Alan Rawsthorne was born in 1905 in Haslingden, Lancashire. After initial studies in dentistry and architecture, he entered the Royal Manchester College of Music in 1925, where he was a pupil of the pianist Frank Merrick and the cellist Carl Fuchs. He left in 1929 with diplomas in performance and teaching (the latter with distinction). His piano studies were continued abroad, notably under Egon Petri. On his return to England in 1932 he taught at Dartington Hall School and also composed music for the associated School of Dance Mime. He married a fellow ex-RMCM student, the violinist Jessie Hinchcliffe, in 1934. Yet even though he moved to London in 1935 in order to devote himself primarily to composition, it was not until the 1938 ISCM Festival in London that he achieved wide recognition with the Theme and Variations for two violins. At the 1939 festival, in Warsaw, a far more ambitious score, the Symphonic Studies, demonstrated his mastery of orchestral resources, while in the same year the First Piano Concerto confirmed the achievement of 'a highly individual language and certain structural predilections'; both were to remain remarkably constant throughout the rest of his career.
Rawsthorne rescored the concerto in 1942, by which time he was doing military service in the Army first in the Royal Artillery and then in the Education Corps; despite this he was able to complete the two contrasted overtures of 1944 and 1945. With the end of the war, however, he was at last able to devote all his energies to composition, and to be confident of receiving performance: within some five years he had produced four concertos, a symphony, several chamber works and a body of film music, and was thus already among the more prolific instrumental composers of an English generation that included Walton and Tippett. He married the artist Isabel (ne Nicholas, 1912-1992) in 1951 after the death of her 3rd husband, his friend the composer Constant Lambert. Alan and Jessie Rawsthorne had divorced the previous year.
The chamber cantata A Canticle of Man (1952) was the first substantial evidence of an interest in setting words that was to culminate in the large-scale Carmen vitale of 1963. Two further symphonies (1959 and 1964) and four more concertos head an impressive list of orchestral scores produced in the last two decades of his life, most of them written to commission.
Beginning with the Concerto for ten instruments, written for Cheltenham in 1961, Rawsthorne showed a heightened interest in chamber orchestral writing and in pure chamber music, the predominant genre in his last years. In 1967 he produced his biggest piano work, the Ballade written for John Ogdon, and in the same year he also wrote two works for youth orchestra (Overture for Farnham and Theme, Variations and Finale). He was made a CBE in 1961, and was awarded honorary doctorates by the universities of Liverpool, Essex and Belfast. He died in Cambridge in 1971.