About this Recording
8.557783 - WILLIAMSON: Choral Music
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Malcolm Williamson (1931-2003)
Choral Music


Malcolm Williamson was born in Sydney on 21 November 1931. At the age of eleven he went to the Sydney Conservatorium to study piano, violin and French horn and later studied composition with Eugene Goossens. In 1950 he moved to London where he studied with Erwin Stein and Elisabeth Lutyens. He settled permanently in England in 1952 and quickly gained a reputation both as a composer and performer. In his early years in Britain he worked as an organist and choirmaster before concentrating on composition. As a young composer he experimented with the twelve-tone serial technique, became interested in medieval music and, not long after his conversion to Catholicism in 1952, he discovered an affinity with the compositions and philosophy of Olivier Messiaen. Having fully immersed himself in various trends and influences of the day, his music became recognised as a truly individual voice from the mid-1950s. From 1958 he began to earn a living as a nightclub pianist and this had a major impact on his attitude to the popular music he wrote. These lighter pieces sometimes appeared simultaneously with intensely serious religious works, a juxtaposition that has occasionally baffled his critics.

Malcolm Williamson's vast output includes almost every genre imaginable but it is his work in the 1960s and 1970s that still remains the most fruitful. Indeed, at this time, he was one of the most frequently commissioned and performed composers in Britain. He was the first non-Briton to be appointed to the position of Master of the Queen's Music (1975) and had been awarded several honorary doctorates from universities such as Princeton, Sydney and Melbourne. He was awarded the Order of Australia medal in 1987 and held university fellowships both in Australia and the United States. His work specifically written for children is no small part of his output and includes Julius Caesar Jones, The Terrain of Kings and Dunstan and the Devil and a series of Cassations that teach children the mechanics of putting on an opera. Williamson was a true master of both the 'big tune' as well as of the quirky and the avant-garde. The importance of his contribution to all musical genres cannot, and should not, be overlooked. It would seem that the time has come to reassess the work of this great composer.

Given his astonishing career and remarkable list of works, one would think that Malcolm Williamson's music would regularly appear in concert programmes and on the radio. Sadly, this is not the case. Williamson's choral music is a large portion of his compositional output and this disc gives the listener an excellent overview of almost the entire span of his choral writing from the early Symphony for Voices (1960) to the Requiem for a Tribe Brother (1992).

The Scunthorpe Festival commissioned Williamson to compose a choral work for the 1972 festival. The commission for Love, the Sentinel came at the time of electricity strikes and industrial troubles in Britain. During these strikes, a young man called Fred Matthews was killed by a strike-breaking vehicle. This tragedy moved Williamson to take words from Tennyson's 'In Memoriam' and set them in Matthews' memory. There is an almost optimistic irony in the setting of the text, with the repetition of the words "All is well" constantly reminding us not to dwell on the negative.

One of the most astonishing works in the choral canon, Williamson's Symphony for Voices remains an example of how one should write for the unaccompanied choir. For his text Williamson turned to the Australian poet, James McAuley, focusing on the collections Under Aldebaran (1946) and A Vision of Ceremony (1956). Though not a symphony in the true sense of the word, it is a four-movement work preceded by an invocation, which, in a truly audacious move, is set for a single alto voice. The four following sections have the titles Terra Australis, Jesus, Envoi and New Guinea. The work was commissioned for the John Alldis Choir and was first performed by the group in 1962. Williamson's setting of the 'native' texts with the visionary Christian texts is remarkable in its textural and harmonic languages. The jagged musical lines and rhythms are mirrored in McAuley's text, yet at the same time they have a deeply spiritual, tranquil quality. Of all his choral works, with the possible exception of the Requiem for a Tribe Brother, the Symphony is the most Australian in feeling.

Edith Sitwell's book English Eccentrics was the basis for an opera written by Williamson in 1964, with a libretto by Geoffrey Dunn. The choral suite from the opera depicts a miscellany of strange and fascinating characters: Goose-Weather, who seeks a 'cure for melancholy in the dust heap of human history', Mr Robert Coates, who is listed in the Book of Heroic Failures as the 'worst ever actor', Sarah Whitehead, a woman who was caught up in an incestuous passion, The Quacks, a paean to Graham and Katerfelto who peddle their answers to life's problems, and a Traveller, a mysterious woman who claimed to be Princess Caraboo of Jevasu in the East Indies but turned out to be no more than Mary Baker, a servant girl from Devonshire. The Old Beau of the last movement is none other than Beau Brummel, who constantly resisted attempts to be placed in the care of the nuns of the Bon Sauveur, but the nuns, who have his best interests at heart, gently call to him. Their calls are merged with a return of the opening invocation of Goose-Weather, bringing the suite to a close.

Despite spending the greater part of his life in Britain, Williamson remained an Australian. His sense of national pride was as much a part of his musical as it was his personal life. Several of his major works were written for Australia or were based on Australian texts. One such work is the Requiem for a Tribe Brother. One of his most deeply felt and personal compositions, it was written when he learned of the death of a young Aboriginal friend. It is a religious work, in that it uses all the text of the Requiem, but within the musical structure Williamson embeds a number of specifically Australian-influenced ideas, most noticeably in his use of the male voices as the drone of the didgeridoo. The Requiem for a Tribe Brother is one of Williamson's largest unaccompanied choral works and it is particularly fitting that it appears on this disc. Written for the Joyful Company of Singers who gave the work's first performance in 1992, it was chosen by Peter Broadbent and his Singers as their farewell to Williamson, when they sang the work at his funeral in 2003.

© Lewis Mitchell

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