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Review of LNT140: My Last Duchess - The Songs of Grace Williams

Gary Higginson, MusicWeb

My Last Duchess - The Songs of Grace Williams This demonstrates Lorelt’s promotion of music by female composers.

Whilst it is quite true that Grace Williams’s music has not been strongly represented in concert programmes on a regular basis it’s also true that her three most significant orchestral works, ie. the Fantasia on Welsh Folk Songs (1940), the Sea Sketches (1944) and Penellion (1955) are well known and available on various Lyrita CDs and there is also a wonderful disc of her choral works on Chandos conducted by Richard Hickox. But there is also a significant number of arrangements for young voices and piano of songs from various parts of the world (I have done some with children) and there are songs in Welsh, using folk melodies as we find here.

In his book on Grace Williams published by the University of Wales Press (Composers in Wales Vol 4 -1980) Malcolm Boyd comments. “… it is in the solo songs, more than anything else, that her musical personality found its natural expression” and adds, “melody in the widest sense provided the initial impulse”. In the catalogue of her works the songs take up two-thirds of the list.

So with the exception of the longest song and one of her last compositions, the dramatic scena My Last Duchess (1974) which not only gives the CD its title but also begins it, the songs are presented pretty much, in chronological order, though with the pieces in Welsh coming more towards the end. The CD booklet offers all texts but only gives us translations (probably wisely) of the songs in the Welsh language.

If you feel you have heard some of these folk melodies before then you probably know Williams’s evergreen Fantasia on Welsh Folk Songs, which she composed in 1940 and still finds it way into the concert repertoire. Although some tunes like Jim Crow are quite lively, several have quite gloomy texts. Talking of which the Four Medieval Welsh Poems have serious texts and in many ways this piece is the standout work on the CD. The composer was, we read, very attached to it. Its ethereal scoring is deliberately archaic, that is for harpsichord and harp, which work together very strikingly. It was in 1962 that the BBC asked Williams if she would write ‘a song cycle in the penillion style’ and she found these recently printed texts. She had just completed her orchestral work Penillion using the traditional Welsh technique of improvising vocal counterpoints to a traditional melody, which was originally played on the harp. The word itself means ‘Stanzas’. So a stanza structure is used, but the upper line is constantly varied.

Osian Ellis was a leading harpist in the years after the war, he worked with Britten who was also a friend and guide to Grace Williams. She composed the Two 9th Century Welsh Poems for him to sing and play together (1962). There is a strong atmospheric sense of archaic yearning coupled with a more contemporary use of harmony.

The Six Welsh Oxen Songs (1937) and the other folk songs written throughout the 30’s-, 40’s and 50’s are, despite Williams’s respect for Britten, treated quite differently from his methods of which she didn’t entirely approve. Whilst she does not abandon her own individuality she also never imposes herself in such a way as to transform the folk song into something only suitable for the Wigmore Hall.

Especially notable is Watching the Wheat. It takes a lovely, well-known melody and puts around it a halo of arpeggiated chords stretching across the piano. The song has four verses and a little interlude is placed between each, sometimes indicating a slight modulation. The arpeggiations vary for each verse, as do some harmonies. So, although the song is all of a piece there is constant change and diversity. Mostly these are accompanied by the piano but the harp features in The Little Princess and The Red Marsh.

… the release demonstrates once again the enterprise of Lorelt records in the promotion of music by female composers whose work has never had enough exposure.

Other reviews of this CD:

Steph Power, BBC Music Magazine