Grace Williams

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Grace Mary Williams (19 February 1906 – 10 February 1977) was a Welsh composer, generally regarded as Wales's most notable female composer.[1]


Williams was born in Barry, near Cardiff, Wales.

Both her parents were teachers, and keenly interested in music. Grace learned piano and violin and developed her musical skills early, 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 Cardiff University (University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire) where she studied under Professor David Evans. In 1926 she proceeded to the Royal College of Music, London, where she was taught by Gordon Jacob and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Other notable female composers studying with Williams at the RCM were Elizabeth Maconchy, Dorothy Gow and Imogen Holst, the daughter of Gustav Holst.[2] In 1930 she was awarded a travelling scholarship, and chose to study with Egon Wellesz in Vienna, where she remained till 1931, attending the opera "almost every night". From 1932 she taught in London. 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 which we recognise 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.[2]

Her 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.[2] Ballads for Orchestra of 1968, written for the National Eisteddfod, held that year in her home town, has all the colourfulness 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 (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).

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. Grace Williams died at the age of 70 in February 1977.

During and after the war, Williams suffered from depression and other stress-related health problems. In 1949, she became the first British woman to score a feature film, with Blue Scar.[3] In 1960–61 she wrote her only opera, The Parlour, which was not performed until 1966. In the same year, she turned down an offer of the OBE for her services to music.[citation needed]

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)[4] and her Sinfonia Concertante for piano and orchestra (1941).[5]

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).[6]

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[7])
  • Hen Walia, Overture for orchestra (1930)
  • Sonata for violin and piano (1930 ; rev. 1938)[8]
  • Sextet for oboe, trumpet, violin, viola, cello and piano (c. 1931)
  • Sonatina for flute and piano (c. 1931)
  • Suite for orchestra (1932)
  • Concert Overture (c. 1932)[9]
  • 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)[10]
  • 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)[11]
  • Sinfonia Concertante for piano and orchestra (1941)[12]
  • Symphony No. 1, in the form of Symphonic Impressions of the Glendower Scene in "Henry IV Part 1" (1943)[13][14]
  • Sea Sketches, for String orchestra (1944)
  • Piano Concerto (unfinished ; one movement only) (1949)[15]
  • The Dark Island, Suite for string orchestra (1949)
  • Violin Concerto (1950)[16]
  • Variations on a Swedish Tune The Shoemaker for Piano and Orchestra (1950)
  • The Dancers, Choral Suite (1951)
  • Hiraeth, for harp (1951)[17]
  • Three Nocturnes, for two pianos (1953)
  • Seven Scenes for Young Listeners, for orchestra (1954)
  • Penillion, for orchestra (1955)[18]
  • Symphony No. 2 (1956 ; rev. 1975)
  • All Seasons shall be Sweet (1959)
  • The Parlour, opera (after Guy de Maupassant[19]) (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)[20]
  • Castell Caernarfon, for orchestra (1969)
  • Missa Cambrensis (1971)[21]
  • Ave Maris Stella, for SATB chorus a cappella (1973)
  • Fairest of Stars, for soprano and orchestra (1973)


Only a handful of Williams' works have been recorded. 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 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

Further reading[edit]

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

External links[edit]