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Williams, Harold John (1893–1976)

by John Carmody

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Harold John Williams (1893-1976), baritone, was born on 3 September 1893 at Woollahra, Sydney, third child of Owen Williams, a Victorian-born plumber, and his Scottish wife Isabella, née Wylie. Leaving Woollahra Superior Public School at 14, Harold worked as a messenger-boy, then as a railway stores clerk. He sang with the Waverley Methodist Church choir as a boy soprano and later a baritone, but found 'football and cricket were the most absorbing affairs of my life': he played for Waverley Cricket Club (1906-15) and Rugby Union as wing three-quarter for Eastern Suburbs, representing New South Wales against New Zealand in August 1914. Of middle height, he had a sallow complexion, grey eyes and brown hair.

Enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force on 24 July 1915, Williams sailed in the Argyllshire in May 1916 as a corporal in the 9th Field Ambulance; his vigorous ballads were popular at shipboard entertainments. After military training in England, he was promoted sergeant in August, went to France in November 1916 and saw action at Armentières. In January 1917 he was transferred at General Sir William Birdwood's request to the entertainment unit, 'Anzac Coves'. By contrivance, he rejoined the 9th Field Ambulance in March, saw action at Passchendaele and Messines, and was regimental quartermaster sergeant from December.

On leave in England in 1918, Williams sang at a private party at Sheffield; several musical luminaries insisted that he should begin lessons as soon as possible. In August he transferred to the 1st Australian Auxiliary Hospital, Harefield, where he met Dorothy Mason, a staff nurse in the Australian Army Nursing Service. He began to study in London with Charles Phillips and strove to overcome his own lack of basic musical knowledge. Attached to A.I.F. Headquarters in London from April 1919, he married Dorothy in the St Marylebone parish church on 5 May and was demobilized in July.

Reassured that he had 'a fine natural voice', Williams entered numerous competitions. Although his début recital in December at the Wigmore Hall, London, was kindly received by the critics, he remained as secretary to the Stearn Electric Lamp Co. until 1920. After ridding himself of his Australian accent, he received a great deal of musicale, concert and oratorio work throughout England. That year he began a long association with the Columbia Gramophone Co. (also recording under such names as 'Geoffrey Spencer'). He sang in the 1924 stage première of Coleridge-Taylor's Song of Hiawatha in London under (Sir) Eugene Goossens and, with the exception of 1929, in all later performances until 1939.

A famous Elijah in Mendelssohn's oratorio, Williams appeared with most of the greatest conductors of his time, including Toscanini, Walter, Klemperer, Barbirolli, Boult and Beecham. When in England he sang in every season of Sir Henry Wood's Promenade Concerts in 1921-51. An acclaimed performer in The Dream of Gerontius, Williams often worked with Elgar. He sang at his memorial service in 1934, at the coronation of King George VI in 1937, and was one of sixteen soloists for whom Vaughan Williams wrote the Serenade to Music in 1938.

Apart from his vocal beauty and musicianship, Harold Williams was renowned for his breath control and for the clarity of his diction in English music. Although the concert hall was his natural milieu, he also performed such roles as Iago (Otello), Wolfram (Tannhäuser) and Tonio (Pagliacci) with the British National Opera Company until its demise in 1929, and for sixteen seasons sang such parts as Mephistopheles (Faust) and Boris (Boris Godunov) at Covent Garden. He belonged to the Savage Club, London, took a house at Selsey, Sussex, played village and club cricket, and reputedly never missed a Test match; his friends included Alan Kippax, Stan McCabe and Bill O'Reilly.

Having toured Australia in 1929 for J. & N. Tait, Williams was urged by the Australian Broadcasting Commission to return for the Beecham tour of 1940; he was an important touring soloist throughout World War II and also taught at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music. When the Argonauts session was established on A.B.C. radio in 1941, Williams was 'Orpheus' and sang requests as well as the programme's theme song. He left the session temporarily in 1946 to return to Britain for the inaugural Edinburgh Festival in 1947.

In 1952 he rejoined the conservatorium staff at the request of Goossens, its director. Williams sang in opera and concerts until his voice failed him in a Melbourne performance of Elijah in December 1953. He once said that he had 'never overcome the onslaught of nervousness'. Although he had some notable pupils, he was not a strikingly successful teacher of voice production; further, he knew almost nothing of the Lieder repertoire and had little strength in languages. He was appointed M.B.E. in 1966 and retired in 1972. Survived by twin daughters, he died on 5 June 1976 at Gordon, Sydney, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • W. A. Orchard, The Distant View (Syd, 1943)
  • I. Moresby, Australia Makes Music (Melb, 1948)
  • L. Evans, ‘Hello Mr Melody Man’ (Syd, 1983)
  • K. S. Inglis, This is the ABC (Melb, 1983)
  • People (Sydney), 14 Dec 1955, p 35
  • Referee (Sydney), 12 Aug 1914
  • Table Talk, 6 June 1929
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1 Oct 1934, 8 Feb 1941, 8 Apr 1944, 28 July 1949, 13 Sept 1952, 21 Dec 1953, 11 June 1966
  • Williams papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Carmody, 'Williams, Harold John (1893–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/williams-harold-john-9111/text16067, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 22 October 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

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