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Shackles of criticism shaken off by centenary celebration.

Byline: By Jess Goodman Western Mail

A maverick Welsh composer will be celebrated with a week-long series of programmes, in a tribute this year marking the centenary of her birth.

Grace Williams might have been ignored in the male-heavy Prom season, but the woman who is widely regarded as the mother of Welsh music, will next week be featured as Radio 3's Composer of the Week.

During her lifetime, Wales' first professional composer was criticised for her style and dogged by self-doubt, but her legacy has prevailed.

Producer Lyndon Jones has tackled the lives and works of hundreds of famous composers in this series, presented by Donald MacLeod and made by BBC Wales.

But he feels Barry-born Williams' local roots gave this particular project added weight.

He said, 'It's been such a privilege. I have felt a real responsibility to do my absolute best by a local composer.'

As relatively few recordings of her works exist, much of the music used in the programme was specially-recorded, including versions of several works that have never before been committed to tape.

These include a debut recording of Sinfonia Concertante and a selection of songs from the operatic My Last Duchess, performed by baritone Jeremy Huw Williams and Iain Burnside.

The five 60-minute programmes focus very much on Williams' music, but Jones and MacLeod also tried to uncover the woman behind the scores by speaking to those who knew her.

'She was quite a shadowy figure and there has never been a biography of her, but there are just tonnes and tonnes of letters,' explains Jones. 'I think she was someone who lived very much in the present, so the people we got a chance to speak to are fantastically valuable as oral historians.'

Welsh musicologists Heward Rees and Rhiannon Mathias, composer Geraint Lewis and Williams' niece Eryl Freestone all contribute to the portrait of a woman who was criticised during her lifetime for her lyrical style, at odds with the serialist trends of the time, but who doggedly stuck to her belief in the melodic basis of music.

'She was a maverick figure, she was incredibly single-minded. She never married, but she had one affair with a mysterious Polish airman, who almost persuaded her to give up her music,' Jones said.

'I think that was a crucial point in her life. It was when she decided to dedicate herself to her art, a decision that so many female artists have to make.'

But despite her determination, Williams also suffered terribly from self-doubt. The programme- makers uncovered manuscripts marked 'not worth performing', and she was said to have held regular bonfires to destroy work with which she was unhappy.

However, Jones hopes his exposition of her music will engage wider audiences with her work and encourage people to disregard those 'do not perform' directions, opening up a wealth of unheard compositions to public performance. 'There is a strong sense of song and narrative, and a real resolve in her music,' he insists.

Jones' treatment of the composer also tries to capture the sense of place that he says is so important to her work.

'Place is always significant for Welsh people, because they are so connected with where they come from. And Wales should be incredibly proud that its first professional composer was a woman. She blazed a trail for plenty of new, young composers - of course none of them are Beethoven quite yet, but they are certainly finding their own distinctive voices.'

So 30 years after her death, would Williams be satisfied with her legacy?

'In the programme we use an old recording when she talks about being taken to Cardiff for concerts as a child. I think she would have been thrilled at the state of music in Wales today, at the Wales Millennium Centre, at the success of the WNO and at how Welsh music is being allowed to thrive.'

Composer of the Week, 12 noon on August 7-11, BBC Radio 3 Collections to be released on CD for first time: A selection of Grace Williams' compositions will be re-released on CD after a new deal with independent label Lyrita Records.

Over the next 18 months the entire Lyrita catalogue will be digitalised and released on CD, some for the first time. The deal means that once difficult-to-get- hold-of recordings from Barry-born Williams will now be widely distributed.

Williams' niece Eryl Freestone said, 'It is great news. Two discs featuring the most famous of her works will be available in HMV for the first time.'

The licensing deal with Wyastone Estate Limited will also make the CDs available on the internet.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Aug 5, 2006
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