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Roman surprises, home truths, and Malcolm Williamson remembered


Dissident theologian Hans Küng, so long at odds with Vatican authority, announced in late February that he was completely at one with Pope John Paul II in his stance over war with Iraq. ‘It is clear that on this question, the Pope is recognised by everyone as a very high moral authority’, Küng said in the Italian daily, Il Messaggero. He was, he declared, ‘100 per cent with’ the Pope in opposition to military action against Iraq.

Clearly not in diplomatic mood, Hans Küng also had this to say about US President George W. Bush: ‘… if a politician is in love with power, arrogant, pursuing imperial ambitions as the head of a world power, and presents himself as someone chosen by God, that is a grave abuse of religion.’

The Vatican’s chief foreign policy official, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, was less brusque, but nonetheless direct: Saddam Hussein should disarm, he told an audience of some 100 ambassadors, including those from the US and Iraq, but pre-emptive or preventative war against Iraq was, he said, not justifiable. His summing up: war is justifiable only when it is undertaken to restore true peace.
The Catholic Commission for Justice Development and Peace (Melbourne) called the decision to commit to war morally unjust and illegal. Just for the record.

Sign of the times

On the front of a neat Federation house in a Melbourne suburb: a neatly painted placard that reads: REGIME CHANGE BEGINS AT HOME.

The Scandinavian occupants (and sign-painters) greeted our photographer warmly, told her to ‘spread the word’, then rode off smartly on very shiny bicycles.

Malcolm Williamson

Malcolm Williamson, the first Australian Master of the Queen’s Music, died in Cambridge on 2 March, aged 71, after a long illness. He was a myth maker in music and in life.

Malcolm’s highly intuitive gifts derived more from the pre-Aristotelian world of polyvalent myth than from the mundane realm of binary logic. Contradictions excited and vivified him. For example, he was at once a proud member of the Royal household from 1975 and an antipodean iconoclast who took the mickey out of the pompous with relish.

He was always the proud father of three children in whose Jewishness he exulted.  From the end of 1975, Malcolm was the partner of his publisher, former Jesuit scholastic Simon Campion, a secular saint—esteemed by those close to the couple in much the way that Manoly Lascaris, Patrick White’s partner, is revered.

Dame Leonie Kramer, a conservative intellectual, was as dear to Malcolm as was the memory of Marshal Tito, who fused what seemed like a nation from incompatible Slavs. Malcolm, a son of the manse, and a Catholic convert as a young adult, was joyously enriched by the apparently contradictory Yahwist and Elohist accounts in Genesis, just as he was by Euripides’ seemingly incompatible accounts of the fate of Iphigenia after her father sacrificed her for a fair wind to Troy.

In opera, Malcolm taught himself Swedish so that he could set Strindberg’s A Dream Play, creating a modernist tour de force, The Growing Castle. He also wrote a children’s opera that is in romantic terms as beautiful as Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors. It is The Happy Prince, for female voices, after Oscar Wilde. Opera Australia must be pressed to mount The Violins of Saint Jacques, which ABC television produced triumphantly when it still had funds.

Written in homage to Messiaen, Malcolm’s Peace Pieces for organ solo were among his favourite works. His Mass of Christ the King is perhaps his masterpiece in large form, as his Concerto for Harp and Strings, At the Tomb of the Unknown Jewish Martyr, is special among more intimate orchestral works.

Coming to maturity amid post-serialist modernism, Malcolm was clever and fecund enough to write in a wide variety of forms in that idiom. But his melodic gift was Schubertian. It was displayed in The Happy Prince; in his big opera, Our Man in Havana; and in the ‘cassations’—a series of do-it-yourself operas for untrained groups. He discovered while at the Australian National University in Canberra that they were a potent therapy for intellectually disabled children.

Like his near contemporaries Peter Porter, Barry Humphries, Germaine Greer and Clive James, Malcolm arrived young in the UK from a culturally deadening Australia, and remained an expatriate. His best work was achieved in spite of episodic insobriety. It is possible that some of his headline-making indiscretions at the expense of the fashionable would have remained private if he’d been a lifelong teetotaller.

Malcolm’s Australian spiritual director and friend for 20 years, from the early 1970s, was the Melbourne Franciscan Augustine Watson—a psychotherapist, musician and, with the paradox that Malcolm valued, a contemplative sophisticate. His private name for Malcolm was MQM (Master of the Queen’s Music), a Genesis-inspired naming.

Augustine, had he not died first, would have pronounced at Malcolm’s Cambridge funeral, on 18 March, his own wickedly witty variation on the appropriate formula: May perpetual limelight shine upon him; may he rest in peace! Vale, Malcolm Williamson.

Ken Healey is Literary Manager at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in Sydney, and a freelance writer and broadcaster on the performing arts. He was for 13 years a Franciscan friar.



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