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Grace Williams

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Grace Williams

Grace Mary Williams (19 February 1906 – 10 February 1977) was a Welsh composer, generally regarded as Wales's most notable female composer, and the first British woman to score a feature film.

Early life[edit]

Williams was born in Barry, Glamorgan,[1] the daughter of William Matthews Williams and Rose Emily Richards Williams. Both of her parents were teachers; her father was also a noted musician.[2] She learned piano and violin as a girl, playing piano trios with her father and her brother Glyn, and accompanying her father's choir. At the County School she began to develop her interest in composition under the guidance of the music teacher Miss Rhyda Jones, and in 1923 she won the Morfydd Owen scholarship to the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire (now Cardiff University), where she studied under Professor David Evans. In 1926 she began studying at the Royal College of Music, London, where she was taught by Gordon Jacob and Ralph Vaughan Williams.[3] Other notable female composers studying with Vaughan Williams at the RCM were Elizabeth Maconchy, Dorothy Gow and Imogen Holst, the daughter of Gustav Holst.[4] In 1930 she was awarded a travelling scholarship, and chose to study with Egon Wellesz in Vienna, where she remained till 1931.[2]


Teaching and World War II[edit]

From 1932 Williams taught in London, at Camden Girls' School and the Southlands College of Education.[2] During the Second World War, the students were evacuated to Grantham in Lincolnshire, where she composed some of her earliest works, including the Sinfonia Concertante for piano and orchestra, and her First Symphony. One of her most popular works, Fantasia on Welsh Nursery Tunes (1940) was written during this period. Sea Sketches for string orchestra, written in 1944 is the first work in her mature style. This music is vividly evocative of the sea, in all its variety of moods. In 1945, she returned to her home town, remaining there for the rest of her life, dedicating herself more or less full-time to composition.[4]

In 1949, she became the first British woman to score a feature film, with Blue Scar.[5][6] In 1960–61 she wrote her only opera, The Parlour, which was not performed until 1966.[2] In the 1967 New Year's Honours, she turned down an offer of the OBE for her services to music.[7]


Williams' most enduringly popular work is Penillion, written for the National Youth Orchestra of Wales in 1955. She revisited some of the same ideas in her Trumpet Concerto of 1963. Despite the tradition of choral music in Wales, Williams' portfolio of compositions were largely orchestral or instrumental pieces.[4] Ballads for Orchestra of 1968, written for the National Eisteddfod, held that year in her home town, has all the colour and swagger of a mediaeval court.

Outstanding amongst her vocal works are her setting of the Latin hymn, Ave Maris Stella, for unaccompanied SATB (1973), and Six Poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins, for contralto and string sextet (1958). The cycle is book-ended by two of Hopkins' best-known poems, Pied Beauty and Windhover, her music perfectly matching the rhythmic subtlety of the texts. These are amongst her most beautiful pieces, the soft melodic and harmonic undulations in Ave Maris Stella (Hail, Star of the Sea) suggesting as so often in her music the swelling of the ever-present sea. Welsh-language settings include Saunders Lewis's carol Rhosyn Duw, for SATB, piano and viola (1955), which she later incorporated into her large-scale choral work, Missa Cambrensis (1971).[8]

Her last completed works (1975) were settings of Kipling and Beddoes for the unusual combination of SATB, harp and two horns. The last music she wrote is actually in her Second Symphony, originally composed in 1956, and substantially revised in 1975.[8]


BBC Radio 3 devoted their "Composer of the Week" segment to her during the second week of August 2006, the year of the centenary of her birth. This resulted in several new performances of long-unperformed works, including her Violin Concerto (1950)[9] and her Sinfonia Concertante for piano and orchestra (1941).[10]

March 2016 saw both the premiere modern performances of her large-scale Missa Cambrensis for soloists, chorus and orchestra (1971) and of her symphonic suite Four Illustrations for the Legend of Rhiannon (1939–40).[11]


Only a handful of Williams' works have been recorded. The Symphony No 1 (1943) was performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Owain Arwel Hughes in a 3rd March 2008 broadcast.[12] Her Second Symphony, Penillion, Sea Sketches and Fantasia on Welsh Nursery Tunes have been included in two Lyrita compilations, and several choral works, including Ave Maris Stella, were recorded for a Chandos Records collection. Ballads for Orchestra (1969) was recorded by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Baldur Brönnimann and was included in volume 15 issue number 3 of BBC Music Magazine.

An album of Williams' chamber music played by the violinist Madeleine Mitchell and the London Chamber Ensemble was released 2019.[13][14] In January 2024 the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor John Andrews made the first studio recordings of Legend of Rhiannon (1939), Ballads for Orchestra and Castel Caenarfon (1969), for release later in 2024 on Resonus Classics.[15] Also in 2024 an album of 29 of her songs was released in premiere recordings, including Stand forth, Seithenin, Fairground and her setting of Lights Out by Edward Thomas.[16]

Principal works[edit]

  • Two Psalms for contralto, harp and strings (1927)
  • Phantasy Quintet for piano and string quartet (1928 ; 2nd prize at the Cobbett Competition 1928[17])
  • Hen Walia, Overture for orchestra (1930)
  • Sonata for violin and piano (1930 ; rev. 1938)[18]
  • Sextet for oboe, trumpet, violin, viola, cello and piano (c. 1931)
  • Sonatina for flute and piano (1931)
  • Suite for orchestra (1932)
  • Concert Overture (c. 1932)[19]
  • Movement for Trumpet and chamber orchestra (1932)
  • Suite for nine instruments (flute, clarinet, trumpet, piano, two violins, viola, cello and double bass) (c. 1934)
  • Theseus and Ariadne, ballet (1935)[20]
  • Elegy for String orchestra (1936 ; rev. 1940)
  • Four Illustrations for the Legend of Rhiannon, for orchestra (1939)
  • Fantasia on Welsh Nursery Tunes, for orchestra (1940)
  • Sinfonia Concertante for piano and orchestra (1941)
  • Symphony No. 1, in the form of Symphonic Impressions of the Glendower Scene in "Henry IV Part 1" (1943)[21]
  • Sea Sketches, for String orchestra (1944)
  • Piano Concerto (unfinished ; one movement only) (1949)[22]
  • The Dark Island, Suite for string orchestra (1949)
  • Violin Concerto (1950)
  • Variations on a Swedish Tune The Shoemaker for Piano and Orchestra (1950)
  • The Dancers, Choral Suite (1951)
  • Hiraeth, for harp (1951)
  • Three Nocturnes, for two pianos (1953)
  • Seven Scenes for Young Listeners, for orchestra (1954)
  • Penillion, for orchestra (1955)
  • Symphony No. 2 (1956 ; rev. 1975)
  • All Seasons shall be Sweet (1959)
  • The Parlour, opera (after Guy de Maupassant[23]) (1961)
  • Processional for orchestra (1962 ; rev. 1968)
  • Trumpet Concerto (1963)
  • Carillons, for oboe and orchestra (1965 ; rev. 1973)
  • Severn Bridge Variations (collective work) : Variation V (1966)
  • Ballads for Orchestra (1968)
  • Castell Caernarfon, for orchestra (1969)
  • Missa Cambrensis (1971)[24]
  • Ave Maris Stella, for SATB chorus a cappella (1973)
  • Fairest of Stars, for soprano and orchestra (1973)

Personal life[edit]

During and after World War II, Williams experienced depression and other stress-related health problems. Grace Williams died at the age of 70 in February 1977, in Barry.[14]

Further reading[edit]

Grace Williams left no autobiography, but a useful introduction to her life and work is:

  • Boyd, Malcolm (1980). Bohana, Roy (ed.). Grace Williams. Composers of Wales. Vol. 4 (2nd ed.). Cardiff: University of Wales Press, on behalf of the Welsh Arts Council. ISBN 0-7083-1372-8. OCLC 44961603.
  • Composers of Wales: Grace Williams: Ninnau (The North American Welsh Newspaper) Vol. 33 No. 2 December 2007 p14
  • "Grace Williams". Welsh Music History/Hanes Cerddoriaeth Cymru. 8 (5). University of Wales Press, on behalf of the Centre for Advanced Welsh Music Studies: 6–16. Spring 1987.
  • Mathias, Rhiannon, Lutyens, Maconchy, Williams and Twentieth-Century British Music: A Blest Trio of Sirens (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2012); ISBN 9780754650195.
  • Cotterill, Graeme (2013). "Shall nation speak unto nation? Grace Williams and the BBC in Wales, 1931-195". Women & Music. 17: 59–77. doi:10.1353/wam.2013.0003. S2CID 193210207.


  1. ^ Steph Power (8 March 2016). "WOMEN COMPOSERS OF WALES: BBC NOW, TŶ CERDD, BANGOR NEW MUSIC FESTIVAL". Wales Arts Review. Retrieved 11 December 2016.
  2. ^ a b c d Griffiths, Rhidian. "WILLIAMS, GRACE MARY (1906-1977), composer". Dictionary of Welsh Biography. National Library of Wales. Retrieved 11 June 2020.
  3. ^ "Grace Williams". British Music Collection. 4 April 2009. Retrieved 11 June 2020.
  4. ^ a b c "Grace Williams". Oriana Publications. Archived from the original on 28 March 2016. Retrieved 8 December 2016.
  5. ^ Jan G. Swynnoe (2002). The Best Years of British Film Music, 1936–1958. Boydell Press. pp. 89–. ISBN 978-0-85115-862-4.
  6. ^ Roberts, Maddy Shaw (7 March 2019). "This Welsh female composer's beautiful music was lost for years – but now it is being performed again". Classic FM. Retrieved 11 June 2020.
  7. ^ "Refused honours: who were the people who said no?". The Guardian. 26 January 2012. Retrieved 23 July 2017.
  8. ^ a b Sadie, Julie Anne; Samuel, Rhian (1994). The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers. W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 498–499. ISBN 978-0-393-03487-5.
  9. ^ "Composer of the Week". BBC. Retrieved 21 June 2018.
  10. ^ "Grace Williams (1906–1977)". Radio Listings. Archived from the original on 22 June 2018. Retrieved 21 June 2018.
  11. ^ "Grace Mary Williams, official website". Retrieved 21 June 2018.
  12. ^ Grace Williams : Symphonic Impressions (Symphony No. 1) (1943), YouTube
  13. ^ Jeal, Erica (7 March 2019). "Grace Williams: Chamber Works review – don't take this neglected Welsh composer at her word!". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 1 February 2020.
  14. ^ a b Mitchell, Madeleine (8 March 2019). "The chamber music of Grace Williams". The Strad. Retrieved 11 June 2020.
  15. ^ Leah Broad. Premiere Recording of Grace Williams, 27 March 2024
  16. ^ Grace Williams: Songs, Naxos 747313138470 (2024)
  17. ^ Hornby, Emma; Maw, David Nicholas (21 June 2018). Essays on the History of English Music in Honour of John Caldwell: Sources, Style, Performance, Historiography. Boydell & Brewer. ISBN 9781843835356. Retrieved 21 June 2018 – via Google Books.
  18. ^ Redaktion, Mugi. "MUGI – Musik und Gender im internet". mugi.hfmt-hamburg.de. Retrieved 21 June 2018.
  19. ^ "Grace Williams(1906–77): A Catalogue of the Orchestral and Choral Music". www.unsungcomposers.com. Retrieved 21 June 2018.
  20. ^ Britten, Benjamin (7 July 2011). Letters from a Life Vol 1: 1923–39: Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten. Faber & Faber. ISBN 9780571265916. Retrieved 21 June 2018 – via Google Books.
  21. ^ "Some Unrecorded 20th Century British Symphonies". www.unsungcomposers.com. Retrieved 21 June 2018.
  22. ^ Mathias, Dr Rhiannon (28 January 2013). Lutyens, Maconchy, Williams and Twentieth-Century British Music: A Blest Trio of Sirens. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. ISBN 9781409495444. Retrieved 21 June 2018 – via Google Books.
  23. ^ Program Notes by Dr. Richard E. Rodda Archived 4 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  24. ^ "Grace Williams: Missa Cambrensis". 1 March 2010. Retrieved 21 June 2018 – via news.bbc.co.uk.

External links[edit]