Grace Williams, Welsh composer

Friday 25 October 2013, 11:36

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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Grace Williams was an accomplished, highly skilled musician and composer who managed to catch the heart and soul of Wales in her many compositions. To many students of music she is "the" Welsh composer, particularly in her vocal and later orchestral pieces.

Grace was born in the coastal town of Barry on 19 February 1906, when the town was riding high on a crest of economic success thanks to its new docks and the coal trade.

Both of Grace's parents were teachers who had a deep and abiding love of music. They encouraged their daughter to learn piano and violin and it was not long before the prodigiously talented Grace was playing in a trio with her father and brother. She also sometimes acted as accompanist for her father's choir in Barry and the surrounding area.

Grace Williams was educated at Cardiff University, having won the Morfydd Owen Scholarship of 1923 to enable her to begin her course of studies. In 1926 she moved on to the Royal College of Music in London, where she studied composition and came under the influence of Ralph Vaughan Williams. While she spent the next 20 years out of Wales she never forgot her roots or her musical heritage.

In 1930 Grace won a travelling scholarship that enabled her to study in Vienna with Egon Wellensz. She later said that during the twelve months she stayed in the Austrian capital – in the days before the rise of the Nazi Party – she attended operatic performances virtually every night.

In 1931 Grace returned to Britain and took up a range of teaching posts in schools and at teacher training colleges. When the Second World War broke out in 1939, she and her students were evacuated to Grantham. It was here, stimulated by the dislocation and upset that were caused by conflict, that she began to compose quite seriously.

Her First Symphony was produced at this time, along with Fantasia on Welsh Nursery Tunes. This latter piece, like many of Grace Williams' compositions, drew heavily on her Welshness.

In 1946 Grace returned to Barry to live. She was to remain in the town of her birth for the rest of her life. She intended, now, to work only as a composer, rather than as a teacher, but it was a difficult time for her and for several years she suffered from depression and the effects of stress. Nevertheless, she continued to write.

Many of her major compositions now came from commissions from organisations such as the BBC and the National Youth Orchestra of Wales. Typical of these commissions was the 1955 request from the Youth Orchestra that led to her most popular piece, Penillion for Orchestra.

Grace Williams died on 10 February 1977. She had become increasingly interested in words and the way they could be set to music – right to the end of her life, clearly, there was poetry in her soul. Her last completed works were settings of Kipling and Beddoes.

Grace Williams was a fascinating and capable composer who clearly possessed an individual voice. Her techniques were exemplary and there is little doubt that the town of Barry should be proud to claim her as one of its most distinguished daughters.

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    Comment number 1.

    Thank you! Grace Williams is one of my favourite composers, and she is very neglected these days. Maybe her works are performed in Wales, but Radio Three has hardly played any in recent times, and I haven't noticed any being done in London. My dream is to hear her Missa Cambrensis - only ever done once, in 1971. Perhaps a Welsh choir/orchestra could take it on, in 2017 if not before, the 40th anniversary of her death.


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