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Grace Williams in her own words

On October 19th, 1960, Grace Williams contributed a talk in the series Composer’s Workshop on the Welsh Home Service. Her script is reproduced here by kind permission of BBC Cymru Wales.

To compose music is to do something off the beaten track, even if you're a man. But if you're a woman composer it is considered very odd indeed. How, then, did I come to do something so contrary? And when did it begin? Well –I certainly didn't get out of the cradle to compose. But at the age of four I began to have tantrums because I couldn't play the piano. Above all I wanted to play the Merry Widow Waltz and the Overture to Masaniello. So my father gave me my first lessons. I raced through Hemy's piano tutor and all seemed set for a splendid career as a pianist. But, alas, no - as I grew older, instead of practising scales and taking piano exams, which would have meant concentrating on a few pieces at a time, I preferred to be let loose on anything that came my way; and a vast amount of music did come my way. Most of it was by the great composers, with Beethoven and Chopin as first favourites, but I didn't say no to an occasional musical comedy medley, and when jazz first came to Wales I played Alexander's Ragtime Band with great gusto. But there was one type of music I could never abide, and that was the drawing-room ballad; and I had to grow older and wiser before I could love and appreciate the folk songs of my native land. I didn't learn any Welsh folk songs at my mother's knee; it wasn't her fault, she just didn't know any. You see, I date back to the year 1906, some years before the Welsh Folk Song Society went into action.

Young Grace Williams

When, eventually, their collections were published my father fell for them hook, line and sinker; and it was very annoying, because if I happened to be trilling my way through the Jewel Song from Faust he would cut in and ask me to transfer my talents to Gwenni aeth i Ffair Pwllheli. He even coaxed me, I can't think how, into entering for a folk song competition at the 'National'- that was at Corwen in 1919. And I can't think why the adjudicator was kind enough to let me share the second prize- but I shall always be grateful to her, for it was the only national award I ever gained.

The following year, 1920, the 'National' came to my home town, Barry. I've no time now to talk about the wonders of our Eisteddfod, but I must mention that it was there I first saw paintings of Monet - and heard music by Stravinsky . . . and Vaughan Williams. Vaughan Williams was there in person; he was one of the adjudicators. Little did I think then that eight years later I'd become a pupil of his. I don't think it dawned on me in those carefree days that I would become a composer. It's true I'd been improvising more and more at the piano - but no-one ever suggested that I should write anything down. It wasn't until I was about fifteen, when I began studying harmony and counterpoint, with pencil in hand and a music manuscript book before me, that I realized I could go one better than a text-book exercise. And so I began to write short instrumental pieces - and songs.

Debussy became a big influence - but so did Bach. And then I fell under the spell of Wagner, whose music I heard at the Proms- we used to go up to the Proms for a wonderful week every year. And we used to go night after night to Cardiff whenever the Carl Rosa or English National Opera Company were there; and once I was taken to a chamber music concert to hear the Lener Quartet.

In those pre-radio days it was tremendously exciting for me to hear an orchestra. I had grown up with singers and my father's choirs, so an orchestra had all the fascination of the unknown. I think that's one of the reasons why I've written more orchestral music than anything else- though now, at last, I'm turning more to vocal music .. . and so it goes on ... once caught in the net a composer hasn't much chance of escaping. It isn't all honey, and it can be grim; and always, always, one has to face the fact that having an irresistible desire to compose is no guarantee at all that one is going to produce good music. Vaughan Williams used to offer consolation and say that there wouldn't be any winners unless there were lots of also-rans. I hope he was right.