Thomas Wilson: An Appreciation of his Work by John Maxwell Geddes


Last Modified June 23, 2001

Editor's Note:   This article was first published in Composer Magazine, winter 1983 and appears on this site with the permission of the author and the Thomas Wilson estate.

Thomas Wilson was born of British parents in the U.S.A. in 1927. His youth and early works contain nothing particularly remarkable: boyhood loathing for piano lessons ("I wanted to get out to play football with the other boys"); reflections on a symphony composed when aged twelve ("bloody awful"); a musical father and an encouraging mother; an "almost religious experience playing the piano" at sixteen, university, military service, marriage, an academic career; now devoting himself principally to composition.

What is unusual is the range and power of Wilson's output. The 1960s and 70s witnessed an enormous amount of compositional activity in Scotland. Now that the high-water mark has perhaps passed, at least for the time being, it is possible to review some of that activity and in particular to examine the work of the leading composer of these two decades.

Wilson's first mature works coincided with the emergence of this Scottish musical renaissance. As a result of the musical climate of those days, his energies were immediately recognised and encouraged by many conductors (Gibson, Del Mar Loughran, Susskind, Thomson, Bertini et al.), by chamber groups such as the Edinburgh String Quartet, The Bernicia Ensemble, The Lennox Ensemble, The New Music Group of Scotland, Cantilena and others. As a result, his works were heard throughout the world. (There were even forays into the inner sanctums of English Chamber Music). Wilson acknowledges his debt to all these musicians and makes particular mention of an "incalculable amount of encouragement" from such figures as Watson Forbes who was Head of Music, BBC Scotland in the 1960's.

Although Wilson was a prolific composer in the 50s, little survives his self-critical instinct before 1958, the year of The Third String Quartet. This is a key work for in it Wilson moved from the tonal style of his apprentice years to a more chromatic, dissonant and atonal idiom. Indeed this prize-winning quartet can be thought of as the beginning of a span of 20 years, which ends in 1978 with the composition of The Fourth String Quartet. Through this period can be traced not only the main developments of Wilson's style and technique but also (and more important), the evolution of his philosophy and its impact on his musical language.

His first major orchestral work, Variations for Orchestra is particularly interesting as far as development of style is concerned, for though it was composed during a period of assured and energetic pre-serial writing, one can already detect the seeds of the simpler, yet equally confident style, which manifests itself much later and which has become one of the salient characteristics of his most recent music.

The 1960s continued with works such as the Sonata for Violin and Piano (1961), the composer's one and only venture into systematic serial writing, though a certain impatience with the restrictions of serial methods is even here apparent.

But the works which follow are quite different; serialism becomes "an inner guiding principle, rather than overt display". Into this category fall such works as the Piano Sonata (1964), Symphony No.2 (1965), the Piano Trio (1966), and the Concerto for Orchestra (1967). A good example of this liberal approach to serialism can be seen in the one-act opera The Charcoal Burner, written in 1968 to a libretto by Edwin Morgan. This work, which was commissioned by the BBC, is propelled along by the freely serial development and thematic metamorphosis of the five-note motif for solo timpani with which the opera opens. But it is important to note that Wilson's technique in this work is again showing signs of further expansion in that he makes use here, for the first time, of controlled aleatory writing, (a technique which makes frequent appearances in the works written during the 1970's). This emergent polarisation of styles and indeed a certain taste for confrontation tactics, may be remarked upon in several of Wilson's works but it is particularly clearly employed in his operas and other dramatic music where such collisions of idiom and style serve as apt musical counterparts to the tensions and oppositions which dominate the drama. However, the delights of such eclectic methods are never permitted to threaten the unity of the works as a whole. For Wilson, the symphonic, organic principle is always paramount. The works of the early 70s reveal a concern for the world at crisis point and a feeling of impending catastrophe; this sense of foreboding is often realised in musical terms by what I have already called the polarisations of style or the forced juxtaposition of irreconcilable elements.

For example, Sequentiae Passionis (1971), commissioned by the SNO opens with ominous aleatoric tappings and rattlings which in turn provide an uneasy accompaniment to the plainsong Gradual for Palm Sunday calmly sung in the traditional manner. This confrontation between the serene stability of the plainsong and the restlessly sinister sounds which accompany it produces a pungently expressive effect which is heightened further by being prerecorded (and relayed through loudspeakers), thereby placing it so-to-speak beyond our reach and out of our control. The work, which again makes considerable use of aleatoric devices, also takes advantage of certain musical features of Catholic ritual used only during Passiontide, e.g. the substitution of aggressive wooden clappers for bells, and the concerted tapping of prayer books by the congregation which used to take place at a particular point during the services of Holy Week, (a quiet but elemental and awe-inspiring sound which made a great impact upon the composer when he first heard it.) From this time forward, Wilson often uses plainsong melodies not only to express religious convictions, but also by their appearance and recurrence to serve as a philosophic fulcrum, an area of equilibrium within turmoil. But in Missa Pro Mundo Conturbato (1972), written for the John Currie Singers, this deeply religious composer created a Mass without a Credo; this very omission is, in fact, a statement of belief in his immediate self. Throughout there is a feeling of crisis and impending doom. Yet these works are no gloomy utterances, but rather warnings to mankind. The artist intercedes positively, with powerful philanthropic statement. Wilson regards himself as an optimist, "Pessimism is a luxury we cannot afford."

But at the same time as these anxious, caring, concerned works, come a number of others that reveal something of Wilson's sense of humour. The Sonata for Cello and Piano (1971), though it is overall an impassioned and serious work, none-the-less offers some light-hearted moments in which the two protagonists frolic through a maze of canoic and percussive writing to the point where a brief role-reversal takes place (cellist plays piano and pianist plays cello). In Ritornelli per Archi (1972) however, Wilson reveals a quite different aspect of his musical character, a reverence for tradition, not born of any exaggerated antiquarianism, but rather seeing tradition as a continuing process which having began in the past, carries forward to the present and most importantly extends into the future. In Ritornelli, he turns his attention to the Baroque concerto grosso. Written for eleven strings, this single-movement work treats all the instruments as soloists, though in various combinations they also provide the 'ripieno'; aspects of the form. The refrains (ritornelli) of the title turn out to be fleeting references to some of Wilson's earlier works, but these reminders are incidental rather than integral to the piece, for it is in the commentary on these refrains that the main argument of the music is located.

A related idea is to be found in Refrains and Cadenzas (1973), a work for brass band commissioned by the Cheltenham Festival. Here the mood is again for the most part, boisterous and good humoured, the refrains of the title being derived (as a joke) from the musical letters in the names of the work's first performers, Geoffrey Brand and the Black Dyke Mills Band.

These works are in the main very direct and clear in their deployment of musical argument. But the slightly earlier Touchstone (1967), an orchestral portrait of the clown in 'As You Like it' is more elusive. In this piece, we are faced with a series of deliberately rapid and kaleidoscopic juxtapositions of opposed themes and contrary expressive moods (the confrontation ) But the point here is that the jagged shapes and sharp colour contrasts of the clown's motley garb are in fact an accurate reflection of Touchstone's own volatile personality, and this idea is taken over by Wilson and made to provide the governing formal principle behind the work. So the disruptive confrontation-principle in this work, serves as a unifying formal agent - another example of role reversal?

The years 1972-1975 saw Wilson immersed in his largest work, the opera Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Based upon James Hogg's masterly novel of 1824, the story tells of a young man who is led to believe that he is one of 'the elect'. Believing that he can do no wrong, he is encouraged along a path of crime to his own destruction by his alter ego, the mysterious Gilmartin (Satan?). Wilson reflects the Sinner's schizophrenia by making use of widely contrasted techniques: "What I find is beginning to happen here is that since the nature of the subject is schizophrenic, I'm entering into a musical style which is also schizophrenic. What one might call the norm of the piece is 20th century chromatic style, if you can understand what I mean by this general description. But on the other hand, the piece is able to embrace much more traditional elements (I suppose they would be seen as such), modal things for example. One of the main cornerstones on which the musical structure rests and from which the musical structure as a whole is derived is the hymn-tune Martyrs . I have found it desirable and necessary from time to time to create a musical situation in which the unreality and the demented nature of what is going on is represented by unrealistic almost collage-like techniques, in which for example the chromatic style which is the norm is suddenly confronted by a simple, beautiful, gorgeous, coloured diatonic style".

Copyright ©  John Maxwell Geddes

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