In 1950 he moved to London where he worked as an organist, a proof-reader, and nightclub pianist before going on to study with Elisabeth Lutyens. By this time he was already a prolific composer, receiving many commissions. On the death of, Sir Arthur Bliss, in 1975, Williamson was the surprise choice for appointment as Master of the Queen’s Music. His tenure in the post was not without its problems, but he went on to write a number of pieces in this role, including Mass of Christ the King (1978) and Lament in Memory of Lord Mountbatten of Burma (1980). His compositional output reduced due to a series of illnesses before his death.
Williamson's early works were influenced by Schoenberg’s twelve tone technique but he was also influenced by Olivier Messiaen as well as Benjamin Britten and, indeed, jazz and popular music.
Williamson wrote operas, choral works, ballets, ten cassations, orchestral works, seven symphonies; four numbered piano concertos, concertos for violin, organ, harp and saxophone, chamber music, music for solo piano, and music for film and television as well as works for organ.
It is Williamson’s works for organ that feature on a new disc from Toccata Classics www.toccataclassics.com with organist Tom Winpenny www.tomwinpenny.org playing the Harrison and Harrison organ of St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, England.
Tom Winpenny is Assistant Master of the Music at St Albans Cathedral www.stalbanscathedral.org . He studied under John Scott Whiteley while a chorister at York Minster before becoming a Music Scholar at Eton College under Alastair Sampson. After holding the post of Organ Scholar at Worcester Cathedral and then St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, he was for three years Organ Scholar at King's College, Cambridge, where he graduated with a degree in music. With the Choir of King's College, he has given concerts in the USA, Hong Kong and throughout Europe.
Winpenny has taken part in the first performance of works by Sir John Tavener, Judith Bingham, Jonathan Dove, Cecilia McDowall, Paul Mealor, Francis Grier and Francis Pott. He has continued his studies with Thomas Trotter and Johannes Geffert, and won First Prize and the Audience Prize at the 2008 Miami International Organ Competition.
The Harrison and Harrison www.harrisonorgans.com organ of St Mary Redcliffe http://stmaryredcliffe.co.uk/music was built in 1912 and was regarded by Arthur Harrison as the finest and most characteristic of his work. It was comprehensively restored in 2010.
Vision of Christ-Phoenix (1961 rev. 1978) was commissioned for the new Harrison and Harrison organ of the re-built Coventry Cathedral and was given its first performance, by the composer, the week before the dedication of the Cathedral. How apt that this new recording should be on another of Harrison and Harrison fine organs.
It opens with a spectacular flourish under which a theme can be heard. As the music settles there are variations on a well know carol tune that we can now recognise as non-other than the Coventry Carol. Tom Winpenny is certainly an accomplished organist, not only in the more flamboyant episodes but also in the hushed, more subtle, intricate passages. Slowly the music rises up, the carol tune sounding out more clearly with a deft counterpoint, arriving at a climax to end.
Fons Amoris (1955-56) was Williamson’s first published organ piece and was premiered by him at the Festival Hall in 1956. The organ sounds out in a short opening prelude before introducing a series of motifs which are then subjected to a series of variations. This piece is less obviously virtuosic but there is much intricate detail, finely brought out by Winpenny, who holds the structure together so well. There are moments of grandeur as the music progresses before returning to the material of the opening in the form of a stirring postlude.
The Lion of Suffolk (1977) was written for a memorial service to Benjamin Britten at Westminster Abbey and first performed by the Sub-Organist there, Stephen Cleobury. It has a bold opening statement that eventually quietens, though with occasional outbursts, before developing into a kind of toccata and concluding in a stirring climax. It is, in many ways, the most conventional and lyrical of Williamson’s organ works.
The bold, rich opening of the Offertoire: Dialogue des Choeurs from Mass of the People of God (1980-81) is repeated twice before giving way to a livelier, intricate theme. Short staccato phrases appear before the music broadens. The staccato phrases re-appear before as gentler middle section though always interrupted by the livelier theme. Towards the end the music increases in tempo before rising up with deep pedal notes and falling back to a hushed moment before ending on five sudden chords. This work was commissioned as a test piece for the 1980 Manchester International Festival Organ Competition and represents his last major organ composition.
Williamson composed his hymn tune, ‘O Paradise’ in 1975 from which he drew his Fantasy on ‘O Paradise’ (1976). It opens with a simple hymn like tune presented in a straightforward manner, very Anglican in feel, before presenting it in the guise of a number of lyrical variations. This is an undemanding but very attractive work.
The major work on this disc is Williamson’s massive Symphony for Organ (1960). Commissioned in 1960 by Alan Wicks, the then organist of Manchester Cathedral who premiered it in a radio broadcast in 1961, it is in six movements. The Prelude thunders out dissonantly with Tom Winpenny providing some terrific playing in the dissonant growls from the organ.
Sonata appears to develop out of the intervals of the Prelude. It is quieter and more thoughtful in nature, quite intricate at times. Again Winpenny shows his ability to hold a looser structure together in this serial based movement.
Aria I brings a longer breathed, gentle melody though, still in the background, there is a dissonance that provides a slight edge. Consisting of a theme and variations, the music eventually rises up before a tranquil end. Occasionally Messiaen comes to mind with Winpenny giving much care and sensitivity to this music.
Organ flourishes open the Toccata before some brilliant runs on the organ as the theme is chased around the manuals and pedals of the organ in this tremendous and quite unusual piece. Centrally there is a quiet, static section that keeps one in anticipation, before the music takes off again.
Aria II – Passacaglia opens darkly and quietly, slowly developing in the form of a passacaglia. It rises slowly only to fall quiet, leading to a hushed end.
The final Paean opens with a glissando flourish before syncopated rhythms appear along with more flourishes. A second section has a rhythmic forward pulse in the bass as it becomes increasingly syncopated in rhythm. The music slows towards the end, stretching out the theme and rising to a powerful coda.
Tom Winpenny gives us some terrific performances aided much by the sound of the magnificent H & H organ which is splendidly caught in the fine recording.
There are informative and detailed booklet notes by Tom Winpenny and full organ specification.