How did a Sydney boy end up Master of the Queen’s Music, and how did it all go so horribly wrong?

In 1977, as the Queen of England celebrated 25 years on the throne, the Sex Pistols’ punk take on the anthem ricocheted through the land. By contrast, music by the Queen’s official composer was nowhere to be heard. For the third time in a year he’d swallowed almost enough pills to kill himself. 

Malcolm Williamson had the previous year bagged himself a CBE and the honour of Master of the Queen’s Music. Now his career teetered in the balance. He’d been in and out of hospital, one alcoholic binge after another. He’d left his wife of 16 years and their three children to live with his new partner Simon. Friendships were fraught and finances tight. The nadir came later that year. The London Philharmonic was due to premiere his long awaited Jubilee symphony but, lacking a first movement days before the concert, dropped it in favour of an Elgar overture. The press swooped and for the next 25 years, the remainder of Williamson’s life, no new royal commissions emerged.

How did the fortunes of Australia’s most famous composer nosedive so dramatically? “His passion for music, life and everything else was infectious and enlightening,” says pianist Antony Gray, a long-time champion of Williamson’s music. “But, perhaps, finally he paid the price of his independent spirit.” The composer wore kaftans, colourful headwear and pink gay pride badges to official occasions. He played tipsy piano duets with Princess Margaret and drank whisky with the Queen Mother. He was barred from several planes for being drunk and was carted off at least one in handcuffs. His untamed tongue lost him as many friends as it won. Nonetheless he long yearned for a knighthood. “I think he really was a man of extremes,” says pianist Piers Lane. “He was saint and sinner simultaneously, both with passion and integrity, and that is reflected in the music.” 

Williamson won his early fame with his dazzlingly buoyant music. Pianist Kevin Powers observes its “muscularity and a brashly optimistic energy, even at times a larrikin quality which one rarely sees in his European contemporaries.” By the 1960s he was one of the most commissioned composers in Britain. Australian critics considered him irrelevant to the fermenting nationalism at home and avant-garde peers condemned his restless neoclassicism. Nonetheless, his raw energy and confidence spurred him on. “Malcolm’s music is full of wit and cheekiness,” says Lane, who has recorded the piano concertos with Howard Shelley and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. “His independence of thought and facile ability to take on and take off everything that he encounters with an irreverent freedom is an overtly Australian trait. He was a great, outgoing communicator, despite all sorts of problems in his life. A certain cockiness and bravado, based on sheer native talent, got him places early in his life, as it did with other Aussies around the same time – like Barry Humphries or Clive James.”

 The future Master of the Queen’s Music was born in Sydney in 1931. His father was a mild-mannered vicar whose parish was in leafy harbourside Mosman. The volatile golden-haired child, inheriting his mother’s theatricality, quickly learned the piano and wrote his first waltz at age ten. By 16 he was studying with Eugene Goossens at the New South Wales Conservatorium. 

In 1953 Malcolm moved to London where he further studied with Elisabeth Lutyens and Erwin Stein, one of Schoenberg’s former students. He singlehandedly taught himself organ in order to play the work of Olivier Messiaen whose music he considered “like a heady wine, except that the ecstacy does not wear off”. Malcolm took lessons with the French master but music wasn’t the only wine he imbibed. Paris helped unlock his burgeoning hedonism. Fellow composer Alexander Goehr said “he went wild, sometimes right out of control. He was behaving incredibly disreputedly, constantly drunk and flaunting his homosexuality.” Regardless, Williamson rose quickly in the British scene. He befriended Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and the well-connected conductor Sir Adrian Boult. Malcolm’s First Piano Concerto premiered at the 1958 Cheltenham Festival and received a standing ovation, sealing his growing reputation. 

By day Williamson played organ at a trendy church, at night he played piano at Soho’s notorious Colony Room. Described as an Antipodean Leonard Bernstein, he freely alternated between serial, neoclassical, pastoral and jazz styles. As Kevin Power says “he proved it was possible for an Australian composer to be a success internationally and for a composer to be successful without having to subscribe to any particular ‘school’ of composition.” 

Until now the eternal Peter Pan had enjoyed a credit-fuelled lifestyle and tempestuous gay relationships. But in 1960 he abruptly married Dolly Daniel, a New Yorker with whom he would have three children. He stopped drinking and his newly stable home life catapulted his career spectacularly through the sixties. His opera Our Man In Havana was described as “the most promising first opera by an English composer since Peter Grimes”. Acclaim grew with such works as his “anti-opera” based on Edith Sitwell’s English Eccentrics, the “sordid sex ballet” Sun Into Darkness and assorted symphonies and concertos. 

Such prominent success, however, masked a growing inner fragmentation. After working without a break for over a decade he began to experience nightmares and crippling self-doubt. He became obsessed with the tortured remoteness of the Swedish playwright Strindberg, and travelled constantly. Despite wearing increasingly florid shirts his angelic face began to hang. His darkly introspective cantata Hammarskjold Portrait suggested the struggle and he suffered a series of breakdowns. By 1974 he was drinking again and his marriage to Dolly faltered. 

It was about the worst time to become the Master of the Queen’s Music. The title was conferred based on his unrivalled work ethic and, despite attracting the less-than-princely sum of a hundred pounds a year, should have been a boon. He proposed several pieces for the Queen’s Jubilee but was stung by writer’s block and delivered scores inconsistently. He was plagued by bad press and apparent royal snubs. Grand celebrations for his 50th birthday, including major performances and broadcasts by the BBC and ABC, ebbed away. He retreated to the Hertfordshire countryside and as commissions disappeared and royalties shrunk, his new life with partner Simon was plagued by money troubles. After further deadlines were missed, the Independent on Sunday mused “even Schubert finished some pieces”. 

Piers Lane remembers a 1988 concert in Australia for which “Malcolm had produced only a ‘bicentennial anthem’. The conductor Charles Mackerras was cuttingly rude to Malcolm during the rehearsal. It was so frustrating that a composer who was so outrageously gifted, so wonderfully prolific and who did things with such ease in earlier phases of his life had so many problems psychologically and healthwise at a time when he could really have consolidated his outstanding position.“

Antony Gray believes that the criticisms revolving around missed deadlines and drink have been greatly exaggerated, and that the real issue was a series of strokes from 1975 onwards. Williamson’s doctor Bryan Youl offered a similar view. “He was generally someone who did not drink alcohol. My recollections of him overall are of someone who was teetotal. Of course he had his problems, and they were big, important ones. But he didn’t go near alcohol when he was working, for really long periods.” 

Conductor and composer Richard Mills has recorded several of Williamson’s works and further dismisses the notoriety around deadlines. “I don’t think this should be remembered as a lasting legacy. I mean, no one remembers if the Sistine Chapel roof was completed on time. I don’t think that’s important. What I would say is that he was a very professional composer because he was so gifted. He did have a terrible personal crisis and a dreadful creative block. But out of that came works like the Mass of Christ the King.” 

With the Queen Mother and John Sanders after a performance of Mass for Christ the King

Nonetheless, Mills recognizes the music’s ambiguous place in the repertoire. “The concepts are brilliant but it’s sometimes very, very difficult to play. And that inhibits the orchestral music because it’s simply too hard to rehearse and perform.” Similarly, Antony Gray acknowledges challenges for the listener. “One problem is the eclectic range of musical styles Malcolm wrote in, all of which he in some way made his own, but many of which will appeal to some more than others. It will be a long time before there is a consensus. 

“What can’t be doubted however is the quality of everything he wrote. His ability to control vast canvases, such as the 6th Symphony, on an intellectual level and still produce something that is entertaining to listen to and a joy for even the second tuba to play was incredible. And he could turn out miniatures like the Travel Diaries, each one of which is, apart from being fit for purpose, a little gem.” 

Williamson completed his final pieces in the mid 1990s, among them an AIDS tribute and a fourth piano concerto. Shortly after he suffered a further succession of strokes of which the last left him virtually immobile in a wheelchair. One of his last public appearances was at a Golden Jubilee celebration for the Queen. He was surrounded by able knights and dames but lacked the one title he’d long hoped for. 

“He was desperately sad that his music had vanished from sight,” says Gray, “and he was enormously grateful to the small number of us that did what we could to perform and promote his music – he wrote the first seven bars of a new concerto for me, without commission, just before his stroke.” 

Malcolm spent his final months in hospital and died in early 2003. His various obituaries painted a mixed portrait, taking care to assert his shortcomings. No royals attended his Cambridge funeral. 

At his death Williamson’s music, once considered old-fashioned, suddenly sounded newly at home in the postmodern stylistic landscape. Many of the same hardline composers who wrote him off in the 1960s now brandished their own tuneful scores. Yet many key works still await their premiere here in Australia. 

“I think Malcolm’s time is yet to come,” says Piers Lane. “His was a huge fizzing talent and there’s wonderful music to rediscover. Often composers don’t receive their due during their lives – it’s afterwards that has to happen.” Richard Mills is equally evangelical. “Hands down he’s our greatest composer after Grainger in terms of musical gifts,” he offers. “I don’t think history will judge him to be as important as Sculthorpe or Meale. But in terms of raw talent, Malcolm had it all.” 

“I think it’s high time that Australia embraced Williamson as one of its most prodigiously gifted people,” says Antony Gray. “Someone who embodied the qualities that Australia prides itself on – forthrightness and individuality. And who was as proud to display his huge intellectual prowess as he was to wear his heart firmly on his sleeve. I have no doubt that Malcolm will come to be seen as perhaps Australia’s greatest composer.”

Recommended Listening

Malcolm Williamson
The Complete Piano Concertos
Piers Lane p, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra/Howard Shelley