gain. Through the guiding direction of other composers and radio leadership personnel, Rawsthorne created music for the next age as much as for his current time.

This bibliography is comprised of a listing of all known works (completed and uncompleted), premieres and selected other performances (highlighting venues, dates, and performers’ names), a discography of both commercially available discs and archival tapes and discs, a 1500-item annotated set of citations of reviews, sections of books, articles and the like regarding the works, Rawsthorne’s life and recordings, five appendices (song cycle and multi-section works components, alphabetical works list, Manchester manuscript collection details, chronological works list, works of other composers dedicated to Rawsthorne) and a 25-page index to the book.

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