top of page

This article originally appeared in the Welsh Music - Cerddoriaeth Cymru Journal, Summer 1976/7, Vol. 5, No. 4.

It appears here courtesy of the Welsh Music Guild who were the original publishers.

Articles can be accessed via their site as well as part of our Welsh Music Collection.


The Composer Grace Williams talks to A. J. Heward Rees

AJHR: Having recently celebrated your seventieth birthday, are you conscious of being something of a “doyenne” among composers?


GW: Well David Wynne is of course the senior Welsh composer, but I'm not sure that I can claim the position even among British women composers either! You see Elisabeth Lutyens is a few months younger, but Piaulx Rainier is older, and so I think is Elizabeth Poston, then a whole lot of us, including Elizabeth Maconchy and Imogen Holst come together. It's very strange, you know; most of us arrived at the Royal College of Music at the same time without known anything at all about each other, some as we did from quite different background (some quite “upper crust”, and myself from Wales), and most of us are still at it. Phyllis Tate is a few years younger, (she was at the Academy) and sprang up as a composer quite on her own. There are lots of women composers coming up now of course, but it was very unusual that this should have happened in the late twenties. It isn't as if we influence each other, or had even heard of each other previously. There was absolutely no prejudice against us at the College, and there was no prejudice here in Wales either: remember there had already been Morfydd Owen by the time I came along, and that perhaps made it easier for me. She was so charming that everybody fell for her, and allowed here anything she wanted, simply because she was Morfydd Owen! I never met her; she died two years before the Barry National Eisteddfod when I was fourteen, and I well remember her name being inscribed there, and an orchestral work of hers, Variations of “Y Fwyalchen”, played by the LSO. She seems to have had a most extraordinary life. I met her father, and some people who knew her, including my teachers at Cardiff University.


Grace Williams at home.jpg

AJHR: Did you feel you were banding together at all, as women composers in London?


GW: Oh yes! We didn't know Elizabeth Lutyens so well because she had a different teacher; the rest of us were Vaughan Williams's pupils. He always arranged for us to have play-throughs and to discuss our work with each other. I got to known Elizabeth Lutyens afterwards because we were all concerned with the Mcnaghten Concerts which presented contemporary music in London.


AJHR: Then you went to Vienna for a year to study with Egon Wellesz.


GW: Yes, I had a travelling scholarship from the RCM.


AJHR: Tell me something about him as a teacher.


GW: Well he was marvellous, and had so different an approach from Vaughan Williams, who was the sort of personality to whom you could only take your best music. Vaughan Williams knew his limitations as a teacher though; he would say “I know there's something wrong, but I can't put my finger on it”, but Egon Wellesz could. He had a way of saying “It begins to get weak at this point, so you will scrap from here onwards and re-write”. But then he'd been a pupil of Schoenberg, whose method this was, you see, but he hardly ever mentioned his name to me because he had ceased to follow the Schoenberg line by the time I came to him.


AJHR: You were aware of the Schoenbergian “shadow” in Vienna however?


GW: Yes, I went to a concert once where I heard Webern's music for the first time, and I must confess I nearly had hysterics! It was an audience full of terribly serious-faced people in a very small hall, and I was alone. The music consisted of sudden tiny notes and long silences, and, you know, any sort of funny sounds of even someone singing out of tune always used to send me into a spontaneous fit of the giggles – a great source of embarrassment. But it was all so incredibly strange. Music for me has got to flow, because I have been brought up in the singing tradition, and everything I've ever written (though I haven't had much commissioned work for voices), even the kind of string music I write, is basically melodic and onward-moving. That is what disconcerts me about the music written by so many young people today, – it doesn't move ahead, it's so static in style, without the feeling of physical youthfulness or energy. It makes me restless even at my age, – it's so foreign to what I observed to be typical of young people themselves. On the other hand I can quite see that certain current experiments have to be made: the exploration of electronic sound for example. Most of our tradition instruments are machines of a kind, except the human voice, which, again, is transformed when subjected to professional training.


AJHR: Let's go back to your early years. How soon did you decide you were going to be a composer?


GW: I don't know. You see it all began with extemporization. I used to make things up at the piano. My father didn't believe in piano exams which would confine me to the special syllabus, which was a good thing in a way; but of course I never really developed a good piano technique.


AJHR: What kind of music did you hear as a child?


GW: Practically everything really. We had loads of music in the house, and I used to play my way through the lot. My father had a boys' choir, and he taught them rather unusual thing, even The Rhinemaidens' Song, for instance. I've never heard it so cleanly and sweetly sung as by those elementary schoolboys. It was quite unerotic of course … it would never have ensnared Alberich! At home we had operatic duets, The Prima Donna's Album, Tchaikovsky's songs, lots of oratorios, stacks of Chopin, Beethoven and Bach. We had the earliest Ragtime which fascinated me, and of course ballads, which I never had any use for, though I had to listen to them in local concerts. We played chamber music, with my brother as 'cellist and my father at the piano (I played the violin very badly), – Beethoven and Mozart trios and sonatas and so on. In spite of limited technique we had an uncanny way of getting to the heart of the music. There were concerts at Cardiff, and of course gramophone records, but I was seventeen when I first heard the radio. When you think of all the great music written in pre-radio days, and the rapid way it spread from one country t