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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Malcolm Williamson: Unfinished Business

This music comes from an opera which premiered in London in July 1963. It was written by an Australian and it garnered enormously positive reviews but it's almost completely unknown in this country.

The composer, Malcolm Williamson, is himself almost unknown in Australia. A few facts, some lurid tales and rumours, a few third-hand opinions, this is all one usually hears these days about him, and rarely do we ever hear his music.

A composer with a huge number of influences and a wide range of styles, Williamson refuses to be categorised, which is part of the problem; no one label fits. But he wrote some very good music and deserves better.

Malcolm Williamson

In this post I want to provide a general overview of Malcolm Williamson's life and vast output, drawing invaluable material from the ground-breaking 2007 biography of the composer by Anthony Meredith and Paul Harris. Given the huge amount of music he produced, and the incredible vitality with which he lived, I can give little more than a thumbnail sketch here, but I hope it provides the impetus for you to explore. I have to say, the music I discovered in the process has been a revelation to me.

Malcolm Benjamin Graham Christopher Williamson was born in Sydney on 21 November, 1931, the son of an Anglican priest. He displayed a precocious musical talent while a boy, and during his school years he studied piano with Alexander Sverjensky at the Sydney Conservatorium. In 1947, after finishing school, he studied composition at the Conservatorium, initially with Alexander Burnard and then briefly, in 1949, with Eugene Goossens.

Malcolm Williamson (1948)

He left the Conservatorium without taking a degree and in 1950 went to London. There his exposure to recent music broadened considerably and he was at first strongly influenced by the music of Schoenberg and Messiaen. He settled permanently in the UK and continued his composition studies under Elisabeth Lutyens and, later, Erwin Stein. Lutyens in particular was an important influence on the young Australian, something he fulsomely acknowledged in later life.

This is the first movement of Williamson's first piano sonata, which dates from the mid-1950s. He called it his "Stravinsky piece", and the famous Russian's neoclassical style is strongly in evidence. [listen]

The music and philosophies of both Schoenberg and Messiaen left their mark on Williamson in the early- to mid-50s. From Schoenberg he gleaned an interest in serialism. The piano Variations, written during his studies with Lutyens, reflect this side of his many preoccupations. [listen]

Elisabeth Lutyens

Williamson's piano works almost all come from the early part of his career, when he was performing a great deal himself. As well as being a gifted pianist he also developed a reputation as an organist, something which no doubt fed his affinity for the music of Messiaen, one of the great organist-composers of the 20th century. The philosophies of Messiaen, whose Catholic faith underpinned his work to a very deep level, would have been even more important to Williamson after he converted to Catholicism in 1952. In his early years in Britain, he supported himself by working as a church organist and choirmaster, and he composed a number of organ works throughout his life. This is Elegy-JFK, written in 1964. [listen]

The eclectic mix of influences on Malcolm Williamson was augmented by his work in England (from 1958) as a nightclub pianist. This fed into yet another strand of his work, pieces in a more popular and educational vein; music with the "common touch" for want of a better term. This expressed itself in a number of different ways. One was music with a cheeky twist or a light-hearted mood. The second piano concerto, written in 1960 in just eight days, is a good example. Williamson described it as a parody of himself, and in the last movement especially we hear a sort of "channelling" of the spirit of Shostakovich, although there are other moments when the composer seems to take us to work with him at the nightclub. This concerto was one that he performed a great deal himself in many countries, and it was taken up by many other pianists, notably Moura Lympany. [listen]

Another way in which Williamson's music expressed the common touch was in his interest in writing educational music, and music designed for community participation (something which would have resonated with Benjamin Britten, who was publicly supportive of Williamson). During the 60s and 70s he wrote a number of works he called "Cassations", short music theatre pieces, sometimes only a few minutes long, designed for children to perform with audience participation. These teach the mechanics of mounting an opera as much as involving the participants in simply telling a story in music. He also wrote two children's operas on a larger scale in the mid-60s: Julius Caesar Jones, and The Happy Prince based on Oscar Wilde's story.

Malcolm Williamson's circle of professional acquaintances in the UK became impressively large. Britten was only one of a number of prominent composers who voiced their support and provided opportunities for commissions, and his continued association with Elisabeth Lutyens put him in touch with prominent players in the British musical world.

Malcolm Williamson

But there was a dark side to Williamson. Even by this stage his drinking was a problem, and it was to become an ever-increasing one, alternating with periods of complete abstinence from alcohol. His private life was also chaotic, and the multiplicity of styles in his music might also be said to have been reflected in the many and varied people he took to bed. Even from his school days he sexually active; in London his many sexual liaisons included both men and women.

In the late 50s Williamson fell in love with a Brazilian man called Lorenzo; the Meredith and Harris biography never mentions his family name, but it was to Lorenzo that Williamson dedicated one of his first works for organ, Fons Amoris (Source of Love). The relationship was turbulent and ended in 1958 when Williamson fell in love with Dolores Daniel (known as Dolly), a vivacious American woman from a Lithuanian-Jewish background. They married in January 1960. The relationship lasted 15 years and the couple had three surviving children.

During the course of the marriage, Williamson veered between periods of sobriety and periods of serious alcohol abuse. For the most part this didn't seem to affect his developing reputation in England (and further abroad) as a composer and performer. Arguably the period 1960-75 saw him produce his best music.

For the stage he produced a number of operas. For Sadler's Wells he wrote Our Man in Havana, Sun into Darkness and The Violins of Saint-Jacques. For the Aldeburgh Festival he wrote English Eccentrics, and his other stage works of the period include Dunstan and the Devil, The Growing Castle, Lucky Peter's Journey and The Red Sea. These works are the best of their kind written in the mid-20th century and their neglect today is completely unjustified. (I was fortunate enough to have conducted Dunstan and the Devil many, many years ago for a children's opera workshop run by Opera Australia in Sydney.)

Our Man in Havana, based on Graham Greene's novel, was hugely successful but like most of Williamson's music has rarely been heard of since. Greene himself thought the opera was marvellous, and preferred Sidney Gilliat's opera libretto to his own script for the recent film of the novel. Part of the orchestral suite opened this article; here's another extract. [listen]

Other works for the stage included dance scores. The most famous of these was for Robert Helpmann's ballet The Display, premiered at the 1964 Adelaide Festival. This received one of the most tumultuously successful premieres in Australian music history and for many years was a staple part of the Australian Ballet's repertoire. Orchestras today could do a lot worse than include the fine concert suite from the ballet in their programs. [listen]

Malcolm Williamson also produced a great deal of important orchestral music in the period 1960-75. After the second piano concerto, which I mentioned earlier, came a third, as well an organ concerto, the Concerto Grosso, the Symphonic Variations, the second symphony and the concerto for two pianos. All of these works deserve to be heard today; virtually none of them are.

This period also saw one of Williamson's most famous collaborations when he composed a violin concerto for Yehudi Menuhin; Menuhin himself had commissioned the work for the 1964 Bath Festival. It was written with the intention of honouring Edith Sitwell who had died while the work was being written, and the solo part was designed to reflect her old-world values. The famous critic, Neville Cardus, praised the work; others missed the point. But in England the work had a continued life with increased approval and understanding from both audiences and critics over the years. The formal structure turns traditional concerto form on its head, with the first and last movements being slow and the central movement fast. A recording was made in 1978, conducted by Adrian Boult and with Menuhin as soloist, but I was unable to find it online to link to here.

Williamson's marriage to Dolly Daniel gave him another area of interest; her Jewish heritage provided another seam of ideas to mine for his instrumental music. His choral music, though, was squarely founded on Christian liturgy with carols, masses, canticles and other works designed for amateur church choirs to perform. There's an excellent playlist of these works on YouTube here.

At the other end of the spectrum is the astonishing and challenging Symphony for Voices for unaccompanied choir, completed in 1962, setting poetry by James McCauley. It has been recorded on the Naxos label but I was unable to find it online to link to here.

Williamson also wrote a small but significant amount of chamber music, much of it involving the piano (designed for himself to play). The Pas de Quatre for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and piano dates from 1967. It's one of his denser works, based on aspects of serialism.

This article is not the place to outline in detail the circumstances in Malcolm Williamson's life at the end of his marriage to Dolly Daniel. The Meredith and Harris biography describes the period in painful detail as the composer's drinking and ambivalence regarding his sexuality - among other factors - led to his life falling apart. The irony was that it was at this time, in 1975, that he received the invitation from Buckingham Palace to be the new Master of the Queen's Music on the death of the previous incumbent, Sir Arthur Bliss. Williamson saw the post as a way out of his slump and a way into renewed respectability. Dolly saw it as an opportunity for unprecedented disaster. As it transpired, she was correct. (The story goes that the Queen originally offered the post to Benjamin Britten who, on the grounds of ill-health, declined. Britten apparently said simply, "Ask Malcolm". There were many who assumed the Palace had simply "got the wrong Malcolm", given the widespread belief that Malcolm Arnold was the most appropriate candidate. Certainly, no other non-Briton had ever been offered the position but once Williamson accepted, there was no going back.)

Malcolm Williamson

Compounding the potential embarrassment for the royal establishment was not only the very public ending of Williamson's marriage (he and Dolly divorced three years later) but the start of a new relationship, this time with a man, an ex-Jesuit musician, Simon Campion, who eventually became his publisher. (Counter to this argument is the notion that the Queen seems to have had no qualms in offering the post to Britten, whose long term same-sex relationship was an open secret.) Williamson and Campion's relationship, despite enormous upheavals and the composer's difficult personality, lasted for nearly 30 years, until Williamson's death.

When Williamson met the Queen in early 1976 to be confirmed in the post, plans were discussed regarding works he would compose for her Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1977. He agreed to write four new works, some of which were already underway, and he felt there was plenty of time to complete them all.

The Queen herself suggested he set the Poet Laureate, John Betjeman's, Jubilee Hymn to music. From Williamson came the ideas for three other, rather major, works, which the Queen accepted: a children's opera, a large-scale choral work, and a new symphony (his fourth).

Before any of this, though, he had a major tour of France performing his Cassations with a huge number of children and amateur musicians which left him exhausted and ill. His domestic turmoil was an ever-present drain on his energies too as he and Campion had no permanent base but led an itinerant life of perpetual house-sitting and living beyond their means. He then completed a harp concerto before the Jubilee works could engage his full attention.

The Jubilee Hymn was widely ridiculed, both for its music and its verses, and did Williamson's reputation no good at all. His behaviour was already the basis for increasing bemusement in musical and aristocratic circles; much worse was to come.

The children's opera had ballooned into a massive pageant in the streets of Liverpool involving 17,000 children. It was called The Valley and the Hill and was based on the 23rd Psalm. This was successfully performed in the presence of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh (and it was later recorded) and was the only one of the major commissions for the Jubilee year that Williamson completed.

The choral work was to be the Mass of Christ the King, a large-scale work for choir, soloists and orchestra to be performed in Gloucester Cathedral at the 1977 Three Choirs Festival. For Williamson the event was a disaster, with the work unfinished, and revisions and extra music being scrambled to the performers in the days and even hours before the performance. The performers decided to omit three movements, and on hearing this the composer caused a major scene right outside the Cathedral from which he had to be forcibly taken away by friends.

The performance of the remaining thirteen movements was, amazingly, well-received by the critics, and the performers seem to have enjoyed the work. But the composer's behaviour in the run up to the event had further marred his reputation. The papers had a field day, and the omens were not good for the fourth symphony, which was to be premiered only three months later.

As it transpired, with only three of the four movements of the symphony completed, and with the score and orchestral parts for even these arriving at the eleventh hour, the performers (Bernard Haitink and the London Philharmonic, no less) decided - after twenty minutes' rehearsal - not to perform it at all. Again the papers were full of the story, and for Williamson it was a fiasco from which he never recovered, both in terms of his public reputation and in terms of his personal confidence, which was volatile at the best of times.

The Mass of Christ the King was eventually completed and has had, to the best of my knowledge, at least two performances since the incomplete premiere. These were in 1978 and 1981. (The latter performance can be heard here.) The fourth symphony, though, seems to have never been performed.

Malcolm Williamson working with children

Malcolm Williamson remained Master of the Queen's Music for the rest of his life but he was never again asked to contribute major works for major events. His absence from the 1981 wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer was widely noted, for example, and he was the first Master of the Queen's Music for over a century not to have knighted. Among his last works written for the royal family was Songs for a Royal Baby, a choral work composed in 1979. It was dedicated to the Queen's grandchildren and first performed in 1985.

Continued dependence on alcohol and continued illness dogged Williamson's later years, but he continued to compose in the period following the Jubilee debacle. He wrote a substantial amount of music, some of it on a large scale.

The fifth symphony was completed in 1980 and is a meditation on the life of St Bernadette, who as a girl of fourteen saw a vision of the Virgin Mary in the grotto of Massabielle in the Pyrenees in 1858. In its final revision, the symphony is cast in a single movement made up of five contrasting sections full of drama and mystery. It wasn't recorded, though, until 2006. [listen]

Despite paying only occasional visits back to Australia, Williamson never lost his sense of Australian identity. In 1981 he spent time at the Australian National University in Canberra and the University of NSW in Sydney. The study he undertook was intended to deepen his knowledge in yet another of his passions: music therapy. Much of the work he was involved in was designed to use music as a tool for helping the intellectually disabled and those with acquired brain injuries, and also for providing greater access for them to the arts generally. He was in fact awarded the Order of Australia in 1987 for this work and it's a side of Williamson's life easily forgotten today among the more lurid stories. (According to Wikipedia, Williamson was only awarded an honorary Order of Australia, something usually reserved for non-citizens. This is despite there being no record of the composer ever relinquishing his Australian citizenship.)

His time in Australia in the early 80s coincided with his 50th birthday, and celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the ABC. His massive sixth symphony, composed specifically for television and designed to allow all seven of the then-ABC orchestras to be involved, was written for the occasion. (The seventh orchestra was the National Training Orchestra, by that time known as the ABC Sinfonia, which was disbanded in 1986. The other six orchestras of course still exist but have long been divested from the ABC, ensuring their almost immediate removal from the ABC's television programs and ever-increasing absence from live ABC radio broadcasts.) As it turned out, the music for the sixth symphony was completed very late, relations with the ABC became fraught, and the television project never happened. After a single radio broadcast five years after the event for which it was intended, it has never been performed or recorded again. Meredith and Harris regard it as one of Williamson's finest orchestral works which most certainly does not deserve its present obscurity. (I suspect that it could possibly be edited to be performed by a single orchestra, but no-one seems interested in doing this. I'm told the score still exists and is held in Sydney.) This is part of that landmark recording which is not commercially available but which has, somehow, been uploaded to YouTube. [listen]

Sadly, the work on the sixth symphony meant that yet another British commission was unfulfilled. Despite having two years' notice, and a not-inconsiderable fee, the cantata The Cradle of the Hope of Peace was only partially written and even that part wasn't orchestrated. According to Meredith and Harris, it "effectively ended his career in Britain".

There were two more symphonies. A seventh, for strings, was commissioned by the Chamber Strings of Melbourne and conductor Christopher Martin to mark the 150th anniversary of the state of Victoria. This has had many performances since then. And an eighth symphony appeared in 1989, a huge choral symphony called The Dawn is at Hand, premiered in Brisbane by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra under Dobbs Franks. The work set poetry by Oodgeroo Noonuccal, the first time Indigenous poetry had been set to music by a European composer on such a large scale. It seems inconceivable today but this, and the tone of the poems, was hugely controversial at the time; many of the choir actually refused to take part. But the performance - the work's only performance to date - was a great success. This is yet another important Australian work which is senselessly ignored.

Among Williamson's last works was Requiem for a Tribe Brother, completed in 1992 in honour of Oodgeroo Noonuccal's son, who had died of AIDS. It was premiered by the chamber choir The Joyful Company of Singers, who eleven years later sang it at the composer's funeral. This is a seriously beautiful, and underrated, work.

Malcolm Williamson died in Cambridge in 2003 after a long period of ill-health which included a number of strokes. He was 71. His obituary in The Guardian can be found here.

Australia still has a great deal of unfinished business with Malcolm Williamson. The fact that he's hard to label, to pin down, because of the wide range of styles in which he worked is no excuse for a man of his talents and gigantic legacy to be ignored. By all reports he was a difficult person to like and a demanding, often erratic, personality; that's not for me to judge. His contradictory personality was summed by the composer and conductor Richard Mills, who worked with Williamson in the 1980s:

...a fabulous man, someone with great heart and generosity of spirit, who enriched everyone who knew him. He delighted in the human predicament in all its permutations. It has to be said that he also had a fantastic capacity to piss people off.

Memories of that may still infect his posthumous reputation and feed an unwillingness to explore his music. It's instructive, too, that many of the commercially-available recordings of the orchestral works appear in a series of CDs produced by a British label using an Icelandic orchestra. No Australian organisation has shown such interest in Williamson's music in a way which would allow his legacy to be better assessed. The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra's recordings of the complete piano concertos with Piers Lane (on Hyperion, another British label) is a rare and recent exception. Antony Gray's recordings of the complete piano works was released on ABC Classics in 2003.

Here's hoping things improve. Malcolm Williamson's time has come.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in March, 2016.

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NC Realtor
NC Realtor
Jun 04

good post

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