MALCOLM WILLIAMSON (1931 - 2003)
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.
© Lewis Mitchell