Academic journal article Women & Music

Shall Nation Speak Unto Nation? Grace Williams and the BBC in Wales, 1931-1950

Academic journal article Women & Music

Shall Nation Speak Unto Nation? Grace Williams and the BBC in Wales, 1931-1950

Article excerpt

You know it was a marvellous sensation, simply being asked to write something; someone wanting your music.

--Grace Williams to A. J. Heward Rees, 1976, referring to the commission of Four Illustrations for the Legend of Rhiannon

The generation of British composers born during the first decade of the twentieth century were ideally and fortuitously positioned to benefit from the establishment of the British Broadcasting Company in October 192.2. Indeed, this advent of national broadcasting brought considerable opportunities to societal groups that might once have considered themselves stuck in promotional backwaters whether because of their age, working location, or gender. Writing only two years earlier, Ethel Smyth had observed that "there cannot possibly be many women composers worth talking about" until women had immersed themselves in "the rough and tumble of musical life." (1) The bbc provided an ideal opportunity to continue the "gradual interpenetration of the life musical by women" already started by Smyth and her contemporaries, while its UK-wide remit theoretically further ensured that no region of the country could be systematically discriminated against. (2) However, the bbc's division into separate broadcasting and administrative centers ensured that composers working in varied geographical locations could report completely different experiences of the same institution via its staff and local decision making. This article explores one such relationship: that between the composer Grace Williams (born in 1906) and the BBC in Wales, questioning whether regionalization could be said to have had a significant practical impact upon Williams's career and assessing to what, if any, extent it influenced her compositional processes. This relationship has never previously been chronicled in any detail, and its somewhat tempestuous nature reveals much about the personality of the composer and a little about the priorities of her correspondents.

While the BBC was beginning to establish itself as a true national institution in early 1923, Williams herself was still a sixth-form student with dreams only of heading to the local university in Cardiff and yet to embark upon her musical studies with such luminaries as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Egon Wellesz. Her first engagement with the BBC's activities came relatively swiftly, listening in to its offerings on her family's first crystal set within two months of its Cardiff station's first broadcast in February 1923 and meeting the station's first director, Maj. Arthur Corbett-Smith, later the same year. (3) Indeed, less than twelve months later, her musical gifts allowed her to benefit directly from the BBC, winning second prize (one guinea) in a competition for new dance music compositions. (4) At such an early stage in her musical development, however, she could not possibly have envisaged the extent of the relationship she was to establish with the fledgling outfit's successor--the British Broadcasting Corporation--today outlined in more than eleven hundred letters between the two parties that survive in the BBC Written Archives Centre, Caversham. (5) Some eight hundred of these cover a twenty-year period that might be considered to represent Williams's formative years as a composer, bookended by her first known broadcast in 1931 and the premiere of her First Symphony in 1950. Although Williams was by no means a mere "broadcast composer," this archive demonstrates that her relationship with the BBC in Wales was incomparable to that with any other Welsh institution, gradually developing a process of commissioning, performance, recording, and publicity that would persist for nearly fifty years.

1931-193 9: First Contact

In attempting to establish a detailed account of Grace Williams's early career as a broadcast composer, the years preceding this period are the most difficult to chronicle. (6) It is almost certain that her music was not heard over the airwaves during her student days at the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire (1923-26), though the possibility of broadcasts produced while studying at the Royal College of Music (RCM) in the later 1920s cannot be entirely discounted. …

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