Malcolm Williamson

Malcolm Williamson
Malcolm Williamson

Malcolm Benjamin Graham Christopher Williamson AO (honorary), CBE (21 November 1931 – 2 March 2003) was an Australian composer. He was the Master of the Queen's Music from 1975 until his death.



Williamson was born in Sydney and studied composition and horn at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. His teachers included Eugene Goossens.[1] In 1950 he moved to London where he worked as an organist, a proofreader, and a nightclub pianist. From 1953 he studied with Elisabeth Lutyens. Williamson was a prolific composer at this time, receiving many commissions and often performed his own works, both on organ and piano.

In 1975, the death of Sir Arthur Bliss left the title of Master of the Queen's Music vacant. The selection of Williamson to fill this post was a surprise, over other composers such as Benjamin Britten, Michael Tippett and Malcolm Arnold, such that William Walton had remarked that "the wrong Malcolm" had been chosen.[2] In addition, Williamson was the first non-Briton to hold the post.[3] He wrote a number of pieces connected to his royal post, including Mass of Christ the King (1978) (see below) and Lament in Memory of Lord Mountbatten of Burma (1980). However, controversy attended his tenure, notably his failure to complete the intended "Jubilee Symphony" for the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II in 1977.[4] He became less prolific in "Royal" works during the last twenty years or so of his life, although he never completely ceased to take interest in writing music for the Royal Family (see list of "Royal Works" below). His overall compositional output slowed considerably due to a series of illnesses. He died in 2003 in a hospital in Cambridge.

Williamson married Dolores Daniel in 1960 and had one son and two daughters.[5][6]

Williamson's music

Some of Williamson's early works use the twelve tone technique of Arnold Schoenberg, but his greatest influence is often said to be Olivier Messiaen. He discovered Messiaen's music shortly before converting to Roman Catholicism in 1952. He was also influenced by Benjamin Britten, as well as by jazz and popular music (this latter influence may have come in part from him working as a night club pianist in the 1950s).

Williamson wrote seven symphonies; four numbered piano concertos (plus the Concerto for Two Pianos and Strings, the Concerto for Two Pianos and Wind Quintet, after Alan Rawsthorne, and the Sinfonia Concertante), concertos for violin, organ, harp and saxophone; many orchestral works; operas including English Eccentrics, to a libretto by Edith Sitwell; Our Man in Havana, after Graham Greene's novel; The Violins of Saint Jacques from Patrick Leigh Fermor's novel, and which features a volcanic eruption killing all the principal characters except one; Lucky Peter's Journey and The Growing Castle, both of which set plays by August Strindberg. He also wrote several ballets including Sun Into Darkness and The Display, many effective choral works, chamber music, music for solo piano, and music for film and television including the Prologue and Main Title of Watership Down.

Williamson also wrote music for children, including the operas The Happy Prince (based on the story by Oscar Wilde) and Julius Caesar Jones; as well as cassations, short operas incorporating audience participation. One of these, The Valley and the Hill, written for the silver jubilee of Elizabeth II, was performed by 18,000 children.

His largest choral work, the Mass of Christ the King, was commissioned by the Three Choirs Festival for the Queen's Silver Jubilee in 1977, and attracted popular attention largely because Williamson delivered it late. It is written for two sopranos, tenor and baritone soli, SATB chorus, SATB echo choir and a large orchestra. There were a number of performances over the next few years, including a live BBC broadcast in 1981, but the work is now largely forgotten.

Williamson became generally much less prolific in later life, although he had some very busy years. For example, in 1988 Williamson wrote a large-scale choral-orchestral work The True Endeavour, the orchestral Bicentennial Anthem, the Fanfare of Homage for military band, a ballet Have Steps Will Travel for John Alleyne and the National Ballet of Canada, Ceremony for Oodgeroo (Oodgeroo Noonuccal, formerly known as Kath Walker) for brass quintet, and also commenced work on a substantial new choral-symphony The Dawn is at Hand (to texts by Kath Walker), completed and performed in Australia the following year. Other works include the Requiem for a Tribe Brother (another Australian work, completed in 1992), a third string quartet (1993), a fourth piano concerto (1994) and a symphony for solo harp, Day That I Have Loved (1994). The orchestral song cycle on texts by Iris Murdoch, A Year of Birds, premiered at The Proms in 1995. The same year also saw the premiere of an orchestral work With Proud Thanksgiving, commissioned for the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations, and dedicated to the memory of Williamson's long-time friend, the UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson.


Williamson was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1976, and an honorary Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 1987. Honorary awards in the Order of Australia are made only to people who are not citizens of Australia. It is not clear why Williamson did not qualify for a substantive award, as there appears to be nothing on the public record to suggest he ever relinquished his Australian citizenship. The citation for the award read "For service to music and the mentally handicapped".[7] He was the first Master of the Queen's Music in over a century not to be knighted.

Royal works

  • The Valley and the Hill (1977), children's pageant
  • Symphony No. 4 - Jubilee (1977), for orchestra. The work (which has never been performed) has three movements:
    • 1. The Birth of the World (Largo)
    • 2. Eagle (Allegro vivo)
    • 3. The Prayer of the Waters (Lento)
  • Jubilee Hymn (1977), for unison choir, SATB choir and orchestra
  • The House of Windsor (1977), score for the TV series (an orchestral suite was extracted in the same year)
  • Mass of Christ the King (1977-1978), for lyric soprano, dramatic soprano, tenor and baritone soli, SATB choir, SATB echo choir and orchestra
  • Lament in Memory of Lord Mountbatten of Burma (1980), for violin solo and string orchestra.
    • Premièred by Leonard Friedman (violin) and the Scottish Baroque Ensemble on 5 May 1980.
  • Ode for Queen Elizabeth (1980), for string orchestra.
    • Premièred by the Scottish Baroque Ensemble at the Palace of Holyrood House on 3 July 1980, in the presence of the Royal Family. Public premiere given also by the Scottish Baroque Ensemble on 25 August 1980 at Hopetoun House in Edinburgh. The work is divided into five sections as follows:
      • 1. Act of Homage
      • 2. Alleluia
      • 3. Ecossaise
      • 4. Majesty in Beauty
      • 5. Scottish Dance
  • Richmond Fanfare (1980), for five trumpets, two tenor trombones, two bass trombones, tuba, percussion and organ
  • Now Is the Singing Day (1981), for soloists, SATB choir, two pianos, percussion and string orchestra
  • Mass of St. Margaret of Scotland (1982), for unison choir and piano or SATB choir and organ
  • Songs for a Royal Baby (1985), for SATB soli/choir and string orchestra

Australian works

Although Williamson lived in Britain for most of his life, he travelled widely and maintained a deep affection for his native country. He wrote many works specifically for or about Australia, and frequently set texts by Australian poets, such as James McAuley and Kath Walker. Williamson was also inspired to respond through music to political issues, such as Aboriginal rights (a matter close to his heart). Below is a select list of works with a specifically Australian connection.

  • Symphony No. 1 - Elevamini (1957), for orchestra
  • Piano Concerto No. 2 (1960), for piano and string orchestra
    • Written for a competition at the University of Western Australia, Perth. Premiered on 3 May 1962 by soloist Michael Brimer and the University String Orchestra, conducted by Frank Callaway. The concerto is divided into three movements, with the second running attacca into the third:
      • 1. Allegro con brio
      • 2. Andante lento (with cadenza)
      • 3. Allegro con spirito - Più mosso
  • Travel Diaries - Sydney (1961), for piano solo
    • A book of relatively easy piano pieces intended for teaching purposes. Sydney Diaries is one of five such books, with the others concerning London, Naples, Paris and New York. Sydney Diaries has thirteen movements:
  • Symphony for Voices (1962), for a cappella SATB choir
    • An elaborate five-movement work, setting texts by the Australian poet James McAuley:
      • 1. Invocation (for unnaccompanied contralto)
      • 2. Terra Australis
      • 3. Jesus
      • 4. Envoi
      • 5. New Guinea
  • Piano Concerto No. 3 (1962), for piano and orchestra
  • I Will Lift Mine Eyes (1970), for unison choir, echo choir and organ
    • Premiered on 3 May 1970 in Sydney
  • Concerto for Two Pianos and String Orchestra (1972), subtitled Double Concerto
    • Premiered by Charles Webb and Wallace Hornibrook (pianos), with the Astra Chamber Orchestra, conducted G. L. Smith in Melbourne in 1972:
      • 1. Allegro ma non troppo
      • 2. Lento
      • 3. Allegro vivo
  • The Musicians of Bremen (1972), for two countertenors, tenor, two baritones and bass voices
  • Adelaide Fanfare (1973), for two trumpets, two horns, 2 trombones, tuba and organ
  • Canberra Fanfare (1973), for two trumpets, two trombones and percussion
  • The Glitter Gang (1974), cassation for audience, choir and orchestra
  • In Thanksgiving - Sir Bernard Heinze (1982), for orchestra
  • Symphony No. 6 - A Liturgy of Homage to the Australian Broadcasting Commission in its Fiftieth Year as University to the Australian Nation (1982), for orchestra
  • Symphony No. 7 - Symphony for Strings (1984), for string orchestra
    • Commissioned to mark the 150th Anniversary of the State of Victoria. Premiered by the Chamber Strings of Melbourne, conducted by Christopher Martin, on 12 August 1985.
  • Lento for Strings (1985), for string orchestra
    • In memory of Australian violinist and conductor, Paul McDermott. Premièred in 1985 by the Philharmonia of Melbourne
  • The Dawn Is At Hand (1988), for SATB choir and orchestra
    • A five-movement choral symphony to poems by Aboriginal poet Kath Walker. Commissioned by the Australian Bicentennial Authority, and premiered by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Brisbane, 1989. The movements are as follows:
      • 1. The Dawn Is At Hand -- Aboriginal Charter of Rights
      • 2. The Curlew Cried -- Dawn Wail for the Dead
      • 3. Assimilation - No!
      • 4. We Are Going
      • 5. United We Win -- A Song of Hope
  • Bicentennial Anthem (1988), for orchestra
    • Commissioned to mark the 200th Anniversary of European settlement of Australia
  • The True Endeavour (1988), for speaker, SATB choir and orchestra
    • Symphonic statement with a text by Australian historian Manning Clark. Commissioned by the Australian Bicentennial Authority, premièred in 1989. The work is divided in seven movements:
      • 1. The Southern Cross above Gondwana
      • 2. Aboriginal Australia
      • 3. Barcarolle of the Disinherited Country
      • 4. The Rainforest: Urban Despoliation
      • 5. Threnody for Murdered Aborigines
      • 6. The Past and the Challenge
      • 7. Mateship: Whitlam's Vision: Makarrata
  • Requiem for a Tribe Brother (1992), for a cappella SATB choir
    • Commissioned by Peter Broadbent and the Joyful Company of Singers, this work was written in memory of one of Williamson's Aboriginal friends who died young from AIDS.
  • String Quartet No. 3 (1993)
    • A one-movement string quartet, lasting approximately 10 minutes. Written for the Australian String Quartet, and premiered by them in Birmingham on 19 February 1994.

Complete works

Preceded by
Sir Arthur Bliss
Master of the Queen's Music
Succeeded by
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies


  1. ^ Tim McDonald (2003-03-04). "Obituary: Malcolm Williamson". The Guardian. Retrieved 2007-09-19. 
  2. ^ "Sir Malcolm Arnold (obituary)". Telegraph. 2006-09-25. Retrieved 2008-10-09. 
  3. ^ "Malcolm Williamson (obituary)". Telegraph. 2003-03-03. Retrieved 2007-09-19. 
  4. ^ Roger Lewis (2007-11-08). "Malcolm Williamson in a leopard skin jacket". Telegraph. Retrieved 2008-10-09. 
  5. ^ Lebrecht, Norman (2007-09-19). "Master of no Musick". Retrieved 2007-09-20 
  6. ^ Campion, Edmund (July/August, 2003). "Writing the language of paradise: Malcolm Williamson". Retrieved 2007-09-20 
  7. ^ It's an Honour: AO

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