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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Master of no Musick

By Norman Lebrecht / September 19, 2007

Malcolm Williamson, the last Master of the Queen’s Musick, became a figure of fun after failing to produce works for royal occasions. Starting with the Queen’s Jubilee in 1977, when a fourth symphony was delivered one movement short and rejected by conductor, Bernard Haitink, the troubled composer got into repeated deadline difficulties and other public scrapes, on one occasion being removed in handcuffs from a plane at Sydney Airport after imbibing too liberally in business class. His music dried up and, by the time of his death in March 2003, Williamson was a lost cause, forlorn and unperformed.

A clinical biography by Anthony Meredith and Paul Harris, out next week from Omnibus Press, aims to rekindle interest by demonstrating that Williamson was a lifelong alcoholic, beset by many demons. A bisexual Catholic Australian with irrepressible urges – ‘if he suddenly felt like a bit of sex in the middle of something (it didn’t matter what) he just had it, wherever he was,’ reports an ex-fiancee - he married an elegant Jewish American and settled in North London suburbia. His young family returned home from synagogue one Yom Kippur to find him gone, off to live with a male partner.

Hospitalised with depression and perpetually broke, he needed constant attention. But whenever he was feeling better, Malcolm reached for the bottle and the media, damaging with scandalous quotes what remained of his dignity. Dolly, his long-suffering ex-wife, became a mentor to Evgeny Kissin and other fragile souls; she could do nothing more, however, to save Williamson from himself.

The lasting casualty is his music which is, at best, fluent, melodic and effervescent. Two operas to novels by Graham Greene and Patrick Leigh Fermor – Our Man in Havana and The Violins of Saint-Jacques – receive occasional college performances, but there must be a soloist somewhere with the guts to take up the violin concerto that he wrote for Yehudi Menuhin and the third piano concerto that John Ogdon premiered. In this wreck of a life, there is fine work to be retrieved.

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]


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