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Writing the language of paradise

A return visit to his native Australia, in 1972, changed the life of Malcolm Williamson, the Master of the Queen’s Music, who died earlier this year.

He had been experimenting with a new form of do-it-yourself operas, mainly for young people; and he had found that these participatory operas worked well with children who were physically handicapped. So when the Australian National University at Canberra awarded him a fellowship, he wrote into his CV the fact that he made music with handicapped children.

Out in Canberra, the man who was to be his minder, Ken Healey, read the CV and got a bright idea. He went to a local hostel for the handicapped, ‘Koomarri’, to ask them to provide children for some of these little operas and they agreed.

This arrangement, however, could have been a disaster. For in London the children Williamson worked with were physically handicapped; but the ‘Koomarri’ children were intellectually handicapped—withdrawn, silent, lacking social skills.

No matter. When Williamson arrived in Canberra he quickly spotted the mistake and went ahead anyway. ‘He threw himself into the deep end’, said Healey. ‘Malcolm was a magician, who transformed those children. The ‘Koomarri’ staff said they had never seen some of the children relate socially with such enthusiasm.’

The rhythms of his music unlocked their disabilities, giving them a language to communicate with one another. For the composer it was a revelation; he spent a great deal of the rest of his life working with intellectually handicapped, for which he was awarded an Order of Australia.

The son of an Anglican priest, Malcolm Williamson converted to Catholicism at the age of 21 and then went to study in England. To support himself he became assistant organist at the Jesuits’ Farm Street church in London. He had learned organ playing so that he could explore the music of the French Catholic composer, Oliver Messiaen, a lifelong influence on his music. By the end of the 1950s he could devote himself full time to composing.

Here is not the place to discuss his music; but two things need to be noticed. The first is the range of his compositions: operas, ballets, orchestral works, symphonies, concertos, piano music, musicals, as well as TV and radio music. Secondly, much of his music is intensely religious. Critics commented on the fact that the man who wrote devotional church music also produced film scores for shockers like Brides of Dracula and Horror of Frankenstein.

In 1975 Queen Elizabeth II made him Master of the Queen’s Music, an unsalaried honour that put unforeseen pressures on him. Unusually for a Master of the Queen’s Music, he was never knighted. Married as a young man, he had three Jewish children, of whom he was greatly proud. The last 30 years of his life, however, he lived with his publisher, Simon Campion.

Williamson’s estimation of people was unpredictable. Dame Leonie Kramer, the conservative academic, was a favourite; as was Marshal Tito, the despot of Yugoslavia. He venerated Sir James Freeman, the knockabout Sydney priest who woke one morning, surprised to find himself a cardinal. When the cardinal died, in 1991, a London newspaper was dismissive. Outraged, Williamson wrote in protest: Cardinal Freeman’s ‘elevation to the red hat was one of the most inspired appointments of Paul VI’s pontificate’. He was ‘a visionary’ who steered Australia, church and state, towards a more liberal climate and his contribution to Vatican II was ‘significant’.

Someone very like Malcolm Williamson appears in an early story by Gerard Windsor, which has a ring of actual quotation. Visiting a self-destructive composer in hospital, the narrator is told: ‘You can’t realise what a cross this talent is. I didn’t ask for it. It’s crippling, crippling. And you can’t get rid of it. God asks me to pay a fearful price for His gift.

If that isn’t Malcolm Williamson, it is someone very like him. John Henry Newman used to say that God put a special tax on us for his benefits, such as the sacraments. You can say much the same about his gift of our talents: the richer the talents, the greater their cost. Williamson is a test case: musical talents on a cosmic scale but a rocky life. Yet look on the bright side: music is the language they speak in paradise, the Lord’s first language; and, whatever the cost, Malcolm remained true to his talents.

Organising a Requiem Mass for him in Sydney, his friends chose for the gospel reading Christ’s terrible parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-23). Less noticeable but perhaps as significant was their chosen psalm, Psalm 150: trumpets, lutes, harps, timbrels, strings, pipes, cymbals … the language of paradise—the faithful composer’s now for eternity.