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24 August 2014

Malcolm Williamson's organ works: 'fascinating music, ripe for rediscovery'

Malcolm Williamson Image: Malcolm Williamson  
© Josef Weinberger Ltd.

'Unlike many mainstream contemporary composers, Malcolm Williamson wrote for the organ throughout his life and revelled in the possibilities which the organ afforded', writes Tom Winpenny in this feature article about Williamson's organ works. Winpenny's recording of Williamson's organ music has just been released by the UK label Toccata Classics. [Edit 20 October 2016: a second volume of this repertoire is now available on the Naxos label, also played by Winpenny.]

Malcolm Williamson (1931-2003), one of Australia's most distinguished musicians, enjoyed a meteoric rise as a gifted composer. The son of an Anglican clergyman, he was born in Sydney and began composing as a child, later playing the organ at his father's church. From 1943 he studied piano, violin and horn at the New South Wales State Conservatorium in Sydney and, in 1949, began composition lessons under its director, Sir Eugene Goossens. The training he received in Sydney was of a high order, but he was inspired to continue his studies abroad. In 1950 he travelled to London with his family before settling permanently in Britain. There he studied with Elisabeth Lutyens, a noted exponent of serialism, and later with Erwin Stein (a pupil of Schoenberg and friend of Benjamin Britten).

Williamson was fortunate to receive the support of a number of prominent musical figures during the 1950s and '60s, and the ability to perform his own compositions - which included numerous piano and organ works - undoubtedly contributed to his success as a composer. In the 1960s Williamson had become so well-known that he was frequently referred to as 'the most commissioned composer in Britain'. In 1975 he was appointed Master of the Queen's Music in succession to Sir Arthur Bliss: the first non-Briton appointed to the post, he was deeply proud of the honour. He was created CBE in 1976 and Officer of the Order of Australia in 1987.

Williamson's astonishing output covers a wide range of genres, including successful operas such as Our Man in Havana (1963), works for children, concertos, music for ballet and eight symphonies. Crucial to the development of his distinct style was his shrewd adaptation of serial techniques within essentially tonal works, enabling him to present his melodic invention in original, and above all lyrical, works which engaged audiences.

Williamson playing a duet with Felix Aprahamian, a British critic
and concert promoter with a special interest in
20th-century organ music. © Josef Weinberger Ltd.

Williamson's prolific keyboard output attests to his formidable technique as a pianist and organist. Unlike many mainstream contemporary composers, he wrote for the organ throughout his life and revelled in the possibilities which the organ afforded. His first organ works were on religious themes, written following his conversion to Catholicism in 1952. At this time he immersed himself in religious music, becoming fascinated both by the motets of the fourteenth-century composer John Dunstable, and by the explicitly religious music of Olivier Messiaen. Indeed he perfected his organ technique in order to study Messiaen's works. Messiaen's music was a vital expression of his own faith; with the technical, theoretical and spiritual possibilities that it explored it became a strong influence on Williamson.

Fons Amoris (1955-56), Williamson's first organ work, was composed shortly after his appointment as Assistant Organist at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Mayfair. Williamson was invited to perform it at the Royal Festival Hall in 1956, and it subsequently became his first published organ work. The fluency of writing and control of texture and pacing present a spacious and personal work of devotional intensity.

The title translates as 'fount of love' and is taken from a line in the 13th century Stabat Mater, a devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, which meditates on her suffering during Christ's crucifixion. In turn, the work is structured around lines of the Litany of Loreto. The short opening prelude, based around the modal centres F sharp, C and F sharp gives way to a statement, in octaves, of six note-groups which form the basis of five subsequent sets of variations. Here Williamson draws on his study of medieval music, employing passages in organum (parallel chords), contrapuntal interludes, and in particular employing the technique of isorhythm (the device from medieval music whereby repetitions of the pitches and rhythms of a melody do not necessarily coincide). The closing section, a short postlude, is a variation and expansion of the opening prelude.

Williamson's next published organ work - Résurgence du Feu (Pâques 1959) - was written whilst organist at St Peter's, Limehouse and is a short and vivid work which more directly shows the influence of Messiaen in its colourful registration and birdsong-like figurations. Its dramatic bravura gives an idea of the thrilling liturgical improvisations for which Williamson was renowned. That he combined his church duties with a stint as a Soho nightclub pianist shows not only his need - as an impecunious young composer - to make ends meet, but also his great musical adaptability.

The Symphony for Organ (1960) was commissioned by Allan Wicks and is a remarkably striking work of originality and diversity. Wicks, who gave the work's premiere for the BBC Third Programme at Canterbury Cathedral in 1961, wrote of the composer:

He poured all he had into this symphony. He is not afraid to be not so much original as to implant his own fingerprints on music rooted in the past. He has absorbed and digested Bartok, Stravinsky and Messiaen and produced something uniquely his own. 1

The work is cast in six movements which fall into two larger sections of two then four movements. The controlling feature of the whole work is a chant-like melody of five pitches, which are treated as a series, as a mode, and in isorhythm:
Pitch row
The work is a fine example of how Williamson was able to create an extended work out of what he termed 'a tiny musical germ'. The brief, striking opening 'Prelude' is constructed in ternary form with a short codetta. The dissonant opening chords, which recur throughout the movement, are derived from the pitches (and inversion) of the chant-like melody. These pitches are presented clearly at the beginning of the second movement - 'Sonata' - where the insistent repetition of certain notes - a prominent motif in the movement - help to establish brief tonal centres within a movement which is written along strict serial lines:
Sonata extract
These tonal centres help to convey a loose sonata form structure to the movement, which concludes with a coda in which the pedal bottom C reinforces the tonal centre of the opening. The next two movements - 'Aria I' and 'Toccata' - are in turn lyrical and virtuosic, and are again constructed around the five-note sequence.

Williamson at Sadler's Wells, London in 1963.
© Josef Weinberger Ltd.

The fifth movement - 'Aria II - Passacaglia' - bears a superscription of words by Donald Davidson, describing the 19th-century poet Francis Thompson: '…he lifted up his eyes from London pavements and beheld Christ walking on Thames water, and Jacob's ladder shining over Charing Cross.': a poetic impulse which (the composer states) may be applied largely to the whole work. The passacaglia theme, derived from the five-note series, is treated in isorhythm. The movement grows inexorably, with the use of ascending parallel chords clearly suggesting the image of Jacob's ladder reaching to heaven.

The final movement, 'Paean', opens with a glissando across the entire manual, conveying the joyful outburst of the title. The dancing semiquavers, repeated syncopated chords and acciaccatura chords are all derived from the five-note series, although the effect, far from academic, is exuberant, and redolent of big band music. The movement's second section - still heavily reliant on the series - is characterised by a jazz-inspired walking bass line, whilst the right hand reintroduces the main theme of the 'Sonata'. As the movement proceeds, the syncopated chords become more insistent, verging even on the riotous. The lengthy coda states the five-note series in progressively longer note values, and in increasingly larger and louder chords. The lowest note on the organ - bottom C in the pedals - is stated alone, five times, and on full organ, before a brief final chord, employing the ten notes of the series and its inversion, brings the monumental work to its searing conclusion.

Vision of Christ-Phoenix (1961) was commissioned for the new organ of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral. Not only an established composer, Williamson had by now become renowned as an organ soloist, and gave the first performance at the dedicatory recital of the Harrison & Harrison instrument on 27 May 1962, in the week of the cathedral's consecration. He had been asked to provide a work along the lines of a psalm prelude, a form explored in the early part of the century by Herbert Howells. However, the sight of the new cathedral standing alongside the ruins of the bombed cathedral made a profound impression on him2, resulting in an overwhelmingly powerful work which exploits the full resources of the instrument.

The melody of the Coventry Carol (first notated in the early 16th century and used as part of Coventry's medieval mystery plays) forms the basis of the work, which falls into three larger sections:
Coventry carol

The opening section paints a vivid and violent image of flame and desecration: virtuosic arpeggios are underpinned in the pedals by the Coventry Carol melody, as a ground for a passacaglia employing the isorhythmic technique. The subdued second section, representing the quiet of the Holy Sepulchre, sees the thematic material used as the basis of a set of variations. This section gathers inexorably in strength, leading directly into the striking final tableau - the triumph of the Resurrection. In the composer's words: 'just as a new cathedral has arisen from the old and the phoenix bird rises from the ashes, so does Christ rise from the dead.'3

Several of Williamson's works pay tribute to renowned figures in the fields of international relations, literature and music. Amongst these are Hammarskjöld Portrait (1974, for soprano and orchestra) and Tribute to a Hero (1981, in memory of Josip Broz Tito, for baritone and orchestra), as well as a number of organ works. The sombre Elegy - JFK (1964) exploits the cavernous acoustic of the Cathedral of St John the Divine, New York, and its organ's famous state trumpet ranks. The work symbolises (in the composer's words) 'the weeping of the noble eagle of the United States of America over one of its greatest sons'.4

A more personal tribute forms the basis of the pair of Epitaphs for Edith Sitwell (1966). Williamson had become acquainted with the renowned Sitwell family shortly after his arrival in England, and composed the chamber opera English Eccentrics, based on Edith Sitwell's 1933 book, shortly before her death in 1964. The opera had been first performed as part of the Aldeburgh Festival that year, and the Epitaphs were commissioned for a memorial program for Sitwell as part of the 1966 festival. The two Adagio movements are based on a short 'motto theme' in the composer's Violin Concerto, begun in homage to her before her death, and dedicated to Sitwell's memory. Another work, The Lion of Suffolk (1977) was composed in tribute to Benjamin Britten for his memorial service at Westminster Abbey. Britten had been an important supporter early in Williamson's career, and he was latterly influential in recommending him for the post of Master of the Queen's Music in 1975. This stirring and expansive work is also one of Williamson's most lyrical.

In the wake of the liturgical reforms of the early 1960s, Williamson composed choral works such as Procession of Palms (1961) and The World at the Manger (1973), which involved both choir and congregation in a popular idiom that was musically appropriate and never tawdry or simplistic. He reworked two of his many hymn tunes into short organ works: the tranquil and beautifully crafted Fantasy on 'O Paradise' and Fantasy on 'This is my Father's World' (both 1975), a more elaborate reworking of themes of the composer's hymn and anthem of the same name. Other organ works intended for liturgical use include the attractive and relatively undemanding Mass of a Medieval Saint and Little Carols of the Saints (both 1973).

Of the remaining organ works - which include a fine Organ Concerto (1961) dedicated to Adrian Boult - mention must be made of the largest oeuvre: Peace Pieces (1971). This remarkable 50-minute sequence of six tableaux incorporates themes of the natural world, humanitarian and political topics (the Vietnam War is alluded to in the fourth movement: 'Peace in America'), and religious themes such as the Incarnation. All are depicted in typically imaginative and frequently striking ways.

Williamson described himself as 'characteristically Australian' and an emotional directness permeates his music, which is by turn brash, spontaneous and warm-hearted. The breadth of his organ music is testament both to his impressive keyboard facility and his fertile musical imagination: it is a significant corpus of fascinating music, which is ripe for rediscovery.


1 Quoted in Webb 'Williamson à la Wicks', Gramophone, July 1978.
2 Composer's note in published score (revised edition, Boosey & Hawkes, 1978).
3 Composer's notes for Wicks's LP recording (Rediffusion Aurora 5053).
4 Sleeve notes for Williamson's LP recording of the work, EMI Australia SLS 3001.

Further links

Malcolm Williamson Organ Music - CD details (AMC Online)

Malcolm Williamson - Organ Music. Tom Winpenny plays Vision of Christ-Phoenix, Symphony for Organ, Fons Amoris, The Lion of Suffolk, Offertoire: Dialogue des Choeurs and Fantasy on 'O Paradise' on the organ of St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol. Available on Toccata Classics (TOCC 0246 CD & download), distributed in Australia by EOS Music.

Malcolm Williamson - AMC profile (works, recordings, events)

Subjects discussed by this article:

Tom Winpenny is Assistant Master of the Music and Director of the Abbey Girls Choir at St Albans Cathedral, UK. His solo recordings include programs of music by Judith Bingham (Naxos), Charles Villiers Stanford and Lennox & Michael Berkeley (Resonus). A recording of Messiaen's La Nativité du Seigneur is due for release later this year (Naxos). For more information, see www.tomwinpenny.org.


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