Monday, 1 August 2016

Charles Williams: Highland Lament

Charles Williams (1893-1978) is probably best remembered today for the score to the film While I Live which featured the famous piano and orchestral confection better known as The Dream of Olwen. Here he almost out-Rachmaninov’s Rachmaninov.  Williams was responsible for more than a 100 other film scores. His most played piece is probably ‘The Devils’ Gallop’ which an older generation will recall as the signature tune to ‘Dick Barton: Special Agent’. ‘The Young Ballerina’ was long used to accompany the famous Potter's Wheel interlude on BBC TV.  In the field of light music, he wrote a number of evocative character pieces, such as ‘Rhythm on Rails’, ‘Model Railway’, ‘The Girl in Grey’ and the ‘Sleepy Marionette’.

Charles Williams’s ‘Highland Lament’ is one of these little pieces that manages to depict the sadness and loneliness of the highland landscape without descending into ‘tartanism.’ Recently, I passed through Culloden, Invernesshire, on my way up to Inverness. As a child, I was taken by my late father to the battlefield there. It was the site of the last pitched battle fought on British soil. The result of the engagement was that the Young Pretender, Charles Edward Stuart, (Bonnie Prince Charlie) was defeated by William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland. It was the end of Charles dream to reinstate a Stuart monarch onto the British throne.
After the battle, Bonnie Prince Charlie fled the scene and after a series of adventures (well described in Erik Linklater’s The Prince in the Heather, 1976) he ended up in France.  He lived in exile on the continent until his death on Rome in 1788.
Popular myth sometimes implies that it was a battle between the Scots and the English: in fact many Scots supported the Duke of Cumberland in his efforts to put down the rebellion.
The mood of Charles Williams ‘Highland Lament’ goes back in time to the period of the Jacobite Rising. It stirs the imagination to see Bonnie Prince Charlie surveying the ruins of his campaign. It also has a certain typically melancholic reflection on the love of Flora McDonald for her ‘sovereign’ as she aided his escape to France.  It is a truly evocative piece that can also conjure up the misty glens and sea-lochs of Scotland and inspire dreams of lost or unrequited love. 

Charles Williams ‘Highland Lament’ can be heard on The Golden Age of Light Music: The Runaway Rocking Horse and Other Library Lollipops GUILD LIGHT MUSIC GLCD5232.  Those with access to the Naxos Music Library will find the piece here.  It is played by the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra conducted by the composer and was recorded in 1945.

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