Grace Williams (1906 - 1977)
1 Allegro marciale
2 Andante sostenuto
3 Allegro scherzando
“A bit of an ugly duckling,” is how Grace Williams described her Second Symphony in a letter to her friend, the composer Elizabeth Maconchy, in February 1956. The work was commissioned by, and first performed at, the 1957 Swansea Festival and represented the continuation of a new mature phase in Grace Williams’ work which had started with Penillion in 1955. By comparison with the warm, sprawling romanticism of her First Symphony (1943), the Second is uncompromising and even severe in tone, yet repeated hearings mark it out as one of her finest works. One of Grace Williams’ last tasks, in 1975, included making extensive revisions to its finale.
The Symphony is in the usual four movements. The first (Allegro marciale) opens with a tightly conceived trumpet motif leading into a restless, stormy discourse only briefly relieved by a lyrical secondary theme. The second movement (Andante sostenuto) is one of tender austerity and the third is a turbulent aggressive scherzo. The finale (Largo) is essentially a second slow movement, its opening described in Malcolm Boyd’s classic study of Grace Williams as, “elegiac and autumnal.” It builds in intensity until the trumpet motif, that opened the work, returns, again in Malcolm Boyd’s words, “as if from some distant battlefield” propelling the work towards its ambivalent close.
The BBC National Orchestra of Wales performs Grace Williams's second symphony at BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff Thursday 2 November 2023.