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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Q.12 Please name your ten favourite pieces by other
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
Piano concerto no. 2; almost any Scarlatti Sonata; O 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
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.
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
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
Music for Piano – vols 1-3 – The Divine Art
Music for Piano – vol. 2
Lads of Love and Sorrow – songs
12 Housman Songs - Dunelm
12 More Housman Songs - Dunelm
Music for Guitar and flute
Organ Sonata – Dunelm
The Wagon of Life – songs – Dunelm
The Great War Remembered – songs - Dunelm
Cello Sonata No. 2 – Dunelm