This is Dec. 4th in my dance inspirations advent calendar. Opened already: December 1st 2nd 3rd
My first experience of Malcolm Williamson’s music was as a bassist in the Hampshire County Youth Orchestra. We played the Suite from Our Man in Havana which to me was the most exciting piece I’d played in. It was sexy, brash, ballsy, clever, dancy, and with a kind of emotional soar in it that left you tingling on the edge of your seat. There was this thrilling modulation in the middle-eight of one of the numbers which was so weird, remote & sudden, you wondered how on earth he was going to get out of it again and back to the tune. The journey back to the home key was a bit like a turbulent flight – sudden plunges which were terrifying and thrilling at the same time. I loved this music so much, I wanted to eat it until it made me sick, and then go back for more.
So when, about 6 years later, I was working for the publishers Josef Weinberger, and they said Malcolm Williamson was coming in for a meeting, I did the sensible thing, rushed out of the building and hid in the café across the road until he’d gone. I was so in awe of the man, I thought I might just self-combust if I was introduced to him, or just stand their tongue-tied and gaga.
A few months later, I was between jobs and near Weinberger’s offices, so I decided to pop back in with a bag of apple danishes for my former colleagues. Bag in hand at the door of the boss’s office, I waited while he finished a phone call.
“Well, I’d love to help if I could, Malcolm” he was saying “But I don’t know where I’m going to find you a musical assistant who can go to France and who’d be able to…oh now wait a minute”.
He put his hand over the phone, and said to me “Do you want to go to France and be Malcolm Williamson’s assistant for a month? And can you leave tomorrow?”
Of course I bloody did. The next day, I left for France with someone from the BBC, and drove to Angoulême, followed by Villefranche-sur-Saône. We arrived at the hotel late evening, had dinner, and then near to midnight, Malcolm produced the manuscript of his new work, Le Pont du Diable. My job? Learn it in bed, and then teach it, in French, to about 100 schoolkids the next morning.
A friendship began on that trip which changed me forever. For one thing, it was as a result of this friendship that I became a musician, rather than a spy or a linguist. Malcolm became my role model in so many ways, and having such a plum job with such an amazing person at such close & intense quarters so early in my career gave me a massive injection of confidence which has lasted me a lifetime. He was ruthless and merciless when it came to matters of honesty, integrity, truth and moral courage, and I learned one big lesson from him – if you hide nothing, you can be fearless. As a composition teacher, he was outstanding. I treasure the scraps of paper that he made notes on in our lessons, pithy, sage advice such as You may say one thing twice, but beware of saying two things only once written in his unmistakeable spidery handwriting.
Malcolm Williamson and ballet
But it was Malcolm, too, who taught me a great deal about ballet. When I got that first job at the RAD, it was the composer of The Display and Sun into Darkness who gave me my first lessons in dance history, the history of ballet music, the structure of a grand pas de deux and so on. He evaluated my first attempts at composition: a few exercises now in the RAD Advanced 1 syllabus of which I am ashamed now, not least because they’re not very suitable for dancing. Through Malcolm, I got to know not just who was who in the present ballet world, but also that of the immediate past – through endless stories about Ashton, Sitwell, ‘Bobby’ Helpmann and others, I learned more than I could ever have known from a book (and a few things I probably shouldn’t know along the way).
One thing that geniuses have in common, I’ve noticed, is that they will apply their singular skills & critical abilities to the smallest or most recondite of problems or situations. Malcolm would talk engagedly about Cardinal Hume, the local vicar, the Queen, the postmistress, Mrs Thatcher, Benjamin Britten and his cleaning lady with no differentiation in tone or interest. So it was, too, that he commented in depth – and he was possibly the only well-known composer to do so – on the compositional and aesthetic problems affecting the writer of ballet class syllabus settings. The trouble was, he said, that dance music in eight-bar phrases implied so many formal and structural inevitabilities, that musical parody was one of the few devices which remained for a contemporary composer in this genre. But Prokofiev and Shostakovich had virtually exhausted the possibilities of this, and done it so well that it wasn’t really much of an option any more. There’s a whole book to be written on the implications of that statement, but that’s for another time.