Born Malcolm Benjamin Graham Christopher Williamson on November 21, 1931, in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia; died on March 2, 2003, in Cambridge, England; son of George (a minister) and Bessie (Wrigley) Williamson; married Dolores Irene Daniel, 1960 (divorced, c. 1978); children: one son, two daughters. Education: Studied at Barker College and the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Memberships: National Music Council of Great Britain, British Society for Music Therapy, Friends of Gaudeamus.

Malcolm Benjamin Williamson died in March of 2003, after nearly three decades spent as Master of the Queen's Music, the title bestowed on him by Queen Elizabeth II in 1975. Similar to the post of a Poet Laureate, the position Master of the Queen's Music is a composer's honor that entails writing music for selected royal and state occasions. Williamson was the first non-Briton ever to serve in the post, and his tenure was a controversial one. He delivered few major works to the queen during his 27 years, but his overall career was a prolific one: Williamson wrote more than 120 works, across all genres, from operas to symphonies to popular music. His compositions were described as "metrically inventive and melodically attractive" by a Daily Telegraph obituary writer, while the Independent's Bayan Northcott noted that Williamson was "astonishingly neglected for a figure of such creative individuality, substance and skill."

Williamson was born Malcolm Benjamin Graham Christopher Williamson on November 21, 1931, in Sydney, Australia, the son of an Anglican minister. His musical talent was apparent at an early age, and he entered the Sydney Conservatorium of Music at age eleven, where he studied with Eugene Goossens. Trained in the French horn, piano, and composition, Williamson moved to London in 1953 to study composition further with Elisabeth Lutyens and Erwin Stein. He began playing the organ in part as a result of his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1952, for he was enamored of the notoriously difficult religious music works composed by France's Olivier Messiaen, also a Catholic. He wrote his first composition in 1954, but he struggled financially for a time, and took a job in a nightclub as a pianist. He also worked at Harrods department store as a sales clerk, took proofreading work, and even wrote film scores for horror movies.

In 1955 Williamson landed a job as the assistant organist at the Church of the Immaculate Conception on Farm Street in London, and he went on to a stint at St. Peter's, in the Limehouse quarter of the city, in 1958. His breakthrough came in 1956, when his First Piano Sonata debuted at the Aldeburgh Festival. Fons Amoris, a work for the organ, was heard at the Royal Festival Hall that same year, and in June of 1957 the London Philharmonic Orchestra performed his First Symphony, also called "Elavimini," Latin for "let us be lifted up." Written shortly after his grandmother's death and based on the Bible's Psalm 24, the work "displayed an extraordinary emotional depth and spiritual maturity, and was acclaimed as an astonishing achievement for a composer in his early twenties," Williamson's Daily Telegraph obituary noted.

Gained Increasing Renown

The first flushes of success enabled Williamson to work full-time as a composer, save for a stint in the early 1960s teaching at London's Central School of Speech and Drama, before he reached age 30--a rare achievement in classical circles. The rest of the decade was a productive one for him, and his work was increasingly hailed as evidence of a new generation of outstanding composers working in Britain at the time. His 1963 opera, Our Man in Havana--based on the Graham Greene novel of same title--premiered at Sadler's Wells to critical acclaim. Another, The Violins of Saint-Jacques, was also heralded upon its 1966 debut. "It displayed a happy eclecticism," a writer for the Independent noted, "a Straussian richness sits alongside Lulu-esque Expressionism and a direct and memorable tunefulness. All these works display an interest in a central martyr figure, a victim."

Williamson also won many prestigious commissions over the years, such as a Sinfonietta that served as the 1965 inaugural concert for England's Radio 3, and Vision of Christ-Phoenix, written for the consecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral, which had been badly damaged by Luftwaffe bombs during World War II. He was often compared to one of Britain's best known twentieth century composers, Benjamin Britten, but later in the decade "the dissenting voices began to be heard; Williamson, it was said, was too glib, too populist, too uncritical, and too diffuse," noted Guardian writer Tim McDonald.

Despite the sniping, the commissions continued, and Williamson was involved with several notable organizations, including the University of London Choir and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He was said to have won more commissions in his lifetime than any other composer of his generation. Critics questioned the direction of his career, however, when he began writing operas for children, such as The Happy Prince, a 1965 work based on an Oscar Wilde story. "It attracted international publicity," a Times of London contributor wrote of its Farnham Parish Church premier, "and was melodious, with generally conventional harmonies and some mildly contemporary idioms that were especially singable by children."

Master of the Queen's Music

Williamson derived the idea to write these "cassations," or mini-operas, after starting to teach his own children about music. These works involved audience participation and were designed to be instructional yet enjoyable. Critics were scathing in their assessments of such works as 1971's The Stone Wall, and The Devil's Bridge, among many others. It was, therefore, somewhat of a surprise to many in British classical circles when Queen Elizabeth II named him Master of the Queen's Music in 1975. The monarch was said to be eager to display a more inclusive attitude toward the Commonwealth nations, of which Australia was one, and the choice of Williamson was said to be a symbolic one. The position dated back to the reign of King Charles I in 1626, and Britten had recommended Williamson for the job. It was a similar post to the queen's Poet Laureate, attached to a modest stipend and the duty to compose music at the queen's behest. His first major commission as such came due in June of 1977 to mark the queen's Jubilee, the series of festivities that honored her 25th year on the throne. Yet Williamson was in ill health at the time, and his marriage was disintegrating. Wed to Dolores Daniel since 1960, he was the father of three; they were divorced in 1978 and he thereafter lived with the publisher of his music, Simon Campion.

The Jubilee symphony was delivered late and was never performed by the London Philharmonic for that occasion or any other. That same year, however, Williamson had also written music for the acclaimed animated film Watership Down. The mishap over the Jubilee symphony hindered the upward trajectory of his career at that point. "When royal displeasure leaked out, he found himself cold-shouldered by the musical establishment," noted his Daily Telegraph obituary. Williamson continued to write music, but during the next quarter-century his music was only occasionally performed by major international musical bodies.

"Pushing Doors Marked Pull"

Williamson enjoyed ties still to his native land, however. A British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) documentary evinced "an aspect of his work that few had suspected: an enthusiastic involvement in music-making for children with learning difficulties, and an intense engagement with Aboriginal rights," a writer for the Independent noted. In 1988 he was commissioned to write the Bicentennial Anthem marking the 200th anniversary of Australia's founding. "Most of my music is Australian," the Guardian's McDonald quoted him as saying. "Not the bush or the deserts, but the brashness of the cities. The sort of brashness that makes Australians go through life pushing doors marked pull."

The final two major works of Williamson's career came in 1995: one was The Year of the Birds for soprano and orchestra, dedicated to his friend, the novelist Iris Murdoch, and premiering at the BBC Proms. He also wrote With Proud Thanksgiving, a commission to mark the 50th year of the United Nations. Outside of the conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra, Christopher Austin, few other musical luminaries put his work in their repertoires.

In his later years, Williamson became known for his controversial statements to the press. When Broadway composer Andrew Lloyd Webber was commissioned to write music in honor of the queen's 40th Jubilee celebration, Williamson derided Webber and famously told the press, "I'd run a hundred miles rather than listen to Cats," according to New Statesman writer Dermot Clinch. A few years later, he also criticized the late Britten. "In my opinion, Britten's music is ephemeral. It will not last," a report from the Independent's Marianne Macdonald quoted him as saying. Britten had been the subject of a recent biography that revealed some unsavory details, including pedophilia. In a more illuminating statement in the same article, Williamson called the composer "curiously schizophrenic.... I knew him for 40 years. He was very good to me and exceedingly cruel."

by Carol Brennan

Malcolm Williamson's Career

Worked as a nightclub pianist in London, mid-1950s; became assistant organist, Church of the Immaculate Conception, London, England, after 1955; first publicly performed composition, First Piano Sonata, debuted at the Aldeburgh Festival, 1956; First Symphony ("Elavimini") performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, June 1957; organist, St. Peter's, Limehouse, London, 1958-60; lecturer in music, Central School of Speech and Drama, London, 1961-62; first opera, Our Man in Havana, debuted in London, 1963; composed Sinfonietta for inaugural concert of Britain's Radio 3, 1965; creative arts fellow, Australia National University, 1974-81; Master of the Queen's Music, 1975-2003; composer of Australia's Bicentennial Anthem, 1988.

Malcolm Williamson's Awards

Commander of the British Empire, 1976; officer of the Order of Australia, 1987; honorary doctorates in music from Westminster Choir College, Princeton, NJ, 1970, University of Melbourne, and University of Sydney, both 1982.

Famous Works

Further Reading


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