by Peter Reynolds
Few composers have evoked the atmosphere of Wales as potently as Grace Williams. Born in Barry in the first decade of the twentieth century, her work breathes the air of the world she knew as a child. In later life she commented on how the sea and coastline of South Wales influenced her music, "its rhythms and long flowing lines and its colours" and how her love of the trumpet could be traced back to the Barry of World War One, "full of training camps and battalions marching through the streets."
Although Grace Williams was to return to her native Barry in 1947, she spent the interwar years in London where she attended the Royal College of Music and worked as a school-teacher. During this time she came into contact with the latest developments in music, won a scholarship to study with Egon Wellesz in Vienna and was a friend of the young Benjamin Britten. Ill-health in the years following the Second World War resulted in her return to Wales. It was at this time that she found the personal voice for which she had long searched and, starting with Penillion in 1955, produced a string of highly personal and characteristic works culminating in the still underestimated Missa Cambrensis of 1971. Her life in later years was an austere one devoted to her art; she once remarked to Daniel Jones, "I have a bed-sitter mentality." Yet from this frugal lifestyle sprang music, often of great passion and fierce individuality, which still retains a special place in Welsh music.
The BBC National Orchestra of Wales performs Grace Williams's second symphony at BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff on Thursday 2 November 2023. ▶ Info & tickets
▶ Sea Sketches (1944)
Five movement suite for string orchestra depicting various moods of the sea.
Symphonic poem in four movements written for the National Youth Orchestra of Wales.
Although not typical of Williams' work it brought her to prominence and is the composer's most popular work.
Three movement work showcasing the full compass and dynamic range of the solo flute with aplomb.
▶ Missa Cambrensis (1971)
Williams's magnum opus which weaves Welsh and Latin texts.
▶ The Parlour (1961)
Opera in one act and two scenes based on a short story by Guy de Maupassant.
▶ Views and Revisions Grace Williams talks to Heward Rees (Welsh Music Journal)
Beryl H. Griffiths, Mamwlad (Gwasg Carreg Gwalch Llanrwst 2016), pp. 182-202
▶ Grace Williams: Chamber Works review – don't take this neglected Welsh composer at her word!, The Guardian, 7 March 2019
▶ Cyfansoddwyr Ieuainc Cyfoes, Tir newydd, rhif 7, Chwefror 1937, pp.3-6
▶ Grace Williams Wikipedia Article
▶ Grace Williams Music Manuscripts NLW Archives
Grace Williams's music is featured on these Tŷ Cerdd releases: