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An Interview with the composer John Ramsden Williamson
 
 
 
Q.1 What is your earliest musical memory?
 
My earliest memories, up to about the age of 10, relate to my extraordinary emotional response to music in many forms. This was before my earliest piano lessons or understanding of musical notation. Three examples include my response in tears on hearing folk songs at primary school (A Minstrel Boy), Puccini's Bohème heard on radio - Mimi's aria, a Beethoven piano concerto at a local venue in Didsbury, Manchester, where I grew up from 1929. In fact this emotional reaction to music of all types pervaded my whole life: opera, piano music, brass music and so much more continued to embarrassingly reduce me to sobs and tears.

 
 
Q.2 What drew you to music?
 
There was a piano in the house and I was given the opportunity to take lessons from the age of 9. From the outset this involved playing the simplest of pieces (Smallwood's Tutor). I was again emotionally carried away, became devoted to learning more, and memorised with ease. My tuition was interrupted at the outset of the war, but I soon picked up with a very fine teacher in Ashton-under-Lyne, who soon had me on to Mozart and easier Beethoven, including many other pianistic composers: Czerny, Dussek, easier Bach (Inventions), and many names now forgotten. I just absorbed everything I was taught and became an acceptable pianist from my early teens.
 
 
Long before attending the RMCM, I felt the need to compose, from my early teens; I was admitted to the RMCM on a handful of early imitative efforts; I was put under a Richard Hall, who also lead the Famous Manchester group (Alex Goehr, Ronald Stevenson, Max Davies, Harrison Birtwistle) but I was an outsider, unnoticed; Hall was a serial modernist - Berg, Webern; he showed no interest in me; I progressed well in piano work with Hedwig Stein. I left college with a strong need to start again on my own , taking private lessons in rudiments, harmony, counterpoint; winning an LRAM, piano, a B.Mus. external, Dunelm, and circa 1974 an FLCM. I struggled year by year to find my own style; often almost gave up; won a few competitions; joined societies (NWCA) BMS, EPSS; started to get a few publications; in fact I suppose I taught myself.
 
 
 
Q.3 Was your family at all musical?
 
It cannot be said that mother and father were especially musical; there used to be a News Chronicle song book on the piano, although I do not recall it being played by anyone. Both parents had good tastes and perhaps they did not have opportunities to study music. I was an only child. In addition, my two sons by a first marriage have no musical talents, nor any relatives of a second marriage. So I am very much a loner at home although I have valuable contacts in many places and situations in the musical world.
 
 
 
Q.4. Who would you say are your greatest musical influences?
 
From the beginning in my early teens, I was lead to the music of Chopin and Beethoven; my emotional reaction was intense. It took a few years to absorb all their keyboard output. Through the succeeding years leading to my time at the RMCM my influences grew from all the finest composers: Debussy, Schumann, Mozart, Bach, Handel, D. Scarlatti, Rachmaninoff, and so many others too numerous to list. Of more contemporary writers it was Bartók and Prokofiev, mainly. Now for many years I imitated Chopin, but gradually became obsessed with the need to find myself. For many years (1952-c.1980) I taught at schools and colleges whilst in the meantime composing and searching for a new harmonic language. If I was influenced by my excitement with the names above, it did not amount to any kind of imitation. It was a result of experimenting with new ideas at the keyboard, and the continuing need to find my own way. My earlier efforts were derivative in style but I had a determination to press on find my own voice; this did put me into much isolation. It has been said that my style likens to Messiaen, but I have not known much of his keyboard music. Any influences have been esoteric, hidden.
 
 
 
Q.5. What attracted you about the poetry of AE Housman and why has Housman held your interest for such a long time?
 
You may be surprised to know that when I, somehow, picked up a volume of A Shropshire Lad, in about the early eighties, I had no idea that his poetry had attracted the most numerous of composers.
 
I was once in correspondence with a Bill Lewis of Oxford who was researching into all composers of Housman verse and their output in that genre; I was at the top of his list, now having set all of Housman's verse, excepting the long poems. As for what attracted me to Housman, the reason lies in the impact the subjects had upon me. This is perhaps to do with my depressed, emotional, state of mind over many years of unhappiness. The powerful sentiments expressed went to my very heart. Also. of course, the metre, although perhaps not very modern, is so lyrical and so naturally musical, to me and many others, that it defies Housman's attitude to the setting of his verse. The optimism and pessimism, the ironic thoughts so vividly expressed, it seemed like a personal reflection of my own mental condition. I have been a member of the Housman Society for many years, associating with like minds and through my musical career I spent but little time studying poetry. I also became a member of the EPSS at the same period and have had several winning entries and performances of various poetical settings.
 
 
 
Q.6. Which other literary figures influenced your writing?
 
In my college years (1949-52), I was greatly moved by the Romantic poets, especially Wordsworth, Byron, Coleridge. I composed a few songs in derivative but emotional manner. My Three Romantic Songs (written in traditional keys) represent an early achievement for me in that genre. They are included on the second of my vocal discs and they are still important to me.
 
I had no continuing interest in song settings until I somehow (cannot remember how) discovered a volume of Housman poems; some 20 to 30 years ago which lead me to joining the Housman Society. These powerful poems intensely reflected the joys and sorrows of my own life. Again I was overwhelmed with the sheer power of the sentiments expressed. There is so much nature in them. I have been overpowered with the beauty and ferocity of nature all my life, have spent a lifetime cycling alone through the marvellous British Countryside, as a humble hosteller. The irony of Housman, as in my settings often reduced me to tears; life and death so powerfully revealed. such powerful expressions: A Shropshire Lad XXXI: On Wenlock Edge the wood's in trouble ----- The gale it plies the saplings double. I cannot understand that Housman did not approve of his verse being set to music. I feel so strongly that my settings enhance his words?
 
 
 
Q.7. How did your interest in palindromic methods first occur to you and are there any precedents?
 
This is a very difficult one to answer. There are precedents but I knew nothing of them, so I was not influenced by them at all. My interest or perhaps obsession with these forms of musical structures grew from a simple idea and a fascination with the possibilities of mirror writing. For instance, my basic chord was not a tonic major or minor but CFGC rising or falling, which I suppose is like a suspension of a tonic chord. Strangely, the idea of unresolved discords goes from Monteverdi to Debussy and further. Also strangely, the pianistic hands form a palindrome. I only realised this by accident. I suppose I was like an inventor say EDISON, striving to expand the use of palindromic structures through new cadences, progressions, inversions. It is really difficult to demonstrate these expanding ideas except by musical illustrations in score, or listening. Musicians with sympathetic hearing will readily grasp my methods. My sound inventions may to some extent have derivations from the traditional two modal systems, major and minor. My structures are based on Key Centres. These palindromic structures are not always perfect - perfection is an exciting concept. Deviations often occur.
 
Many years ago, when I was struggling with teaching and showing great frustration and inefficiency, a superior said to me: “You seem to be looking for something. I hope you find it.” Now I can say that I have found it, and with great satisfaction.
 
Another point: I make much use of modal scales. CDFGBflatC is a palindromic scale. The chromatic scale is palindromic. My personal scale: CCsharpEFGAflatBC is also of palindromic structure. Some will say my compositions are mechanical, but I have proved through reviews and CDs and a few publications that my musical expressions are genuine. Thirty years ago I did not know what a palindrome meant!
 
As for precedents, Ronald Stevenson described my methods as symmetrical inversion and told me of a German/American composer, Bernhart Ziehn was a pioneer of this method with his Canonic Studies, accepted as a classic in that study. I am not familiar with this work or his name, so I had no influence there, and my harmonic structures do not show anything imitative of his work. The whole method is very intricate and even secretive but has been for me almost a lifetime's discovery; for me very satisfying, exciting and rewarding.
 
 
 

Q.8 Do tell us more about your Preludes?


 
My 15 sets of 12 preludes: Although I have 9 piano sonatas to my credit, the preludes comprise the basis of my piano compositional development. I needed to put the traditional tonal system aside; my works are based on key centres having derivations from the tonal system. Past composers: Bach, Chopin, Shostakovich have exploited the tonal keys in sets of preludes, I needed to compose groups of 12 pieces, based on the 12 key centres of the rising chromatic scale. My first success, I believe were the 12 new preludes, following years of attempts to find myself. I had to consolidate my first attempt through creating further sets of 12 preludes, striving to further develop my palindromic harmonic structures. Recent assessments and editing of these pieces show early weaknesses but increasing confidence and satisfaction in new rhythmical and imitative methods. My constructions are frequently binary in form, the second section having imitative features of harmony and melody in an inverted mirror fashion, Palindromic Constructions, but having some deviations of contour. The repetition of the 12 prelude system shows a development of my musicality, a process of great satisfaction. 
 
 
 
Q.9 Were you never drawn to writing a symphony or a large-scale concerto?
 
I have completed one symphony, five piano concertos, one 'cello concerto, several sets of Variations for orchestra, and works for chamber orchestra, three of which have been performed. My first piano concerto was in 1966; opportunities for performance have never materialised in spite of many past efforts in submitting for competitions. Writing these works gave me intense emotional satisfaction. Isolation from my peers has not helped my progress or recognition.
 
 
 
Q.10 Do you have any musical works on which you are still working - work in progress?
 
I have halted composition for six about months, as I am now editing all my past work; the songs have been edited and assessed; at present I am reflecting on my some 180 piano preludes; the standard of my work is uneven but many works remain alive, I feel.
 
 
Q.11 Which of your works do you prize most highly?
 
Many of my circa 150 songs, not all Housman settings, I feel represent the very best of my work, especially my two Sassoon settings: I Stood With The Dead and Before The Battle, both 2nd place in the annual EPSS competition. Many of my piano preludes, especially those included in sets VI to XIV give me great satisfaction.
 
 
 
Q.12 Please name your ten favourite pieces by other composers?
 
That is a hard one: If I was on Desert Island Discs, it would have to be: Chopin piano concerto in F minor, no. 2, I believe; Schumann's Scenes of Childhood; Brahms Piano concerto no. 2; almost any Scarlatti Sonata; O Waly Waly - Somerset folk song (anon); Beethoven's piano sonata in E minor Opus 90; Sibelius symphony no. 2; Bach-any prelude and fugue or his Italian Concerto; Handel's Messiah; any Chopin Scherzo or Ballade; my list is inexhaustible!
 
 
 
Q.13 Do you use Sibelius software to aid composition?
 
I attempted to use Sibelius software and others several times, even went to London once for some instruction; but all in vain; could not hold my concentration; my friend Colin Bayliss spent up to 12 months mastering it; my time was much more important in composing; I needed a piano not a computer to hear my ideas. However, being able to typeset does not improve the quality of your work; I decided to pay others to typeset my stuff when needed. My chordal work is very complex and needs great skill in printing.
 
 
 
Q.14 What are your opinions on recording technology?
 
Recording technology is a great asset for composers today. It gives you an increased opportunity to be heard. I was very fortunate to meet pianist Murray McLachlan and Jim Pattison of the Dunelm Label, now given over to the Divine Art label. They were drawn to my work and gave me great encouragement; on-line communication is essential today to keep in touch with your advocates. Typesetting skills offer opportunities for self-publication. Self advertisement is enhanced through You-Tube etc, although I have yet to understand this. Without making use of all these all these modern technological assets, talents will remain undiscovered. Monetary advantages can be helpful in achieving notice too.
 
 
 
Q.15 Has the availability of so much music and its wide accessibility - mp 3 players etc - had a good or harmful influence?
 
Modern technology has much enhanced the opportunity to expose new compositions; I know little about ipods or iplayers, but I understand that You-Tube is a great outlet for composers; I am soon going to make use of that medium with a little instruction.
 
 
 

Q.17 What words of advice do you have for young composers of today?


 
As for my humble advice to young composers today, I would say: if you are pursuing a solo road, compose if you really feel the need; compose if you have a vision; compose if you have the compulsion; compose if you are inwardly and emotionally driven; seek your own voice; do not let your aim be fame or fortune but for inner satisfaction; no point in envying others their success. Compose for the media if you have the opportunity to make a living by it. If you must compose, expect rejection, let your enthusiasm drive you on with determination; seek outlets: competitions etc; be encouraged by the right people; by prayer, allow God into your aspirations and inspirations; rewards and recognitions may come later.
 
 
 
Q.18 By which of your works would you most like to be remembered?
 
I cannot answer this by quoting one piece, except my Cantata for children's voices, once partially performed by my Children's choir at my last school. the piece lasts 30 minutes. I would otherwise prefer to be remembered for many of my songs and piano preludes. If I had heard my concertos my answer might be more extended.
 
  Perspective
 
The compositions of great composers are always fresh and remain alive. Their mature work is always convincing. With lesser composers, there is an unevenness in their works; some pieces are evergreen but a good deal is forgotten.
 
I have arrived at a stage where the urge to compose has waned and I look back over the work I have achieved. I sustained the urge to compose and realise something new from an early age. The shackles of full-time teaching were removed c.1980 and I wrote the early Housman songs and my 12 New Preludes. A new satisfaction in my style took hold but I am far from satisfied with all my compositions. I know, looking over my past work as I am doing now, that I find many of my pieces unworthy of revealing. I speak of pieces and works that I have heard in performance, and I have been quite fortunate to have had many opportunities for performance. On the other hand, many of my pieces, (songs and piano works and duo sonatas) are of high standard and of satisfaction. This is evident from the many excellent reviews my work has received and offers of publication attained. Even so I know that sales of my work are rare! One critic said that my songs (heard on two discs) were very high standard and satisfying, but that I was not a great English song writer like a Vaughan Williams. This is how I feel about my work: through written from the 1990s to 2010. I have realised great satisfaction composing so many works as yet unknown, and unperformed, and as critics often say: 'He deserves to be played and heard more often'. There are so many living composers today, styles so manifest, that I would be fortunate to be noticed. I have explored and found my own style through many arduous years of composition; you may call it esoteric, but the creative experience has been exciting and satisfying. The RNCM have agreed that my manuscripts can be held in their archives as I am a past student of the RMCM. I will also leave them a legacy.
 
Perhaps, at some future date, I may be further assessed. My legacy of compositions will find a little place in English music at some time, I believe. I contemplate that possibility with satisfaction. I am grateful to have had the ability and dedication to compose through the years.

 John Ramsden Williamson
John (Ramsden) Williamson (b. Manchester, 1929): B,Mus (Dunelm), FLCM, LRAM, ARMCM, member of NWCA, EPSS, PRS, BMS, Housman Society, published by Animus (organ), Recital Music ( CB), Brandon (songs), Piper (woodwind), Curiad (recorder), Da Capo (various).

Interview conducted by Rob Barnett
 
  MusicWeb International Links
 
Unsung Heroes – The Search for Self – Reflections by Murray McLachlan
http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2005/May05/John_Williamson.htm
 
Reviews
 
Music for Piano – vols 1-3 – The Divine Art
http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2009/Nov09/J_R_Williamson_DVD24143.htm
 
Music for Piano – vol. 2
http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2003/Oct03/jr_williamson_v2.htm
http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2003/Nov03/Williamson2.htm
 
Lads of Love and Sorrow – songs
http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2011/July11/Williamson_songs_DDV24163.htm
http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2007/Sept07/lads_drd0265.htm
 
12 Housman Songs - Dunelm
http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2002/Oct02/Williamson.htm
http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2004/May04/Williamson_Houseman1.htm
 
12 More Housman Songs - Dunelm
http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2004/Jun04/Williamson_12more.htm
 
Music for Guitar and flute
http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2010/Mar10/little_serenade_2079.htm
 
Organ Sonata – Dunelm
http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2006/July06/Frost_Organ6_DRD0250.htm
 
The Wagon of Life – songs – Dunelm
http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2004/Apr04/wagon_life.htm
http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2004/Apr04/wagon.htm
http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2004/May04/Wagon.htm
 
The Great War Remembered – songs - Dunelm
http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2005/June05/Great_War_DRD0239.htm
 
Cello Sonata No. 2 – Dunelm
http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2004/Nov04/drakeford_cello_dunelm.htm
http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2004/Oct04/Drakeford.htm
http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2004/Dec04/drakeford.htm
http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2004/Sept04/drakeford.htm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



 


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