The new 'Wass of Christ the King, by the Master of the Queen's Music, Malcolm Williamson, will be given Its first performance by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra this November. Carolyn Scott talks to him about his life and his beliefs.
Malcolm Williamson Is the 19th Master of the Queen's MIMIC, an Australian and a Catholic. "I cannot conceive of the world in other than Catholic terms," be says. "I cannot conceive of music in other than Christian terms."
Much of his work is done at Worth and Prinknash Abbeys, and he borrows Messiaen's words: "Je suis surtout musicien Catholigue, et tomte ma musigue est Catholiqste."
Williamson says: "The Mass is a way of life, and it is the most important thing in the world. If I were really rich, if I had all the money in the world, I would make a private chapel like they did in the Middle Ages, so that 1 maid get out of bed, throw on my clothes, and go to Mass. The son of an Anglican clergyman, he became a Catholic when he was 21. "My father believed in freedom of choice, but when I was 20, he made me study Greek and Latin and Hebrew, and I came to the perhaps simplistic conclusion that the only possible faith I could adopt was the faith of the Holy Catholic Church."
Of Irish blood — the poor bog-Irish, who went to Australia in the first half of the 19th century, criminals in the sense that they shot rabbits because they were sick of eating the roots of trees" — he is, on his own insistence, a reprobate, running the gamut of emotions in his life and in his music.
"I would like very much not to be a believer," he says. "I would fike to be like Gide and Proust and Montheriant, not believing but searching. Alas, when the finger of God touches you, you are inside the Church."
Obsessively opposed to Charismatics — "that damned dove has been put above the Cross" — and anxious for the word ecumenism to fade and give way to a wider concept of unity ("the Methodists," he says, perhaps to their surprise, "are the best tatholics that exist") a recent newspaper article quoted him as calling himself a bad Catholic, which made him angry.
"From St Peter on, we are all bad Catholics, Including Popt. Paul. But I am a practising Catholic. I go to Mass almost every day, and every Sunday." The first Master of Music, Nicholas Lanier, was a Catholic, as have been all but one this century. Williamson is a genuine royalist — one of the few who uses the term "our gracious Queen" with sincerity.
"The Royal Family are a family committed to their Faith," he says. "Being Master of the Queen's Music would be meaningless if it were not so."
With a song cycle for • the Queen's first grandchild almost completed and the Queen Mother attending the first performance of the Mass of Christ the King, with its twin ideals of religion and monarchy and twin strains of traditionalism and modernism, his Fourth Symphony, written mainly in the Camargue in the South of France, is dedicated to the Queen.
At 46 years old, in spite of living in England since he was 18, Williamson has, he says, the divine Australian gift of discontent and resentment, kindled by growing up in a country with no longestablished cultural tradition.
Living in a flat in the Barbican, in the City of London, "very, very private and enclosed in concrete", he feels cheated unless he begins work while it is still dark, when he can watch the sunrise and movement begin on the building sites.
A crucifix and Christ in Majesty, the human contradictions of Christianity, are set up when work begins: "You dedicate yourself before you begin. You work for four to six hours, and then you collapse, you bless yourself, and you stop work and take the crucifix down."
It is a crucifix from Prinknash, blessed at Lourdes: "Always remember, Cardinal Hume said of it: 'It may be a crown, but it is still a crown of thorns ...' " Lourdes means a great deal: a bracelet, holy water, and CBE and Jubilee medals blessed there.
Critics have called his work an exploration which bares the soul, and there are Graham Greene books on the shelves and pictures which move him to tears. "I have no brains," he says adamantly, "only feelings".
"Procession.of Palms" was written out of anger over capital punishment. "A Hammarskjold
Portrait" was a memorial to Jewish war dead. His "Organ Symphony" is based on Francis Thompson's words, "The pulp so bitter, how shall taste I
the rind?" and "Vision of Christ-Phoenix," as well as evoking death and resurrection, is dedicated to Ulster.
A regular reader of the Catholic Herald, both his "First Symphony", written before he was 25, and the short piece first performed with it by Sir Arthur Bliss, were provoked by Herald articles.
"In 1956, my grandmother died, and I read an article called 'ElevaminP — 'Be ye lifted up, ye eternal gates'. That sparked off the symphony, which is all about a soul entering Heaven.
"Then I read an article about St James of Compostela, and within three weeks, I wrote Santiago de Espada, with St James appearing at the battle of Granada and winning the fight with his sword.
"It is in a way humiliating to have to admit that one drew one's sustenance from the Catholic Herald, but what can I say? There they are: they work. They are valid.
"It's interesting that recently I read about l'Arche the work for the mentally handicapped in France, and that struck a chord in me ..."
Much of his time is spent touring Africa, America, Australia and the Continent, "working for peace by non-verbal means", conducting short operas composed originally for his own children and adapted for use with severely mentally and .physicwily handicapped children: "Music penetrates a child's mind and acts as a discipline." Port of his new "Mass of Christ the King" was first perforated by backward children in a little village in
Advocating two streams of Church music, one parish and one cathedral, he calls much modern liturgy since Vatican 11, semi-respectable idiocy and a diabolical condescension. "I'm sick to death of people taking head-counts and reducing the Holy Church to a vulgar level in order to get a full house," he says.
"People are not stupid. They are intelligent. Give them something above themselves and they will stretch up. It is an artistic insult to present them with bad music, badly performed, and homilies which a backward child would not accept.
"there was no jelly in the Gospels. There was no softness in St Paul. Giving people the worst isn't going to bring out the best. You must compliment people.
"If you want to get to the guts of the, thing, go into the cellars of humanity. Go to the thalidomide babies who have grown up. Go to the deformed whom only the perverts love. "Go to where the grass-roots of music and movement are, to the sick and the deprived and the people in prison, or to the people in Ireland with their infant children shot dead.
"Don't be content with mediocrity while people are dying. Don't turn round and make a convention of third-rate guitar-playing and second-rate singing while people are handicapped and diseased. Go where the heart is, and make the heart worship. "Is the worship of God of such minor importance that even the priest can come down for the Bidding in the vestments of centuries, wobbling round to a poor tune badly performed? If we could have Yeats and Synge and O'Casey, or the Betjemans of this world who would speak, there would be more music."
Ironically, his own Church musk, except for A few psalms sung in Westminster Cathedral, is mainly used abroad or by Anglicans.
"Catholics aren't supposed to proselytise, but can preach through music, and I am bitter that the Church doesn't ask me to do more. The same applies to Dr Rubbra, to Dr Milner, and to Sir Lennox Berkeley — to all of us who are Catholics. We want to make a school of Church music with the optimum of our gifts, like in the time of Palestrina, but there is this curious apathy ..."
To suggest that the Catholic Church might baulk at the fees commanded by a Master of the Queen's Musk Is like a red rag to a bull.
"My Lord, no! We want to work for our Faith. It's not money we're after. For our Church we'd give anything, and our Church should know that.
"I am a Catholic composer. People outside the Church ask me for music: I wish my own Church would do so too. I wake up in the middle of the night and I think about it, and I wonder where I've gone wrong."