Grace Williams’s music exhibits
“an expert command of the orchestra, an eloquent poetry, a gift for picturesque
description and, though never folky, an identifiable Welsh inspiration.” She displayed
a mastery of orchestral writing and composing for voices and was highly
regarded as an excellent all-round musician. The Times obituary reminded
readers that Williams always knew and spoke her own mind: she formed her own
opinions and stuck to them.
It is unfortunate that only a
small proportion of her music has been recorded. Her considerable catalogue includes two symphonies, several orchestral
suites and symphonic poems, concertos for piano, violin, trumpet and oboe, as
well as choral works, numerous vocal compositions and a small corpus of chamber
and instrumental pieces.
Stylistically, Grace Williams’s earlier music owes much to
her teacher, Ralph Vaughan Williams and to a certain extent, the late
Romanticism of Richard Strauss. On the other hand, she did not quote folk tunes
to any great extent. After 1955 she began to gain confidence in her own musical
language which became more nationalistic and began to be influenced by “the
rhythm and cadences of Welsh oratory, poetry and musical tropes. This maturity
is apparent in the Second Symphony and Penillion, both for
- Born on 19 February 1906 at Barry, Glamorgan, Wales.
- Educated at Barry Grammar School and studied for BMus at University College Cardiff.
- Entered Royal College of Music, London and became a pupil of Ralph Vaughan Williams. They became lifelong friends.
- Fellow students included Dorothy Gow, Elizabeth Maconchy and Imogen Holst.
- In 1930, Williams received the Royal College of Music Octavia Travelling Scholarship. She went to Vienna to study with Egon Wellesz.
- Worked in London at the BBC where she specialised in educational programmes.
- From 1931 to 1946, Williams taught at Camden School for Girls in London and at Southlands College of Education.
- Composed film scores for the Strand Film Company and the British Transport Films, including Letter to Wales, featuring Donald Houston.
- The feature film Blue Scar (1949) was the first British film to have a score written by a woman.
- Returned to Barry, where she pursued a free-lance career working for the Welsh Region of the BBC.
- On 10 May 1951 she destroyed many of her early manuscripts.
- Her opera The Parlour, based on a Guy Maupassant story was premiered 5 May 1966, at the New Theatre, Cardiff.
- In 1969, Williams composed Castell Caernarfon, an orchestral fanfare for the Investiture of the Prince of Wales.
- Late works included Missa Cambrensis soloist, chorus and orchestra (1971) and the cantata Fairest of Stars for soprano and orchestra (1973)
- Final work, Two Choruses completed in 1975. This “sea music” set poems by Rudyard Kipling and Thomas Beddoes.
- Died in her hometown on 10 February 1977.
I have chosen six works from Grace Williams’s catalogue that are easy to obtain on CD, streaming, YouTube or download:
- Suite for nine instruments (1934)
- Fantasia in Welsh Nursery Tunes (1940)
- Sea Sketches for string orchestra (1944)
- Symphony No.2 (1956, rev.1975)
- Carillons for oboe and orchestra (1965, rev. 1973)
- Fairest of Stars for soprano and orchestra (1973)
There have been several short and typically general studies in a variety of periodicals, including the Anglo-Welsh Review, Welsh Music and the Musical Times. A major study of three women composers was published by Ashgate in 2012: Lutyens, Maconchy, Williams and Twentieth-Century British Music A Blest Trio of Sirens by Rhiannon Mathias. In this volume Mathias “traces the development of these three important composers through analysis of selected works. The book draws upon previously unexplored material as well as radio and television interviews with the composers themselves and with their contemporaries. The musical analysis and contextual material lead to a re-evaluation of the composers' positions in the context of twentieth-century British music history.” Another important book was published in 2019. This is a collection of letters between Elizabeth Maconchy and Grace Williams. At the time of writing, there is not a dedicated biography or study of Grace Williams and her music.
An excellent website devoted to Grace
Williams’s life and work is available here. (Accessed
6 March 2021). This includes biography, musical performances, manuscripts, a
discography and photographs.
If you can only hear one CD:
A great introduction to Grace Williams’s music is Lyrita SRCD 323. This album collects several pieces originally released on recordings made under the auspices of the Welsh Arts Council. The five works are Fantasia on Welsh Nursery Tunes, Carillons for oboe & orchestra, Penillion, the Trumpet Concerto and Sea Sketches.
And finally, if you can only listen to one work:
The opening movement is
characterised by violent gusts and swells but calms down towards the close. The
‘Sailing Song’ could represent a trip round the bay from the popular seaside
resort of Barry Island. Here the sea is calm, and the sun is shining. ‘Channel
Sirens’ may be a play on words. Its sinuous melody might simply suggest mechanical
warning devices for sailors. On the other hand, it could refer to the
mysterious Morgen, legendary Welsh sea-creatures who surely haunt these waters.
More strenuous music is heard in ‘Breakers’. This short movement depicts waves
crashing on the shore stirred up by strong winds. ‘Calm Sea in Summer’ acts as
an epilogue. It is really a Nocturne, that presents a mood of contentment.
Perhaps a quiet late-night stroll along the prom deserted, except for lovers?
Grace Williams Sea Sketches can
be heard on Lyrita SRCD 323. This recording has been uploaded to YouTube. (Accessed 6 March 2021).