Exploring Grace Williams’ Amazing Music

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WP 2019 - 2WILLIAMS: Violin Sonata / Madeleine Mitchell, vln; Konstantin Lapshin, pno / Sextet for Oboe, Trumpet, Violin, Viola, Cello & Piano / John Anderson, ob; Bruce Nockles, tpt; Gordon Mackay, vln; Roger Chase, vla; Joseph Spooner, cel; David Owen Norris, pno / Suite for Nine Instruments / London Chamber Ens / Romanza for Oboe & Bass Clarinet / Anderson, ob; Andrew Sparling, bs-cl / Sarabande for Piano Left Hand / Norris, pno / Rondo for Dancing for 2 Violins & Optional Cello / Mitchell, Mackay, vln; Spooner, cel / Naxos 8.571380

Grace Williams (1906-1977) was a Welsh woman composer who, unfortunately, was not well known outside her native country, but judging from this CD her music was exceptionally interesting. Madeleine Mitchell, who directs the London Chamber Ensemble whose members are heard in various combinations on this disc and plays the Violin Sonata herself, also knew little or nothing about Williams until she discovered the sonata and performed it at the Welsh Music Information Centre in Cardiff in 2017, the 40th anniversary of the composer’s death. This, in turn, led to her discovery of the other works heard here—all unpublished—through the National Library of Wales. This disc, produced through the generosity of the British Music Society Charitable Trust, is the result, all of them world premiere recordings.

One of Williams’ greatest assets was the ability to write terse yet well-developed music. The entire Violin Sonata, for instance, runs only 18 minutes long though it is in three movements, and even the longest work on this CD—the Sextet, which runs 31:17—does not tire the listener or overstay its welcome. Unlike many composers of her time, Williams did not really follow any of the most common trends in modern classical music of her time. Although even the Violin Sonata, which is the earliest work presented here (written in 1930), uses decidedly modern harmonic changes, it is largely tonal or modal and does not follow the styles of Stravinsky, Bartók, Honegger, Hindemith, Schoenberg or Shostakovich. She was her own person and wrote in a style that can only be termed personal.

Grace Williams 2

Grace Williams in the 1940s (photographer unknown)

And she was highly self-critical. Even after revising the Violin Sonata in 1938, she wrote on the manuscript in later years, “2nd mvmt worth performing. 1st & 3rd not good enough.” But I disagree, and apparently Mitchell does, too. Indeed, if anything the second movement, though very well written, is the most accessible of them, pursuing a very tonal but haunting melodic line throughout. Mitchell hears echoes of Bartók and Shostakovich in this sonata, but I would argue that they are echoes only. In the third movement, Williams creates themes that sound, oddly, a bit like both Middle Eastern and American Indian music, but ultimately come out as wholly original. Williams definitely had her own “voice,” and this is what makes her music, to my ears, much more interesting than such highly-touted women composers as Amy Beach, Carrie Jacobs Bond, Germaine Tailleferre or Florence Mills, whose music was solidly written but more derivative of then-current trends. Grace Williams was more on a par with Lili Boulanger. Both were mavericks even within the musical avant-garde of their respective times. I think it was this core strength to her music which, like American composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, went against the grain of what was traditionally considered “women’s music,” that put both Boulanger and Williams behind the eight ball, so to speak, when it came to gaining widespread recognition.

In the Sextet, written one year after the Violin Sonata, Williams included her favorite instrument—the trumpet. This, too, has a style somewhat related to Shostakovich but also oddly similar to some of Benjamin Britten’s early works, which were written several years later. The slow introduction to the first movement is written in alternating 3/4 and 4/4, which also returns at the end. In the “Allegro con brio” middle section, the music is scored less as a block of instruments than like a sinfonia concertante, with each instrument having its solo spots and using only a few of the six at a time. Once again, despite the surprising length of the first movement (10:18), Williams is compact in her statements and development, and here too there are faint echoes of American Indian themes, which gives the music a peculiarly “American” sound, much like the 1940s work of Aaron Copland. She also conjured up an unusual rhythmic pattern of her own for the lively second-movement “Allegro scherzando,” which includes an unusually slow middle section, and the opening of the “Andante; Tranquillo e semplice,” with its use of a muted trumpet and unusual melodic structure, is unique to say the least. In the “Allegro molto,” Williams uses a tarantella rhythm greatly modified with strong overtones of an Irish jig and using strange modal harmonies and pentatonic scalar movement in its themes.

But if you think this was pretty advanced for its time, wait until you hear the 1934 Suite for Nine Instruments. Here, Williams is clearly under the influence of Stravinsky, but in influence only. Her sense of lyricism even within a largely neo-classic style and spikier harmonies was, again, highly personal and quite different. If anything, the second movement (“Andantino”) is even stranger, sounding almost like something written in the 21st century, as does the succeeding “Allegro con brio.” The closest I can come to describing this is the late Françaix wind quintet, but even that doesn’t really define how original this music sounds.

Williams again shows her stylistic diversity in the little (2:14) but perfectly-written Romanza for oboe and clarinet from the 1940s, and in the 1958 Sarabande for Piano Left Hand (1958) we hear an entirely different composer, more brooding and sparse in her musical meanderings. Gone in these two works are the echoes of Americana and also any allusions to Shostakovich or pre-echoes of Britten. Yet one more surprise is in store: the 1970 Rondo for Dancing for 2 Violins & Optional Cello sounds for all the world like 18th-century music—sort of like Stravinsky’s Pulcinella except that, in this case, the theme is wholly original.

What an interesting composer, and what splendid and spirited performances these are! This disc will surely intrigue and impress you.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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