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Malcolm Williamson, 1948

an unknown artist

gelatin silver photograph (support: 33.6 cm x 27.2 cm, image: 24.7 cm x 20.0 cm)

Malcolm Benjamin Graham Christopher Williamson AO CBE (1931–2003), composer, was born in Sydney, and was educated at Barker College, Hornsby, and then at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, where he studied piano and French horn as well as composition under Sir Eugene Goossens. He graduated in 1944, and in 1950 moved to London. Williamson supported himself by way of various jobs – playing piano in a nightclub and working as a choirmaster, for example – while furthering his studies and writing music. His first published piece appeared in 1954; by the end of the decade, with works such as his first symphony, Elevamini (1957), having been performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Williamson devoted himself to composition full time and began to attract many commissions. His first opera, a version of Grahame Greene’s Our man in Havana, premiered in 1963; likewise the first of his several ballets, The Display (choreographed by Robert Helpmann). He produced many orchestral works during the 1960s, including Organ concerto (1961) and Piano concerto no. 3 (1963), commissioned by the BBC and the ABC respectively. Some works – in particular his ‘cassations’, or mini-operas designed for audience participation – attracted the ire of those who considered Williamson’s work too populist, and his appointment to the position of Master of the Queen’s Music in October 1975 was not without controversy. He was the first non-Briton appointed to the role, responsible for the composition of music to commemorate important royal events and ceremonies. Described on his 50th birthday as ‘the most commissioned composer of his generation’, Williamson produced numerous works throughout the 1970s and 1980s, his diverse and prolific output encompassing orchestral, choral, operatic and instrumental pieces as well as chamber music, stage works and music for documentaries and feature films. Though resident in the United Kingdom from the 1950s, many of Williamson’s compositions were inspired by Australian themes, such as The dawn is at hand (1988), a choral symphony set to poems by Oodgeroo Noonuccal. He was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1976; and in 1987 was named an Officer of the Order of Australia.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery
Gift of Diane Williamson and Marion Foote 2013

Accession number: 2013.43

Currently not on display

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Artist and subject

Malcolm Williamson AO CBE (age 17 in 1948)

Subject professions

Performing arts

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