Malcolm Benjamin Graham Christopher Williamson was born in Sydney on 21st November 1931. At the age of eleven he went to the Sydney Conservatorium to study piano, violin and French horn and later studied composition with Eugene Goosens. In 1950 he moved to London where he studied with Erwin Stein and Elisabeth Lutyens. He settled permanently in England in 1952 and quickly gained a reputation both as a composer and performer.
In his early years in Britain he worked as an organist and choirmaster before concentrating on composition. As a young composer he experimented with the 12-tone serial technique, became interested in medieval music and, not long after his conversion to Catholicism in 1952, he discovered an affinity with the compositions and philosophy of Olivier Messiaen. Having fully immersed himself various trends and influences of the day, his music became recognised as a truly individual voice from the mid-1950s. From 1958 he started to earn a living as a night club pianist and this had a major impact on his attitude to the popular music he wrote. These lighter pieces sometimes appeared simultaneously with intensely serious religious works; a juxtaposition that has occasionally baffled his critics.
The sheer diversity of his music makes any conventional assessment of Malcolm Williamson as a composer difficult. Moreover, he was never willing to have any label attached to him because he forever sought new means of expressing his ideals and beliefs. His commitment to wide-ranging interests from the political, humanitarian and religious to the literary and musical, stemmed from an intense and complex personality. This is reflected in the extremely varied character of his music, which made every new work, each motivated by a different fusion of ideas, an exciting event.
Although Williamson’s Catholicism was a constant influence on his work, he also had a deep love of the Jewish faith. The Harp Concerto, Au tombeau du martyr juif inconnu, was written in tribute to those who had made their final journey to the death camps throughout Europe during the Second World War. It would seem that his concern for both religions is somewhat paradoxical, but it appears that these opposites acted as a creative catalyst for a number of his works. Often in works composed in close succession, or even within the same work, Williamson drew on styles that are both technically and musically opposed. The natural surroundings also proved something of an inspiration for his writing: the extremely hot summers of his homeland, the cold and barren wastes of North Sweden and the warmth and colour of Southern France.
Williamson’s vast output includes almost every genre imaginable but it is his work in the 1960s and 1970s that was, by far, the most fruitful. Indeed, at this time, he was one of the most frequently commissioned and performed composers in the UK. His compositions include such works as Our Man in Havana (1963), The Display (1963/4), English Eccentrics (1964), Violin Concerto (1965), The Violins of St Jacques (1966), The Red Sea (1972), Sixth Symphony (1982) and The True Endeavour (1988).
His work specifically written for children is no small part of his output and includes The Happy Prince, Julius Caesar Jones, Dunstan and the Devil and a series of ‘Cassations’ that teach children the mechanics of putting on an opera.
Williamson’s final years were not particularly creative and even though he was dogged with ill health towards the end of his life he still managed to complete a number of major works, including The Year of Birds (1995), a String Quartet and a Fourth Piano Concerto.
Williamson was remarkable in that he was the first non-Briton to be appointed to the position of Master of the Queen’s Music (1975). He was awarded several honorary doctorates from universities such as Princeton, Sydney and Melbourne, and his homeland honoured him as an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 1987. He died in Cambridge on 2nd March 2003.
Given his astonishing career and vast catalogue, one would think that Malcolm Williamson’s work would regularly appear in concert programmes and on the radio. Sadly, this is not the case. He was a true master of both the ‘big tune’ as well as of the quirky and the avant-garde. The importance of his contribution to all musical genres cannot, and should not, be overlooked.
It would seem that the time has come to reassess the work of this great composer.