Grace Williams - Wales' finest composer

27 October 2020

From our formation in 1943 until 1966, with the exception of Menna and Serch Yw'r Doctor, Welsh National Opera's repertory had been firmly rooted in works from the past. However the highlight of our Spring 1966 Season was the world premiere of a new opera, not just by a living composer but by a living Welsh composer - Grace Williams. She is regarded by many as one of Wales' finest composers but her work has too often been forgotten amid the music of her male contemporaries.

Born on 19 February 1906 in the coastal town of Barry, Wales, Grace Mary Williams was encouraged to pursue her interest in music from an early age. Both of her parents were teachers who had a deep and abiding love of music. Her father, William Matthews Williams, was a highly regarded amateur choral director who did not believe in teaching music to his children in the traditional manner of exercise book and graded exams. Instead he simply opened his extensive library of music scores to them, an act which enabled them to explore and discover on their own and which ultimately led Grace Williams to find her own highly individual musical style.

Williams learned piano and often played  for her father's choir rehearsals, and at home she played the violin with her brother and father. She broadened her knowledge of orchestral music through recordings, which her father collected avidly. As a school girl, she excelled in mathematics, music and English and developed an abiding interest in French literature which she enjoyed throughout her life.

After graduating from Cardiff University, she moved to London to study at the Royal College of Music. She joined several other gifted female composers including Eliabeth Maconchy, Dorothy Gow and Imogen Holst - the daughter of composer Gustav Holst. Encouraged by Vaughan Williams (or Uncle Ralph as she used to call him), the women met frequently to hear and criticise each other's work.

Williams was best known for orchestral works such as the popular Fantasia on Welsh Nursery Tunes, Sea Sketches, Penillion and The Parlour was her first opera.

Williams had a life-long passion for opera. For many years she had cherished the ambition to write an opera; only the opportunity had been lacking. Her first opera was commissioned by the Welsh Committee of the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1959. Based on the short story En Famille by Guy de Maupassant, Williams wrote the libretto herself. The opera took two years to complete and was performed by Welsh National Opera in May 1966. The first-night audience gave it a sustained ovation at New Theatre, Cardiff, and several critics found it tuneful and attractive.

The Parlour was a noteworthy and unexpected artistic success. Rarely has a composer's first opera turned out so well; even more rarely has such a good first opera remained without a successor.

No previous Welsh composer scored for the modern symphony orchestra with such skill and individuality as Williams. She helped to place orchestral music in Wales on a new footing and she brought to the concert hall for the first time a distinctively Welsh flavour.

Grace Williams lost her battle with cancer on February 10, 1977, just nine days before her seventy-first birthday. In a tribute to her, it was said : 'She had brought the music of Wales to the world.'