Grace Mary Williams: Sea Sketches


Grace Mary Williams was born in Barry, Wales in 1906, where from a young age was encouraged to take part in musical activities. Both of Williams’ parents were school teachers, who both loved music.  Williams took up the piano and violin with her siblings and she began being interested in orchestral music after hearing some recordings her father had collected. As well as music, Williams was interested in the French language, as well as English literature and mathematics, where her teachers were very encouraging of all her interests. In her biography it states that due to the strong influences of her music teacher, Rhyda Jones, Williams often sat on the beach at Cold Knap in Barry, whilst she composed songs and dances. The sea became a huge inspiration for her whole career in musical composition.

In 1923, after receiving a scholarship, Williams began studying at University College, Cardiff. After graduating in 1926, Williams made the move down to the Royal College of Music where she read composition with Ralph Vaughan Williams. RCM offered Williams a travelling scholarship, which allowed her to finish her composition training in Vienna with Egon Wellesz. By being immersed in Austro-German musical traditions in Vienna, Williams was able to expand her style and work with Romantic traditions. It is said that composers such as Wagner, Mahler and Strauss were key figures in the development of her compositional styles.

After returning to London in 1931, Williams began composing in many different styles, including dances, songs, orchestral works and concertos. Some of her early compositions include:

  • Elegy for String Orchestra (1936)
  • Four Illustrations for the Legend of Rhiannon (1939)
  • Fantasia on Welsh Nursery Tunes (1940)
  • Sinfonia Concertante for Piano and Orchestra (1941)
  • Sea Sketches (1944)
  • Violin Concerto (1950)

Throughout World War II, Williams continued composing. However, whilst composing through the war, Williams found it difficult to gain commissions and money were taking their toll on her productivity. At one point she considered giving up composition completely. After a serious illness, Williams moved back to Wales so she could be cared for by her parents. After this point, Williams never returned to London to live.

Around 1948, Wales was becoming much more immersed in the arts and the BBC had set up a Welsh Broadcasting Region, the Welsh National Opera was established, as was the Welsh Office of the Arts Council. These alone gave Williams the much-needed to drive to continue composing. From this point, Williams began composing incidental music for radio shows as well as writing music for professional soloists. 1950 saw Williams take up a post at the Welsh College of Music and Drama.

It has been said many times that in the last 30 years of her life, Williams composed music that made her incredibly important in Wales. In a country which has a deeply rooted choral tradition, Williams found footing for orchestral music, and she inspired (and still does) inspire young composers to write new and exciting music. She is said to have a ‘distinctly Welsh musical language’ which can be prominently in works such as:

  • Penillion Symphonic Suite (1955)
  • Symphony No. 2 (1956)
  • Trumpet Concerto (1963)
  • Ballads for Orchestra (1968)

As well as orchestral music, Williams also composed choral suites and chamber music. Her large-scale choral works are magnificent and received great acclaim when premiered. Some of her choral works include:

  • The Dancers (1951)
  • Ave Maris Stella (1973)
  • Fairest of Stars (1973)

In 1966, Williams was offered the OBE, although she turned this down. Throughout her career, Williams inspired many people and had a lot of attention world-wide for her contributions to composition. In 1977, Williams found out that she had terminal cancer, and she wrote letters to her friends, most notably Elizabeth Machonchy, to whom she said she was happy for how long she could write music for, and that she was very happy with her life. She died on February 10 1977, only 9 days before her 71st birthday. It is repeatedly said that Grace Mary Williams had brought the music of Wales to the world.


The Music

Sea Sketches (1944) is a vivacious suite for string orchestra which is split into five movements. It was composed in 1944, and was subsequently published in 1951. Williams had dedicated this work to her parents, and it has since become one of her most well-loved compositions. She wrote this work whilst she was still living in London, so is considered one of her earlier works. The suite is in five movements, and as the provocative title suggests, each movement is a sketch of a different character of sea. Below are the movements:

  1. High Wind (Allegro energetico)
  2. Sailing Song (Allegretto)
  3. Channel Sirens (Lento misterioso)
  4. Breakers (Presto)
  5. Calm Sea in Summer (Andante Tranquillo)

This was the first composition that was published by Oxford University Press, which made Williams’ name much more noticeable within the classical music world. The work may be based upon some of the observations that Williams had at the time where she used to sit on the beach and write down music and ideas. As her family lived on the Welsh coast, the sea felt like home to Williams, and this can certainly be felt somewhat within this suite of music. This work is very special and Williams’ musical flair and style is embedded throughout this suite, with an array of different emotions being portrayed throughout the five movements.


High Wind (Allegro energetico)

The fist movement starts with a flurry from the middle strings, with the main motif being proclaimed by the upper violins. A feeling of urgency carries throughout this movement, with the continuous flurry representing the ‘high winds’. Syncopated beats within the melody create a slightly jaunty feel to the melody. The lower strings play a descending motif which creates some darkness within this middle section. The final section of this movement is pervaded by a reprise-like flurry from the upper strings and a manic tremolo by the lower strings. The mood calms ever so slightly, although the music does still feel on edge. The movement ends quite suddenly, with this calmness just fading into the darkness.


Sailing Song (Allegretto)

After the angular melodies of the first movement, this next movement begins with a more flowing melody in a minor key. The mix of timbres between the pizzicato strings and the bowed strings gives a deep and mysterious sound to the music. The melody is largely in the upper strings, with a lot of dissonance colouring the rest of the ensemble. The use of extremities in range and also the use of dissonance makes this movement very mysterious indeed. It is called ‘Sailing Song’ which is even more ambiguous, however, my guesses are that this movement represents the trials and tribulations one can have whilst sailing tempestuous seas. The movement ends with another fade out, which segues straight into the next movement.


Channel Sirens (Lento misterioso)

This movement is the slowest thus far and begins by emphasising the lower strings. The repetition of the simple three-note motif in the middle parts creates continuity and a sense of relaxation within this movement. A violin solo is heard in the middle section of this movement, whilst the other parts sway between two notes.

This movement is outlining the aftermath of the previous movement, with a lot of the parts interweaving – perhaps outlining various emotions felt about the what has happened at sea. This movement feels slightly on edge (similarly to the other two), but this part has a particular sadness to it which I think is pertinent at this point in the suite. The upper strings make the simple melody colourful and the harmonic language that Williams has used in this movement is very interesting.

The use of repetition seems to be at the heart of this movement, because when the parts play in unison, it brings a new dynamic to the music, making it stronger and more impending. As with the prior movements, this one fades away at the end, leading into the animated fourth movement of the suite.


Breakers (Presto)

The fastest of all the movements, Breakers bursts with colour, speed and technical prowess. The fast scalic movements create a manic aura around the movement. This movement is a big shift in character from the last, with the constant descending figures playing out within the ensemble. The polyphonic nature of this movements means it creates a very complex array of parts that all cleverly interweave within one another – creating an exciting movement which soon ends, to lead into the final movement of the suite.


Calm Sea in Summer (Andante tranquillo)

The fifth and final movement of this suite is by far my favourite. It is incredibly calm and inviting, yet within it I hear sadness, loss and want from Williams. Her use of the extremely high register of the violins which soar above the ensemble creates a very heart-wrenching motif. Again in a minor mode, this movement is beautiful and is a wonderful way to finish this suite. A similar repeated motif can be heard in parts of this movement, which hold a resemblance of the previous two movements.

The dazzling strings in this movement are incredibly moving and they could resemble a lot of different things such as the sun, the sea or even the beach shore. I find this movement ever so fulfilling and just so awe-inspiring – if this is what Wales sounds like, then I want to always be there. The last movement ends like all the others do – with a calm and peaceful fade out.


Final Thoughts

Sea Sketches is an evocative musical suite that is so very animated, yet static – optimistic, yet sorrowful. A wonderful array of movements which depicts different characteristics of the sea, and what goes on in and around the beach.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy reading!

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