Grace Williams / Carillions (1965)

1. Moderato con moto

2. Allegretto alla pavana

3. Lento Rapsodico

4. Allegro agitato

Carillions by Grace Mary Williams (1906-1977) is one of the foremost works of this stunningly talented 20th century Welsh composer. Originally commissioned by the BBC in Wales and composed in the Summer of 1965, Grace William’s Carillions for Oboe and Symphony orchestra wasn’t premiered until March the 1st 1967. Although originally composed in 1965 the work widely performed now is the 1973 edition. Carillions was originally composed in three movements (mvnts 1-3 outlined above), however, the fourth movement Allegro agitato was added during the 1973 edition. The commission for the piece requested a ‘lightweight and entertaining’ work that would form part of the larger programme for the St David’s Day concert with the BBC. The work was premiered on the 1st of March 1967, by conductor Rae Jenkins and the then BBC Welsh Orchestra. The work was scored for a full orchestra with the omission of the woodwind section, with William’s stating this was to achieve the light feel the commission had requested but more importantly to give the oboe timbral space. Williams also uses a plethora of higher pitched tuned percussion such as the glockenspiel, triangle and celesta to create a timbre reminiscent of the Carillion - the musical instrument which this piece was named after. The duration of the work is a little over ten minutes, with each of the external movements lasting for around three and a half minutes with the internal two movement lasting around a minute and half, providing fleeting yet beautifully realised melodic and harmonic passages.

The first movement dances within an approachable yet exciting tonal vernacular of the mid-20th century. The opening of the movement lays the strings as a vast expanse of sound over which the oboe line approaches the flowing melodic lines with dexterity and melodic grace. The tonality of the movement works between moments of pure tonality and fragments of atonalism. The opening movement of the piece is highly reminiscent of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, with Williams’ oboe melodies and orchestration alluding to the sweeping violin virtuosity in Korsakov’s music. The second movement presents an entirely different register, with a more introspective feel and the abandonment of the expansive melodic lines heard throughout the first movement. The movement maintains a tonal complexity that ventures further from standard tonality than that of the first movement. With the pizzicato violins suggesting a smaller and more creeping feel to the music.

Carillions’ third movement presents a similar change in register, where we move from the creeping register to a slower and highly rhapsodic mood. The third movement opens out to allow the oboist to explore more expansive and virtuosic playing, mixed with floating melodies that fall gracefully. This movement is punctuated by the tubular bells, which at several points act in antiphony with the main oboe line. The piece moves into the fourth movement seamlessly from the third, and this is a return to the slightly cheeky and fleeting melodic lines seen in the other movements. The fourth movement presents a quicker and more driving form of writing with greater orchestral inclusion. The oboe writing throughout the final movement has moments that could easily sound at home with the Poulenc Oboe Sonata. The final moments of the movement flit between these introspective moments and louder fuller moments of full orchestral jollity. All before rushing to the climactic ending that provides the perfect ending to William’s musical joyride.

Listen to more of Grace Williams' music here

Jonathan Davies, March 2021

Jonathan has also written:

The Mask of Orpheus: The ENO Issue

What's Wrong with Isolde? A Feminist Critique of Wagner

Conlon Nancarrow / Studies for Player Piano (1948-1992)

Keeping it Gay: Are Stereotypes Still Okay?

Intertextuality in The Nightmare Before Christmas


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