Composer  Malcolm  Williamson

A  Conversation  with  Bruce  Duffie

During this Earthly life, people do things either because they are obligated or because they desire.  The obligation is derived from the need to survive; the desire comes from a burning need within to accomplish something worthwhile.  In the case of most musicians who make names for themselves - either locally in a small way or internationally in a large way - these two come together and are blended into a happy and prodigious union.  My own case has also been one of being able to support my life by doing things in which I believe.  Listeners to my programs and readers of my texts can attest to that.

In gathering materials for these presentations, I have mostly relied on the greatness of the city of Chicago to attract noteworthy guests.  We have, as I have pointed out many times, superior performers with whom to play as well as an interested public eager for artistry.  So the creators and presenters come throughout the season, usually without regard to their own personal cycle of life.

Since the radio goes on 24/7, and since I had a full time schedule to play with at WNIB, my own method of organization took the form of celebrating round-birthdays.  It was clean and neat, color- and gender-blind, and allowed for me to include all my guests at regular intervals.  So once the conversation had been accomplished, I made sure that it was used and re-used when possible according to this rotation.  I also used (and continue to use) the chats to promote return engagements of the artists, but that is just a bonus in addition to the regular series.

My quarter-century at WNIB afforded me the luxury of this from 1975 to 2001.  Now, with a severely reduced amount of airtime on both WNUR and Contemporary Classical Internet Radio, I do what shows I can with the materials that seem to have had fewer repetitions, and any pretext of celebration has gone out the window.  But the posting of conversations on the internet has begun affording me a bit more space along with the suspension of time because the interviews are there for anyone to call up and any hour.  I am glad to hear from people around the world that my efforts have made a difference.

Saying all of this, I rarely went after certain people specifically to celebrate an upcoming round-birthday.  One exception is Malcolm Williamson.  Having known of him for many years and realizing that he was not returning to Chicago during my gathering-era, I made an effort to get a hold of him for a conversation to celebrate his 65th birthday in 1996.  So, in preparation for a program, I contacted the composer through his publisher and was granted a chance to speak with him on the phone.

It was Simon Campion who arranged for our chat, and after speaking with him for a moment, he put Malcolm on the phone...

Bruce Duffie:  Nice to talk to you.

Malcolm Williamson:  And you too...  We connect at last.

BD:  Yes, finally, finally.  How is everything over there?

MW:  Everything is autumnal and beautiful.  It's not as beautiful as New England, but you can't have everything.

BD:  Now's a good time for our chat?

MW:  Yes, indeed.

BD:  Good, good.  Let me begin by asking...  You are both a pianist and a composer.  How do you divide your time between those two strenuous activities?

MW:  Oh, I began in Australia where there was very little in the way of composition tuition.  So I started as a pianist and as an organist, but I composed all my life.  Before I could read words I could read music and wrote it down.  I think, from about the age of four, Bruce, the only important thing was to write down what hadn't been written down before.  I guess this is only part it, I know, but it is something.  It was origination, however poor and juvenile, and I've never stopped since!

BD:  But you had no thought that you would only write for the piano; you always wanted to write for a variety of forms, correct?

MW:  Yes, but I didn't know that such things existed at that early stage.  You must remember, being born in Australia in the Depression, we didn't, as far as I know, defenestrate as they did on Wall Street.  In Australia things were very rough and crude, the climate was cruel, and you just had to make do with what you had.

BD:  So then why did you go into classical music?

MW:  Well, both my parents were pianists and singers.

BD:  Oh, I see, so it was in your blood.

MW:  It was right round me, yes.  I'd go around more or less naked, in the countryside, in the long grass, and compose and sing music during the day.  But it was music that I didn't hear in the evenings when my parents got together to make music.

BD:  Did it surprise you at all, when you finally got to London, what classical music really was?

MW:  Very, very much.  I'd never heard...  that's not true; I was just going to say I hadn't heard anything by Schoenberg, but in fact I played the Ode to Napoleon.  We gave the first Australian performance before I went to London.  [Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, for voice, piano, and string quartet, Op. 41 (1942)]  But I didn't know the more distant fringesBartók, for example, or Berguntil I came to London.  And then to Paris, and then to New York,...

BD:  You must've heard the BBC and the ABC broadcasting some classical music, of course.

MW:  Well, not until after the war, really.  It was a revelation to hear Vaughan Williams, a composer whose music I love very much, and to hear Aaron Copland.  Slowly it filtered out!  Remember, in those days during and after the Japanese War, things had to be brought by ship.  There was no nonsense about bringing gramophone records by plane, so it was about two months' delay before a selected few pieces came out to Australia!  We were far behind.  And then, coming to Great Britain was a tremendous shock!  In Great Britain, ever since 1950 I got work with a music publisher or freelance work which I could not have had in Australia.  So I stayed here.

BD:  Your presence, then, was in London, but your heart was still in Australia.

MW:  [Emphatically and without hesitation]  No.  My heart was in London!  And later it was in New York and Paris.

BD:  But you have since composed a number of pieces for Australia and about Australia.

MW:  [Without hesitation]  Oh, yes, I love it!  But every child gets to a stage when he/she resents his mother's womb and wants to be independent.

BD:  This meant a rejection of things Australian?

MW:  [Thinks for a moment]  I don't think there was ever quite a violent rejection, but there was a feeling to say, "I want to learn all that I can; I want to drench myself in all that's British, American, and mainland European, and go back with it to Australia," which eventually I did.  Many times, in fact, now.

BD:  Is there still something Australian in your music, or is it completely global and completely cosmopolitan?

MW:  I suppose it's absolutely Australian in attitude, Bruce, because it's like there's something in the Australian attitude where you were pushed through doors marked "pull".

BD:  [Chuckles]

MW:  That's not in the rather more urbane, well-mannered American or European attitude to things.  And you can't help that!  You can't really make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.  It's like trying to teach a champion athlete to dance a minuet.

BD:  It doesn't really work.

MW:  Well, quite!  You get your centuries mixed up.

BD:  Then is it safe to say that basically you've always been true to yourself, in terms of your composing style?

MW:  [Emphatically, and without hesitation]  Yes.  And Australia certainly is in my blood!  Australian vegetation, Australian sunlight...  They'll always be there, I think.  But I still have nightmares that I am stuck in Australia without an exit ticket.

BD:  Would that be a terrible thing?

MW:  [Without hesitation and without irony]  Yeah.  I'm trying to think of American composers...  Roy Harris had an adolescence in Europe, didn't he?

BD:  I believe so, yes.

MW:  A great composer.  And Aaron, of course.

BD:  A lot of the American composers went to study with Nadia Boulanger.

MW:  [With understated deadpan, dry humor]  Yes, well, there is the saying that when good Americans die they go to Paris.

BD:  [Chuckles]

MW:  Didn't Richard Rodgers go to Vincent D'Indy or somebody in Paris?

BD:  Gershwin went to Ravel.

MW:  That's right, yes.  So there's a great interchange there, but the distance is comparatively small and it's not across the Equator.  I've done countless organ tours, just to make money when I had nothing left.  I've toured America giving organ recitals, and the novelty, I suppose, has gained me good reception there.  I find Americans enormously sympathetic.  I've had a residency in Princeton, New Jersey, one in Tallahassee, Florida; and other shorter ones in other parts of the USA.  But it's almost like having too much cream cake, being in the States.  It's too good, too comfortable, too warm-hearted.

BD:  So you have to get back to the gritty outback?

MW:  There is that, yes, the Puritan conscience.  You feel that you should be suffering, and you don't sufferat least I've never sufferedin America.  You feel it isn't something you should be doing.  But in other parts of the world, such as Yugoslavia and Sweden, I have the deepest affection, and I feel total emotional and psychological comfort.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  When you write a piece of music, it has this Australian background in it, it has the European, it has the London and everything else.  Does it speak equally to the Londoner and to the Australian and the New Yorker and the Stockholmer?

MW:  The press notices, if you mean those, are almost always bad in Australia...

BD:  [Surprised]  Oh!

MW:  ...which is one reason why it's good to get out from time to time.  They're much more favorable in USA and Europe.

BD:  Well, what about the reaction of the public?

MW:  Oh, I've no complaint about that unless it's that they say it's very avant-garde, if there is such a thing anymore, post-Morton Feldman.  Some might dislike my music; it's too late to work it out now.  But to have friends like Aaron Copland who is just marvelous, is special to me.  Aaron, God rest his soul, was just so at home there in America.  He was quite exceptional, of course, and was a very great composer.  He was also one of the kindest men who ever lived, and I miss him, still, terribly.  I wrote his obituary for the British press.  For the Times, I think.  I have a deep love for him.  He is the most American of all composers.  It's funny, though...  Sometimes if you want the best...  not the best, necessarily, but the most characteristic, shall we say, music of a certain part of the world, get a foreigner to do it!  The Brazilian composer Villa-Lobos has written a piece called The New York Skyline.  Delius wrote a piece called Paris:  Song of a Great City.  And the best Spanish music is said to have been written by Frenchmen.

BD:  What has Malcolm Williamson written about?

MW:  [Thinks for a moment]  I think very much Sweden.  But this 7th Symphony, where I was allowed free rein to do anything I wanted, was supposed to commemorate the 150 years of European civilization of Melbourne, the capital.  [Although Melbourne did serve as the capital city of Australia from 1901 until the Federal Parliament moved to the new capital of Canberra in 1927, Melbourne remains the capital of Victoria state and is often described as Australia's "cultural capital."]  It sounds absurd to say it, but in music it's Irish, which is in my blood.  I was the first person in about ten generations to have gone to Ireland.  And Greece.  Macedonia.  They're two very, very unlikely things.  Do you know that Melbourne is the second most Greek city in the world?

BD:  After Athens?

MW:  After Athens, yes.  It's full of Greeks quarreling, and quite a lot of Yugoslavs quarreling, too, Macedonians particularly.  And of course there are an enormous number of Irish people there.  Ireland was under the aegis of Great Britain, and when the prisons got too full in the 19th century, they brought some of the coffin ships filled with Irish people fleeing the Potato Famine.  My ancestor was amongst others that came to Australia, and the luckier ones survived.

BD:  That's right, they were just dumped there.

MW:  Oh, yes, and had to survive in the most inclement possible climate.  Now this is relevant to my 7th Symphony.  What is the American word for "bushranger"?  Not cowboy, but like Jesse James...

BD:  Oh, "outlaw"!

MW:  Yes, that's right.  The Australian word is "bushranger."  Ned Kelly and his gang were a great 19th-century Irish mob.  He was hanged in his twenties, and his colleagues were shot by the Protestant police.  The trial was invalid; nonetheless he was hanged.

BD:  And this shows up in your symphony?

MW:  I remember Ned Kelly very much in that.  I also have built on Macedonian themes in the second movement, and I've tried to fuse them in the fourth.  But this is why I can't place myself.  It's good if you can place yourself, because you can have a flag you can nail to the mast, and I don't.  I was brought up a Protestant, I became a Catholic, and I married a Jewish wife and have Jewish children and grandchildren.  And it's even more mixed up than that.  So what do you say you are?  But the third movement of the symphony is an elegy for a Jewish doctor friend who was dying.  So I'd like to think that that and other works of mine are very Jewish.  And I work for Jewish charities quite a lot, and believe you me, it's a great joy to have the acceptance of the Jewish people, many of whom have a terror hanging over from Hitler generations afterwards.

BD:  Of course, and understandably so!  It seems, then, that your life is cosmopolitan, and your music is very cosmopolitan, then.

MW:  Yes, and I have no choice about it.  But I'm very lucky in that I've been able to freelanceexcept for American, and Australian, and African residencies at universitiesall my life!  And have just had enough work to take what I wanted to, and not to do what I didn't want to do.

BD:  Is it safe to assume that you've never regretted being a musician?

MW:  How can you regret it?  If there's one thing that you can do, and nothing else that you can do very well, there's no room for regret!  But you wouldn't go on writing music unless you felt that every piece you had written could be that amount better.

BD:  Of course.  You're always striving for something more.

MW:  I think so.  If we all lived forever, goodness knows to what heights we'd rise.

BD:  Let me ask a great big philosophical question:  what is the purpose of music?

MW:  [Thinks for a moment, then chuckles]  Sir Thomas Beecham said "to take wings and give delight."  [Somewhat cantankerously, and/or annoyed]  This is such an effort.  You do ask difficult questions.  It's to make you a different and better person after you have listened to it or written it, than you were before!  An obvious example of that is the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven.  Even if it's a funeral march of Chopin, or of Mahler, you are a richer, better, more thoughtful person, more able to see another person's point of view in sorrow or joy in delirious ecstasy or the deepest gloom that you hadn't been able to see before with such objectivity.  And that makes for a better community.  Rightly and effortlessly listened to, it makes us all like what I think the Charter of Rights in America says we should all be.  It doesn't always work out like that, unfortunately.  It's not for me to say, but I'm saying it...  there's no longer "log cabin to White House."  [This expression comes from the title of the book From Log-cabin to the White House, an 1882 biography of President James A. Garfield by William M. Thayer.]  [Chuckles]  It's a long road that has no turning.  [This is an Irish proverb.]  It's not likely that if you're born in a log cabin you'll get very quickly to the White House, but music should be something that drives you a very long way towards a sort of celestial White House, from a humble log cabin on earth.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  When you're writing, when you're involved in the act of composing, are you conscious at all of the audience, or the audiences who will be listening to your music eventually?

MW:  [Without hesitation]  Yes.  You are, but from a long distance.  You think of an ideal, sympathetic audience that aren't going to rush to the telephone, and ring the newspaper and mash you.  Or an audience that have closed their ears and decided that 20th century music can't be any good.  You envisage a sympathetic audience who, if they find your music difficult, will just say, "Well, let's try again; we'll listen to it again."  Like one of the great American conductorsan émigréplayed Sibelius for the first time, and it got the raspberrydo you say that in America?  It got the bird.  And the conductor said, "Well, I'm going to go on playing it until you learn to like it."  That's the sort of audience you write for because writing music is so difficult that you cannot falsify your personality.  You have to write what you are, as you are.  It's as much your own person as the color of your eyes and your spirituality, your sexuality, and everything else.  You can't lie about those in music.

BD:  It takes a very special person, then, to want to share that with the public!

MW:  [Thinks for a moment]  I wouldn't know; some people refuse to.  But I don't believe soapbox conversions through music happen, or if they do, they don't happen in five minutes.  I remember there was a street preacher in Sydneymy native citystanding up on a street corner saying, "Jesus Christ died for you and I."  And I can remember immediately repulsion, because he put a nominative in the wrong place.  I didn't need to be told that, in any case.  But if at least he'd said, "...for you and me"...  I just went away wincing at his grammatical error.  So all those things...  That's what you learn in studying composition, to get everything right in your own terms, in place, clear and intelligible, and not have any miscalculations.

BD:  Well, that sounds a lot like technique.

MW:  Yes, indeed, but you have to spend a lot of time acquiring that.  I heard a piece of contemporary music, and I shan't betray the composer, who wrote a piece of music for the Albert Hall with a huge gong strokedeafening gong stroke, and marked so in the scorebeing played against a soft solo violin.  Well, the composer couldn't hear the violin, and she raged and stamped her foot at the conductor because the violin wasn't coming through.  But she should've had the humility to see that it needed to be redone.

BD:  This brings up the whole question of interpretation.  You, as a composer, obviously envision in your mind's ear a certain way that the piece will sound.

MW:  [Emphatically]  Oh, yes!

BD:  How much leeway do you allow the performer to stretch and put himself into it before it no longer is your work?

MW:  [Thinks for a moment]  I don't know.  I was going to say it's like sex.  It takes two to tangoone to write the piece and one to play it.  There have to be reasonable limits, though, in making a novel, writing music, or doing anything.  This is one thing I can't understand about the late John Cage.  He would have, in one of his stories, a Japanese man lecturing in New York.  He was over Fifth Avenue or somewhere, and the noise of the traffic was deafening.  So he opened all the windows wide so the traffic'd be more deafening.  And he stood there, and it was like a silent film!  It's an interesting experiment, but why do it?

BD:  Well, why experiment with anything, I suppose.  [See my Interview with John Cage.]

MW:  Yes, well, there can be valid experiments which bring a result.  I know I keep returning to Copland; one may just as well return to somebody like Roy Harris, an unjustly neglected composer at this time.

BD:  He seems to be coming back into his own, I'm glad to say.

MW:  I'm delighted.  They were doing here, recently, When Johnny Comes Marching Home, but there, everything is indicated very precisely.  You take your limits between piano and forte, and between fast and slow, and then you add yourself to it.  You must throw yourself wholeheartedly, body and soul, into interpreting the piece, but keeping within the limits set by the composer.

BD:  When you are performing one of your works, do you ever find yourself screaming at the composer?

MW:  Not quite screaming, but feeling somebody else would do it better.  And I have heard that.  I can tell you, with my Two-Piano Concerto, played with my rather amazing publisher Simon Campion and conducted by Barry Tuckwell, both also Australian, I found that I would've been absolutely lost at bar 2 if I hadn't kept my eye on them.  I'd've been absolutely lost, and I came away feeling hopelessly inadequate.  The performance was entirely adequate, but that was no virtue of mine.  I was leaning on all the other performers, although it was my own piece!  That's one of the reasons for an adoration, which will never die in me, for the late Sir Adrian Boult, to whom my Organ Concerto is dedicated, and with whom I played it twice at the Proms in London at the Albert Hall.  Don't ask me what happened, but the performance was absolutely faultless.  There wasn't a wrong note or wrong anything in it.  Everything balanced.  And we had rehearsals, due to a BBC muck-up, in a studio which had no organ.

BD:  [Facetiously]  Oh, that's good!  Rehearse the piece with no instrument.

MW:  That's right.  [Laughter]  All we had was a top and tail on the morning of the show.  And there was Sir Adrian, who was very handsome six-foot-two man with a huge bald dome.  I was sitting right at the top of the hall, at the organ stool, and he said, "Now, well let's catch each other's eye at this point."  And all I could see were two great black holes in the middle of a great black bald head.  I couldn't see his eyes at all.  Don't ask me how, Bruce, but by some magic or imagination or something, when we got going I could see his eyes, or knew where they were.  It's no use saying they were "in the normal place" because it's much more precise than that.  It was absolutely the sort of spark went both ways.  But I couldn't see anything except two black holes.

BD:  I'm glad the performance came off well, though.

MW:  It couldn't have been better!  But there are ways of saying things without saying them.  It's the unsaid which has caused music to come into existence.  Or the unsayable.

[Photo from the cover of an LP record jacket]

BD:  Are your scores very clean, or are they littered with lots of indications for the performer?

MW:  I try not to put in too many; sometimes I feel I've not put in enough.  In my Piano Quintet, which is in three movementsslow, fast, and slowthe last is very, very Swedish in feeling.  That last movement, which is the second slow movement, is autumn coming.  I'm very influenced by climate.  It's autumn coming in Scandinavia.  I spent many autumns and winters there, when they're putting up the double windows...  What do you call them in America?

BD:  Storm windows.

MW:  Storm windows, that's right.  When they're putting those up against the freezing cold and they're beginning to heat the houses.  They're, so to speak, closing themselves into their shells for the winter, and I tried to evoke that.  I didn't write that into the score, but it's written with enough precision, dare I say it, for that feeling of encroaching winter, in the natural course of events to happen.  It's like snails, if you like, or tortoises, as they withdraw into their shell for comfort.

BD:  Is this kind of thing something the public should know before they hear the score, or is it something they should just come to, having experienced the pure sound?

MW:  The latter.  I think let them just experience the pure sound.  If the sound is no good, then it doesn't really matter what is behind it.  If the sound works, they will have the curiosity to want to know.  I have found that nothing is more dampening to the spirit than not wanting to know anything more about something.  Listeners should be curious.  Of a Beethoven sonata, for example, it is said to have been written in grief after the death of his third mistress.  It probably is nothing of the sort; it's probably sort of cash down, and that's it!  But if people wish to believe that his beloved mistress either gave him the clap, or died of it herself, then people will, from this distance, anyway, say this was grief.

BD:  It makes a nice story.

MW:  But comin' nearer home, Bruce, there is a piece of Aaron's that was performed in South America somewhere.  It was performed in a perfectly polite concert setting at a time of political turbulence.  And it is said to have caused a revolution!  Aaron was asked about that on the British radio, and he laughed and laughed, and said, "I can't think which piece it was, but I do remember vaguely."  It's a marvelous reply.  It's almost like William Blake and the ants and the loaf of bread.  You know, something seems so tiny to us, but a loaf of bread seems gigantic to an ant.  Aaron couldn't remember what revolution it was, or what country.  But music can have that powerful effect.  I don't mind that frequently there can be two or three or four, any number of non-musical interpretations of a piece of music.  There's a marvelous pianist in this country playing a piece by that wonderful composer Sir Lennox Berkeley, and it begins with a sort of fluttering piano figure, and then more and more figures come in on the piano.  I asked him, "What do you think of when you're playing that, Colin?"  He said, "I hear soft flutes."  [Williamson is most likely referring to Colin Horsley, who was a major exponent of Berkeley's work since the 1940s.]  And that is a most valuable piano lesson!  It's a piano piece and it's not marked "quasi flauti," but it sounds like flutes!  And you should be able to accomplish this.  It's taken us long enough, to our disgraceall of usto realize the greatness of Charles Ives!

BD:  Oh, yes.  Yes.

MW:  If you see some of the obituaries of Ives in British magazines, it's about a line and a half of contemptuous dismissal.

BD:  Even here, he was just languishing for many years, and then all of a sudden now he's beginning to come into his own.

MW:  Do we thank Stoki for that, or everybody?  [Williamson is referring to the English-born conductor Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977), who was based in the United States beginning in the first decade of the 20th century and who championed the works of many American composers.]

BD:  Well, Stokowski started it, and then there've been a number of recordings and performances of his piano works and symphonies.

MW:  I know Lenny [Bernstein] did a lot, and I have his and other people's recordings of them.

BD:  Michael Tilson Thomas has now recorded all of them, a couple of them with the Chicago Symphony, and those are very well done.  [See my Interview with Michael Tilson Thomas.]

MW:  It's quite miraculous, but I don't know what his state of mind was when he died.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  Let me come back to Malcolm Williamson, if I may.  Was there any effect on you of having the title "Master of the Queen's Music"?

MW:  I'm afraid so; it came in on me.  I didn't know it.  I was delighted to have such a charming girl as monarch.  She is, in private, very, very amusing, very charming, and also very unsparing.  If she says something which has several meanings, as she often does, in private, she will make you laugh helplessly.  She just pauses patiently till you finished laughing.  If you don't laugh she just goes on.  She's quite an amazing woman, and as a person who is not by profession a music critic, she grabs quite complex musical matters off the bat.  This is not known.  She of course cannot say unkind things publicly about music.  In this job, I've had to settle rows with people doing avant-garde settings of "God Save the Queen."  When the television cameras pan in on her face, she can look solemn, and people write letters immediately to newspapers, saying she was very angry and she was insulted by this terrible modern harmony.  Fiddlesticks.  One o' my jobs is to sort of smooth the ruffled feathers of those people.  They're quite wrong, but the Queen doesn't have the right of reply.  Back in 1975 when I was appointed, one awful thing was that people thought that I would be transformed from a rather way-out composerlike the composer of the Piano Quintetinto a sort of latter-day Elgar, writing regurgitated Elgar, which hasn't happened.  [Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) held the post of Master of the King's Music, from 1924 to 1934.]  I adore Elgar, but I can't don his style or write in an Elgarian mode, nor do I wish to, nor does the Queen wish me to, either.

BD:  One last question about you.  You're about to hit the golden age of 65.  Are you pleased with where you and your career are at this point?

MW:  [Thinks for a moment.]  I suppose so, Bruce, but I don't particularly think of it.  I have children and three grandsons, but I feel very young; I feel very fit.  I just want to travel more, and I just want people to experience my style.  The Piano Quintet is a good instance which shows that Masters of the Royal Music travel with the times.  If there's any zeitgeist at all I'm a contributor to it.  I'm not a sort of renovated Elgar.  In some ways it would be good I were, but that's a different world!  Since the bombs fell in Japan, you can't write music like Elgar.  Like Elgar I am a Catholic, but also with strong Jewish connections, Protestant connections, Buddhist connections, and living in such an utterly different world.  You can't write music hiding inside a shell of a putative yesterday.  But if you go back to that yesterday, Delius and Holst and Stanford lived in entirely different worlds!  Stanford was very dedicated to showing that very rude man Brahms that British people could write music!  We no longer, I think, have to prove that.  There was a time when people had to prove that all good American music was not written by Mrs. Ha-ha Beach!  [Williamson is referring, humorously, to Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (1867 -1944), an American composer and pianist who was the first successful American female composer of large-scale art music.  Most of her compositions and performances were under the name "Mrs. H. H. A. Beach."]  There are places in America where people think that.  Or that black Americans wrote nothing but those very beautiful spirituals, which are probably centuries old.  I think of William Grant Still and people since then.  Students of mine, of all colors, in Princeton, in Florida, wrote wonderful forward-looking music, the like of which you could not find before, let us say, 1990.

BD:  So then you're optimistic about the whole future of concert music.

MW:  [Emphatically]  Oh, very much so!  But the last shock we had, and it will be the last shock we have for a very long time, in world musicat least in the Westwas The Rite of Spring in 1913!  It's no use sitting down and thinking, "I'll give everybody another shock, just the same as Stravinsky did in 1913."  The shock waves have, in a way, matured, and they've been channeled.  You may disagree with me, but I think you get much more of a shock the first time from listening to The Rite of Spring than you do from something by Elliott Carter.  [See my Interview with Elliott Carter.]  Stravinsky didn't deliberately set out to shock.  This greatest master of our time had drenched himself in Russian folk music and in the ballet, and out it came.  There was this absolutely unexpected scandal in Paris at the first performance.

BD:  Right, a very famous scandal.

MW:  Before we finish, let me mention one other thing which is very important to me.  My friend of 35 years, Dame Iris Murdoch [1919-1999], the greatest writer in English, at least in the British Isles.  At the Proms last year, I set to music twelve of her poems, called A Year of Birds, for soprano and orchestra.  And my 8th Symphony, my next one, is called Agamemnon, is written on the only other poem that Iris has written.  That's published not in the collected works, but in the 1946 Harvard magazine, a quarterly, I think, and completely unknown.

BD:  We'll look forward to this new symphony.  I want to thank you for all the music you've given the world, and I appreciate the conversation very much.  We could talk all day about all of these things.

MW:  I wish we could talk for a week, yes.  I've enjoyed it very much!  I think it's morally very good for composers to be allowed to have a sympathetic listener, and just sort of take off...  which is what I've done with you today.

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Malcolm Williamson was born in Sydney on November 21, 1931. At the age of eleven he entered the Sydney Conservatorium to study the piano and French horn, and also composition under Sir Eugene Goossens. He graduated in 1944 with a Bachelor of Music degree. Upon moving to London in 1950 he discovered the serial music of the second Viennese school and that of composers such as Messiaen and Boulez. He continued his compositional training in 1953, studying under Elisabeth Lutyens and, later, Erwin Stein. 

During this period Williamson was supporting his art by employment in an assortment of jobs: he worked as a proofreader for a publishing house, as an organist and choirmaster in a parish church, and as a pianist in a nightclub. His exposure to these different types of music was reflected in his own compositions of the time, as were the influences of Stravinsky, Messiaen, and the music of the late nineteenth-century German and Italian operatic composers. Williamson converted to the Roman Catholic faith around this time and this was an important influence on his music. 

Williamson was fortunate enough to have been able to devote himself entirely to composition since the early 1960s - in the catalogue to celebrate his 50th birthday, produced by his publishers, he was described as "the most commissioned composer of his generation" - and in 1975 became the Nineteenth Master of the Queen's Music, the first non-Briton ever to have held that position. His compositional output included symphonies, stage works, chamber, choral and religious music, and film scores. He also had a keen interest in composing music for children. He composed a number of operas for children, including one based on Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince, and 'cassations', miniature operas for audience participation which were initially inspired by a desire to teach his own children the mechanics of opera. From his interest in music for the young, Williamson also developed an interest in music for the mentally and physically handicapped. 

Despite residing in the UK from the 1950s onwards (his appointment to the Queen required that he live in Britain) Williamson still considered his music as being fundamentally Australian: "Most of my music is Australian," he said on one occasion, "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." 

Williamson received the CBE in 1976, a year after his appointment as Master of the Queen's Music, and the AO for services to music and the mentally handicapped in 1987. The University of Melbourne conferred an Honorary Doctorate of Music upon him in 1982.

Malcolm Williamson died on March 2, 2003, aged 71.


© 1996 Bruce Duffie

This interview was held on the telephone on October 18, 1996.  Portions were aired on WNIB (along with recordings) the following month.  It was transcribed in 2007 and posted on this website at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.