GRACE WILLIAMS Welsh Composer
by Pamela Blevins
Two weeks before Welsh composer Grace Williams
died in 1977, she wrote a letter to her lifelong friend and fellow composer
Although fatally ill with cancer, there was no
bitterness in her words, only gratitude that she had had the "great
good fortune to be able to respond to so many wonderful things."
Grace Mary Williams, who was to become one of the
most important and influential 20th century Welsh composers, was born
at the stroke of midnight on February 19/20, 1906 in
the coastal town of Barry. The eldest of three children, Grace was encouraged
from an early age to pursue her interest in music. Both parents
were school teachers who loved music. Her father William was a highly
regarded amateur choral director who did not believe in teaching music
to his children in the traditional manner of exercise book and graded
exams. Instead he simply opened his extensive library of music scores
to them, an act which enabled them to explore and discover on their
own and which ultimately led Grace Williams to find her own highly individual
Grace often played the piano for her father's choir
rehearsals, and at home she played the violin in a trio with her brother
Glyn, a cellist, and her father, a pianist. She also broadened her knowledge
of orchestral music through recordings, which her father collected avidly.
As a school girl, she excelled in mathematics,
music, and English and developed an abiding interest in French literature
which she enjoyed throughout her life. She began to show ability in
composing music, and, encouraged by her teacher Miss Rhyda Jones a former
pupil of Walford Davies, Grace often sat on the beach at Cold Knap in
Barry composing songs and dances. The sea would always be a powerful
influence and inspiration in Grace Williams' life as a composer.
In 1923, she entered University College, Cardiff
on a scholarship, and while she found the social life at the school
exciting, the music program was "deadly" for a would-be composer like
Williams who found her enthusiasm stifled by academic exercises. After
graduation in 1926, she moved to London to attend the Royal College
of Music where one of her most important and influential teachers was
composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, whom she called "Uncle Ralph."
At the RCM, Grace joined several other gifted young
women composers including Eliabeth Maconchy (1907-1994), Dorothy Gow
(1893-1982), and Imogen Holst (1907-1984), the daughter of composer
Gustav Holst. Encouraged by Vaughan Williams, the women met frequently
to hear and criticize each other's work.
In 1930, Grace Williams won the pretigious RCM
Octavia Travelling Scholarship which enabled her to complete her training
in Vienna with Egon Wellesz (1885-1974). Here she had the opportunity
to indulge herself in the music of Wagner, Richard Strauss and Mahler
and the late Austro-German Romantic tradition. Although she did not
initially care for Mahler's music, it would later influence on her own
After her return to London in 1931, the 25-year-old
composer was music master at Camden School for Girls and visiting lecturer
at Southlands College of Education. Hen Walia, an orchestral
work based on folktunes with the lullaby Huna blentyn as a centerpiece,
was composed during this time and became her first work to receive frequent
performances. In 1936, she composed an Elegy for string orchestra
which contained hints of the highly individual music that she would
compose years later.
Prior to World War II, she composed her most ambitious
orchestral work, Four Illustrations for the Legend of Rhiannon
based on the Mabinogion, and in 1941 her brilliant Fantasia
on Welsh Nursery Tunes (Jim Cro; Beryn y Bwn; Migildi, Magildi;
Si lwli 'mabi; Gee, geffyl bach; Csga di fy mhlentyn tlws; Yr eneth
ffein ddu; Cadi ha!) was broadcast by the BBC. It was so well received
by the war-weary public in performances throughout Wales that it was
recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra. The Fantasia remains
Grace Williams' most popular work.
During the war, she composed her Sinfonia Concertante,
Symphonic Impressions and Sea Sketches, a highly evocative
five- movement work for string orchestra. By the time the war ended,
the deprivation and difficulties Williams experienced trying to earn
money while spending her free time composing had taken a toll on her.
She was in poor physical health and hinted to friends that she might
give up composition altogether. In 1947, doctors concerned about a persistent
illness suggested that she return to Barry where she could be properly
cared for by her parents.
The move provided the change that Grace Williams
needed, and she never returned to live in London. By the late 40s, Wales
was blossoming as a center for the arts. The BBC had set up a Welsh
Broadcasting Region while the Welsh National Opera, the Welsh Office
of the Arts Council and a number of music festivals had been established.
She began writing incidental music for radio plays and wrote scripts
for BBC school broadcasts which included her own arrangements of folk
songs from all over the world. In 1948, she became one of the first
-- if not the first -- women to write music for film with her score
for Blue Scar.
In 1955, Grace Williams was 49 years old. While
the music she composed up to that time in her life was good, it was
not original enough to lift her out of the category of "minor composer."
Her compositions with few exceptions were rooted in romanticism, relied
heavily on traditional Welsh melodies and images of land and sea, or
had been inspired by an event in Welsh history.
By the age of 50, Grace Williams had found her
own musical voice, one now influenced by the rhythms and cadences of
old Welsh poetry and oratory, and penillion and ballad singing. With
her music in greater demand, she now began receiving commissions. She
was able to put aside much of the necessary busy work that had provided
her with an income and devote more time to composition.
"You know," she wrote to a friend, "it was a marvelous
sensation being asked to write something; someone wanting your music.
Once I got going on it, the music absolutely haunted me.... Such was
the elation of having a commission, the ideas flowed freely."
In the last 20 years of her life, Grace Williams
composed music that marks her as a composer of importance in Wales.
Her influence on younger Welsh composers was enormous, and she proved
that it is possible to live in a small country and survive as an artist.
In a land with a deeply rooted choral tradition, she helped place orchestral
music on a new footing, and she brought to the concert hall a distinctly
Welsh musical language in works like her Penillion, Ballads for Orchestra,
Carillons, Symphony No. 2, the Trumpet Concerto and Castell
Caernarfon. Grace Williams did not neglect the vocal music that
is the lifeblood of the Welsh people and left some 90 settings for voice,
many with orchestra. Her Choral Suite: The Dancers was one of
her first successful vocal works and received its premier by Joan Sutherland
singing solo with the Penarth Ladies Choir in 1954! Williams had an
affinity for vocal writing and over the years produced large scale choral
works like the haunting Ave maris stella and her choral masterpiece
Missa Cambrensis. In her song settings with orchestra, she selected
a broad range of poets from ancient and Medieval Welsh texts to Gerard
Manley Hopkins, Siegfried Sassoon, D.H. Lawrence and the American poet
For her contributions to music, she was
offered the OBE in 1966, but she turned it down. A good performance
of her music meant more to her than a decoration. On her 70th
birthday in 1976, she received tributes from admirers throughout the
world, and the Welsh BBC broadcast a program of her music. Her major
orchestra works had been recorded.
Three months later, she experienced the first signs
of what would prove to be a fatal cancer. Surgery and radiation therapy
did not improve her condition and left her debilitated.
On January 25, 1977, she wrote a farewell letter
to Elizabeth Maconchy to tell her "...all along I've known this could
happen and now it has I'm quite calm and prepared and can only count
my blessings -- that I've had such a run of good health, able to go
on writing -- and just being me with my thoughts and ideas and sensitivity.
From now on it won't be so good but even so there are sunsets and the
sea and the understanding of friends."
Grace Williams died on February 10 just nine days
before her seventy-first birthday.
See also article by David Wright