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Murray McLachlan reflects on the fruits of a private pilgrimage

in the life and music of JOHN WILLIAMSON, 75 this year (2004)

‘Not a lot of exciting things to say about my life - teaching, composing, relationship problems, cycling, periods of depression ... The eternal seeking through life for my own individual voice - and I have found it' (John Williamson, July 2004).

John Ramsden Williamson was born in Manchester in 1929 and studied at the Royal Manchester College of Music under Richard Hall. But unlike many of Hall's other especially talented pupils (and these include illustrious names from the 'Manchester school' such as Alexander Goehr and Harrison Birtwistle, as well as Ronald Stevenson and John Ogdon), Williamson's music has until very recently remained completely unknown to the general music public, and virtually unperformed in professional concerts.

We are dealing here with an extremely reticent, quietly intense musician, someone who endured literally decades of frustration as a general music teacher in a long succession of posts at various schools and colleges (1952-92). He unquestionably felt that his true metier lay far beyond the confines of the schoolmaster's traditional brief, and his professional restrictions most certainly contributed to the fact that much of the music he composed prior to retirement now frustrates him. The scores in Williamson's 'bottom drawer' are apparently prolific and varied, evidently including several large-scale piano concertos in full score. Much of this pre 1990s music was perused and admired by important figures in the BBC and elsewhere (names worth mentioning here include Lennox Berkeley, Williamson's teacher for a brief period, the distinguished Russian piano pedagogue Sulamita Aronovsky, as well as William Mathias), but as the composer is reluctant to release most of this material for performance, little else can be said of it here.

Not that this seems to matter, for Williamson has been mercurial to a phenomenal extent since his retirement to North Wales in the early 1990s. It is as though something revelatory happened in his artistic life, for leaving aside the cello concerto (2002), recorder, cello, violin and percussion sonatas (1997, 1999, 1998 and 1999) not to mention most of the eighty Housman songs, we are still left with a huge collection of piano works written in recent years: 72 Palindromic Preludes (1993-2002), Sonatas 2-6 (ranging in duration from 15 to nearly 25 minutes long), Diversions in the form of 21 variations for piano and orchestra (only recently completed), Twelve New Piano Preludes (1993), the Sonatina in C (1990), Seven Interval Studies (2001), Lament for Sarah (1998), and An English Suite (1993), to mention only the works which the composer has so far chosen to share with the outside world! The reader may find it unbelievable when I write that all of the music from this list which I have seen is immediately individual, instantly recognisable as John Williamson. It is certainly highly unusual in contemporary music that such a late, intensely prolific flowering can also be regarded, irrespective of subjective opinions, as unique.

In reviewing volume two of an on-going survey of the major piano music of John Williamson for the Dunelm Records label, the critic Robert Matthew-Walker eloquently encapsulated the qualities which makes this approach so unmistakable: 'Williamson's music is nothing, if not consistent; he has a uniform style in his keyboard writing which is predicated upon a chordal-arioso manner in which the underlying chordal bases remain fluid but hardly 'progress' in the sense of inner movement; what we have is a fascinating mixture of coloration in the harmonies, much of them founded upon diminished sevenths and ninths, but fully chordal as befits music written for the piano. The result is a style not unlike that of a heady late-Romantic sensuality, but this should not be taken as merely atmospheric or Impressionistic, for there is another layer of genuine compositional skill at work here: the almost obsessive palindromic writing - in which, and purely mnemonically, halfway through, the music retraces its steps, as it were; nor is this necessarily the emotional expression in -reverse. Of course, any music can be played backwards as well as forwards ' - ' the skill lies in devising music which makes sense in these terms, and it must be said that Williamson is often very successful within this rather stringent framework.'

Palindromic formal structures, along with harmonic, rhythmic and melodic 'mirror' compositional devices, abound. For an instant Williamsonian 'sound-bite', try playing the last two chords from his immediately accessible yet excitingly rewarding Piano Sonatina: F-G-B flat-D flat-E natural (left hand) plus G flat-A-C-E flat-F (right hand), followed by F-A flat-C-E '(left hand) plus G-B-D-F (right hand). The 'mirror-pianism' gives tactile pleasure, and in this respect the composer's lifelong love affair with the works of Chopin is significant. If one looks at the proportions of the emotionally varied New Preludes, one in each pitch centre, there is an immediate connection with the essence of the Chopin Preludes. Indeed selected numbers from this highly impressive cycle seem to have echoes of particular numbers from Chopin's great cycle, though nothing is ever unsubtle, with merely ghostly hints of the great master's C sharp minor, E flat minor, and G major Preludes appearing to remain. And the six sets of Palindromic Preludes continue in the spirit of the New Preludes, each set containing a "movement for each of the chromatic semitones. The flavour of Williamson's harmonic vocabulary, on the other hand, has more than a little in common with the Messiaen of Vingt Regards (though he denies, more than a superficial awareness of Messiaen's music).

Along with the Chopin and Messiaenic parallels, there is a distinctly pastoral reflective strain in this music. Wistful shades, melancholic turns of phrase, simplistic, folksong-like phrase-structures ... all these add up to a style that could never be described as 'cutting edge'. Indeed its radical nature is inherent in its refusal to conform to fashion, and though works such as the recent Seven Interval Studies (2002) may show something of a debt to Debussy (in this case, to Book I of the Etudes), Williamson has clearly found that 'individual voice', whose discovery has been the goal of a lifetime's labour.

Murray Maclachlan

Published in, and with acknowledgement to, Piano (Sept/Oct 2004)

With thanks to John Williamson for his permission to use this article

With thanks to the British Music Society


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