Discovering Grace Williams: a neglected Welsh composer

“I was looking for another work by a female composer for our Spring concert,” says Thomas Payne, Musical Director of the London City Orchestra.

“I stumbled across Grace Williams’ violin concerto on YouTube. I’d never heard of her or the concerto. It’s very rarely performed.

“So I started listening and after about three or four minutes, I was hooked. I listened again, to make sure, then contacted the publisher to find out if the music was available to hire. Luckily, it was.

“It’s now becoming one of my favourite violin concertos. The more I listen to it, the more beautiful it becomes. It has a real sense of romanticism that sweeps you along. But it’s not a full-blown ‘in your face’ romanticism; it still has a charm and a subtlety to it. The concerto gives you shivers up the spine when you’re conducting it and I’m sure when you’re playing it as well. I hope the audience will feel that too.”

The London City Orchestra is performing the work in London on 18 March with Stephen Bryant, leader of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, as soloist. You can buy tickets here.

Who was Grace Williams?

Grace Williams was born into a musical family in 1906 in Barry, South Wales. She studied the violin and the piano and took an early interest in composition. Her father was an amateur choral director who encouraged his daughter to learn music by sharing his collection of musical scores.

Perhaps this inspired her free-spirited approach to composition, as Williams doesn’t seem bound by convention. In her violin concerto, for example, the slow first movement is followed by an equally relaxed ‘Andante’ second movement where you might have expected a scherzo to pick up the pace.

After studying at Cardiff University, Williams was accepted into the Royal College of Music in London. There, she studied under Ralph Vaughan Williams and was also friendly with Benjamin Britten. Her best-known early orchestral works are her Fantasia on Welsh Nursery Tunes (1940) and Sea Sketches (1944).  In 1949, she also became the first British woman to write a score for a feature film, Blue Scar.

A glimpse into a passionate personality

Dr Graeme Cotterill has some interesting insights into Williams and her work. His thesis, ‘Music in the blood and poetry in the soul? National identity in the life and music of Grace Williams’, explores how the composer drew on Welsh traditions. “I got into her music via her letters,” he explains. “There are thousands of them and they offer the most amazing glimpse into her personality and history.

“She wrote to everyone about everything. There are reams of surviving correspondence between her and Elizabeth Maconchy, Vaughan Williams, Britten and Daniel Jones. She comes across as a very exacting character. She knew what she wanted and wasn’t afraid of telling people what she thought they should do. She was also – perhaps unfairly – self-critical. But she cared passionately about her art and about music. She wanted perfection and held herself to the same standards as she held everyone else.”

Red pen and bonfires

As her own harshest critic, Williams was known for being merciless towards compositions that she judged unworthy. Malcolm Boyd’s biography of Williams includes details of a diary entry, written in red ink, where she writes: “DAY OF DESTRUCTION: Examined all my music manuscripts and destroyed nearly all which I considered not worth performing.”

On the manuscript of her Violin Sonata, she wrote “second movement worth performing, first and third not good enough”.

Boyd also quotes a letter where Williams writes about starting “something (perhaps a serenade) for two harps and orchestra – and I got started in real earnest and the old feeling of being full of it returned – Then of course the inevitable happened – I got caught up in the nightmares of pedalling.”

Poor Grace, I sympathise. Pedalling for the harp can be a nightmare. I also feel sorry that the world never had the chance to hear her serenade for two harps and orchestra. No trace of the incomplete work survives today.

Williams’ propensity for destroying her music is one reason why she is not better known. Another is that so little of her work was published during her lifetime. Thankfully, new editions issued by Oriana Publications are now helping to bring her work to a whole new audience.

The violin concerto: a ‘last fling’

A letter written in 1949 helps us understand Williams’ mindset when she was writing her violin concerto. She had been struggling to earn a living in London and had returned to Wales. She writes: “From now until Christmas I’m having my last fling at composing… I’ve started on a Violin Concerto.”

She wrote the concerto for Granville Jones, who gave the premiere of the work on 30 March 1950 with the BBC Welsh Orchestra. The work was subsequently performed in 1951, 1952 and 1958, with Jones as soloist, and again in 1968 by Yfrah Neaman with the BBC Welsh Orchestra.

Dr Cotterill says: “Whilst much of her music was influenced by Vaughan Williams and her own young contemporaries, by the time Grace Williams wrote her violin concerto, she had clearly developed her own voice. It’s a beautifully lyrical work. There’s a sense of freedom in the violin and orchestral writing which borders on the rhapsodic but never overstays its welcome.”

Complex rhythms and Welsh touches

The concerto is seasoned with humour and touches that echo the composer’s Welsh roots. The rhythms also make the work intriguingly complex in places. The time signature for the first movement is marked as both 2/4 and 6/8, and there’s a constant interplay of two against three.

For me, the humour comes across particularly in the jaunty third movement, where the violin cheerfully spars with the orchestra, undercut by a bass line that stops and starts unexpectedly.

And the Welsh touches? The most obvious element is the version of the Welsh hymn tune, Hen Ddarbi, played by the oboe at the start of the second movement. This short phrase is taken up by different orchestral soloists and woven throughout the movement, but is far from obvious. In his thesis, Dr Cotterill writes: “The use of ‘Hen Ddarbi’ is sufficiently subtle to almost warrant the use of the term ‘subversive’.”

Musical notation showing the oboe solo from Grace Williams' violin concerto

The ‘Hen Ddarbi’ theme appears at the start of the second movement

Interestingly, Dr Cotterill points out another aspect of Williams’ music that draws on her Welsh roots. “A feature of her music that comes back over and again is the manner in which she imitates the inflexions of the spoken Welsh language, where the emphasis is almost always on the penultimate syllable of each word. In her music, this translates into the use of ‘Lombard’ rhythms where a short, accented note is followed by a longer note – often resolving a dissonance in the process.”

Grace Williams’ legacy

As it turned out, the violin concerto was not Williams’ last fling. She wrote one of her most highly-regarded works, Penillion, in 1955, followed by her Second Symphony in 1956, an opera, The Parlour, in 1960, and her Trumpet Concerto in 1963. In her final years, she produced a number of large-scale choral works, including Missa Cambrensis in 1971. Williams died in 1977, just a few days before her seventy-first birthday.

In 2006, BBC 3 made her their Composer of the Week, which resulted in several performances of works that had fallen into obscurity.

I hope we’ll see a revival of Williams’ works now. As Dr Cotterill says: “If you’re looking at twentieth-century Welsh composers, she’s up there with William Mathias, Alun Hoddinott and Daniel Jones. She deserves her place on the concert stage, and it’s great to see enterprising contemporary musicians programming her works.”