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Malcolm Williamson

21st November 1931 – 2nd March 2003
composer

The missing Master of the Queen’s Music

During the 1950s and 60s a number of talented Australians moved to Britain to further their careers. These included Clive James, Robert Hughes, Barry Humphries, Peter Porter and the composer Malcolm Williamson. By 1975 Williamson had been appointed the Master of the Queen’s Music. The honour was marked in Melbourne when Ars Nova in their inaugural concert performed Williamson’s Epitaphs for Edith Sitwell.

The position of Master of the Queen’s Music is a prestigious one, akin to being Poet Laureate, and Williamson was the first ‘colonial’ to be granted the position. He was already a gifted craftsman and easily moved across a range of genres. Composing seemed to come easily to him, and provided he produced a few ceremonial pieces per year in his official role he was free to follow his talents during the rest of his time. His opera Our Man in Havana based on the Graham Greene novel had already been hailed as the most impressive English opera debut since Britten’s Peter Grimes. When Robert Helpmann created his ballet The Display for an all-Australian cast it was an obvious choice to commission Williamson to compose the score and Sidney Nolan to design the sets and costumes.

His future seemed rosy, but over time he gradually disappeared from public awareness. It was as though he had been air-brushed out of history before he had even died. The knighthood which was considered automatic for a Master of the Queen’s Music never eventuated and not one member of the royal family attended his funeral in 2003.

Why had this talented Australian become virtually invisible?

Firstly, his appointment had from the start been unpopular in establishment music circles. And he had converted to Catholicism which did not sit well. Still, the Catholic William Byrd received strong patronage from Elizabeth I, so that need not be a debilitating problem. He had missed the deadline for several ceremonial works, but even one of his strongest critics, Sir William Walton, had his own first symphony performed incomplete while he struggled with the final movement. However, Williamson’s love life ranged far and wide including both sexes. Then again, the establishment had plenty of – well, let’s not go there -  but suffice to say the required level of discretion was seen to be overstepped. When Williamson and his close male friend entered the room, polite society would often turn in the other direction.

Spurned by the British establishment, largely ignored as an ‘elite’ by his Australian homeland (as his fellow expat, Robert Hughes put it at the time "Sport is the only form of elitism that Australia will accept- and that is its great hypocrisy"), sidelined by the public display of his religious and sexual preferences, dismissed by the international contemporary music scene as writing tunes that audiences wanted to whistle (which did not fit with obscurantist vogue of the time), Malcolm Williamson gradually faded from the public perception.

Some forthcoming events:


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Selected sheet music by Malcolm Williamson