Grace Williams: a 20th-century composer who embraced Welsh national identity

Apologies for the long hiatus in my blog – a very hectic semester, composed mostly of writing about music, has delayed me much longer than I had planned. Now that I have some time to breathe, I should be back to my regular schedule for the foreseeable future!

By the end of the 1930s, the focus of British music had moved away from the pastoral tradition of Vaughan Williams and Delius as the more eclectic approaches of Walton, Britten, and others began to hold sway. However, many of Vaughan Williams’s students, who composed well into the second half of the twentieth century, carried with them his pastoral spirit and melodic ideas, creating music that was highly personal and also retained elements of tonality. I’ve already profiled one such student, the New Zealander Douglas Lilburn, on this blog so far – today, I’ll be taking a look at one of the most influential Welsh composers of the twentieth century, Grace Williams.

Image result for grace williams composer
Grace Williams (Discover Welsh Music)

Williams was born on February 19, 1906 in Barry, Wales, near Cardiff. Her parents, both teachers, encouraged her to pursue music, and she became proficient in both piano and violin at a young age. Williams began to develop an interest in composition, and in 1923 she won the Morfydd Owen scholarship to study at Cardiff University under David Evans. (Owen was one of the most promising Welsh composers of the early 20th century, but she passed away from appendicitis at the age of just 26.)

In 1926, Williams began studies at the Royal College of Music – then (and now) a hotbed of British musical activity – with Gordon Jacob and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Her musical education was completed by a year in Vienna in 1930-31, during which she studied with Egon Wellesz and frequented the city’s opera houses; in 1932, Williams began teaching composition in London.

Although she did not develop a mature style until the following decade, Williams’s works of the late 1920s and 1930s bear hallmarks of her later compositions. Sadly, most of her music written during this time has yet to be recorded, although I was able to find recordings of her 1931 Sonatina for flute and piano and 1936 Elegy for string orchestra. These pieces exemplify Williams’s penchant for depicting contrasting emotions; the flute sonata is lively and colorful while the Elegy has stirring and deeply evocative character.

During the Second World War, Williams, like many residents of London, was evacuated, composing a sinfonia concertante for piano and orchestra, her first symphony, and the string orchestral work Sea Sketches in the town of Grantham. Despite suffering from depression during and after the war (when she returned to her home town of Barry), Williams continued to break new ground – her first foray into cinematic music, for 1949’s Blue Scar, made her first British woman to score a feature film.

Although her career as a composer spanned over forty-five years, the orchestral works for which Williams is best known today were written in the 1950s and early 1960s. Several of her pieces from this point onward were significantly influenced by Welsh culture and history – Penillion, her most famous work, used characteristics of traditional Welsh penillion singing in an orchestral setting. Other important works from this period of Williams’s career include the imposing Second Symphony of 1956, revised near the end of her life, and her 1963 trumpet concerto.

Although she primarily composed instrumental music, Williams was equally at home with both small-scale and large-scale vocal writing; her Six Poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins for contralto and string sextet and Ave maris stella for unaccompanied SATB chorus provide ample evidence. In 1961, she also wrote a comic opera, The Parlour, based on a short story by Guy de Maupassant.

By the late 1960s, Williams had become a highly respected figure in the British classical music scene, turning down an OBE for her services to music in the 1967 New Year’s Honours. However, she continued to compose and revise works of immense scope into the 1970s – by far the highlight of her late works is the 1971 Mahler-length Missa cambrensis, which, in my opinion, deserves to be counted with the greatest masses of the 20th century.

In 1977, two years after completing the revision of her second symphony, Williams passed away in Barry at the age of 70.

Despite the number and quality of works that Williams wrote throughout her lifetime, her music went practically forgotten for almost three decades. Finally, in August 2006 (the centenary year of her birth), many of her large-scale works were revived and recorded as part of BBC Radio 3’s “Composer of the Week” segment, including the 1941 Sinfonia Concertante and her 1950 violin concerto. In 2016, the Missa cambrensis was finally premiered, resulting in the recording linked above.

With many works of forgotten women composers being revived over the past decade, I hope that Williams’s music will not only receive performances outside of the UK, but also assume a place in the musical canon that it rightly deserves.

Thank you again for reading, and please leave a like, follow and/or comment if you enjoyed this post. See you next week!

(Information for this article was taken from Wikipedia and from the composer’s page on Discover Welsh Music. Many thanks also go to the YouTube channel “Grace Mary Williams” for uploading several of Williams’s works that are unavailable anywhere else!)

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