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Alan Rawsthorne was born in Deardengate House, Haslingden, Lancashire, to Hubert Rawsthorne (1868–1943), a well-off medical doctor, and his wife, Janet Bridge (1877/8–1927) (McCabe 2004). Despite what appears to have been a happy and affectionate family life with his parents and elder sister, Barbara (the only sibling), in beautiful Lancashire countryside, as a boy Rawsthorne suffered from fragile health (McCabe 2004; Green 1971). Although he did at various times attend schools in Southport, much of Rawsthorne's early education came through private tuition at home (McCabe 2004). Despite a childhood aptitude for music and literature, Rawsthorne's 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. Concerning dentistry, Rawsthorne is on record as having said "I gave that up, thank God, before getting near anyone's mouth", while his friend, Constant Lambert, quipped "Mr Rawsthorne assures me that he has given up the practice of dentistry, even as a hobby" (Anon 2006). In 1925, Rawsthorne was finally able to enrol at the Royal Manchester College of Music, where his teachers included Frank Merrick for the piano and Carl Fuchs for the cello. In 1927, Rawsthorne's mother died aged just forty-nine. After graduating from the Royal Manchester College of Music around 1930, Rawsthorne spent the next couple of years pursuing his piano training with Egon Petri at Zakopane in Poland, and then briefly also in Berlin (McCabe 2004).
On his return to England in 1932, Rawsthorne took up a post as pianist and teacher at Dartington Hall in Devon, where he became composer-in-residence for the School of Dance and Mime (Belcher 1999a). 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. The next year, his large scale Symphonic Studies for orchestral 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).
Other 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), and the Elegy for guitar (1971), a piece written for and completed by Julian Bream after the composer's death. Other works include a cello concerto, three acknowledged string quartets among other chamber works, and three symphonies.
Rawsthorne was a great-grandson of Dr. Jonathan Bayley, the educationalist, Latin scholar and Swedenborgian minister distinguished by his philanthropic work in Accrington, Lancashire and in London.
He was married to Isabel Rawsthorne (née Isabel Nicholas), an artist and model well known in the Paris and Soho art scenes. Her contemporaries included André Derain, Alberto Giacometti, Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon. Isabel Rawsthorne was the widow of composer Constant Lambert and stepmother to Kit Lambert, manager of the rock group The Who, who died in 1981. Isabel died in 1992. Alan Rawsthorne was her third husband; Sefton Delmer (the journalist and member of the Special Operations Executive during the Second World War) was her first husband. Isabel was Alan Rawsthorne's second wife, his first wife being Jessie Hinchliffe, a violinist in the Philharmonia Orchestra. Jessie did not re-marry.