Grace Mary Williams (19 February 1906 – 10 February 1977) was a Welsh composer, generally regarded as Wales's most notable female composer, and the first British woman to score a feature film.
Williams was born in Barry, Glamorgan, the daughter of William Matthews Williams and Rose Emily Richards Williams. Both of her parents were teachers; her father was also a noted musician. She learned piano and violin as a girl, playing piano trios with her father and her brother Glyn, and accompanying her father's choir. At the County School she began to develop her interest in composition under the guidance of the music teacher Miss Rhyda Jones, and in 1923 she won the Morfydd Owen scholarship to Cardiff University (University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire), where she studied under Professor David Evans. In 1926 she began studying at the Royal College of Music, London, where she was taught by Gordon Jacob and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Other notable female composers studying with Vaughan Williams at the RCM were Elizabeth Maconchy, Dorothy Gow and Imogen Holst, the daughter of Gustav Holst. In 1930 she was awarded a travelling scholarship, and chose to study with Egon Wellesz in Vienna, where she remained till 1931.
From 1932 Williams taught in London, at Camden Girls' School and the Southlands College of Education. During the Second World War, the students were evacuated to Grantham in Lincolnshire, where she composed some of her earliest works, including the Sinfonia Concertante for piano and orchestra, and her First Symphony. One of her most popular works, Fantasia on Welsh Nursery Tunes (1940) was written during this period. Sea Sketches for string orchestra, written in 1944 is the first work in her mature style. This music is vividly evocative of the sea, in all its variety of moods. In 1945, she returned to her home town, remaining there for the rest of her life, dedicating herself more or less full-time to composition.
In 1949, she became the first British woman to score a feature film, with Blue Scar. In 1960–61 she wrote her only opera, The Parlour, which was not performed until 1966. In the 1967 New Year's Honours, she turned down an offer of the OBE for her services to music.
Williams' most enduringly popular work is Penillion, written for the National Youth Orchestra of Wales in 1955. She revisited some of the same ideas in her Trumpet Concerto of 1963. Despite the tradition of choral music in Wales, Williams' portfolio of compositions were largely orchestral or instrumental pieces. Ballads for Orchestra of 1968, written for the National Eisteddfod, held that year in her home town, has all the colour and swagger of a mediaeval court.
Outstanding amongst her vocal works are her setting of the Latin hymn, Ave Maris Stella, for unaccompanied SATB (1973), and Six Poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins, for contralto and string sextet (1958). The cycle is book-ended by two of Hopkins' best-known poems, Pied Beauty and Windhover, her music perfectly matching the rhythmic subtlety of the texts. These are amongst her most beautiful pieces, the soft melodic and harmonic undulations in Ave Maris Stella (Hail, Star of the Sea) suggesting as so often in her music the swelling of the ever-present sea. Welsh-language settings include Saunders Lewis's carol Rhosyn Duw, for SATB, piano and viola (1955), which she later incorporated into her large-scale choral work, Missa Cambrensis (1971).
Her last completed works (1975) were settings of Kipling and Beddoes for the unusual combination of SATB, harp and two horns. The last music she wrote is actually in her Second Symphony, originally composed in 1956, and substantially revised in 1975.
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