REVIEW OF INTROIT: TOWARDS THE LIGHT (BIOGRAPHY OF THOMAS WILSON by MARGARET WILSON AND DAVID GRIFFITH)
As I sat down to write this review, in the summer of 2012, two renowned critics in the Herald and the Scotsman respectively had just written glowing accounts of a performance by Csengele Quartet - featuring two students who are about to graduate from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland - who had featured Thomas Wilson's Fourth String Quartet in their concert programme:
Extract from Herald review by Michael Tumelty
"Actually, it's the thought that counts. It's all very well to be a wizard on your instrument, but if there's no brainwork behind it, the music will just sprawl. And brainwork was everywhere in the Csengele's performance ...... - with such acuity - in Thomas Wilson's Fourth String Quartet, that every rhythmic quiver and expressive sigh in the music seemed hyper-alert."
Extract from Scotsman review of same performance
"First up was the Fourth String Quartet by Glasgow composer Thomas Wilson (who died in 2001) and it's difficult to imagine a piece that packs more incident and drama into a single 20-minute movement. The Csengele players rose to it all well, in a vivid, confidently paced performance in which everyone got the chance to shine - violist Christine Anderson in particular made her mark in some assertive playing early on. All four clearly relished the piece's striking mix of unashamed modernism and heart-on-sleeve emotion, and although there were a few rough edges, they only added to the immediacy of the performance. Gripping stuff."
and I immediately thought "Thomas Wilson's time has come". His music was already here; it was just waiting for a higher level of musicianship to bring it to life and an enlightened political and economic scene in which it can flourish.
Written by his wife, Margaret, whose love and support has unfailingly carried on since Wilson's death in 2001, this book should be given the credit it deserves and read by all: not only those who knew him in the living years but the new fans, who are now becoming excited by what they see as "new" work; musicians, composers, conductors; the traditionalists and those who see themselves as the avant-garde of modern and future music styles. This is not simply a chronological narrative of their life together but, worked into the tapestry, charting Wilson's progress from humble beginnings to respected elder statesman of the modern Scottish music scene, is a gently thought-provoking thread of questions regarding attitudes to new music.
Thomas Wilson CBE was writing music from the late 1930s, but it took until the 1960s and 1970s for his work to achieve appreciable recognition, and even then not much furth of Scotland. This well-balanced book - which combines Margaret's personal account, with extracts from Wilson's own notes and assistance from David Griffiths and others on the more technical aspects of composition - is a highly commendable tribute to a lovable, spiritual gentleman, who worked hard to juggle family and social life with earning a living as a lecturer, whilst experimenting across the whole range of musical styles for every possible instrument.
However, although Wilson's music received a modest amount of critical acclaim in his lifetime both in Scotland and abroad, the continuing theme underlying the chronology is why has it not therefore been played more often and indeed virtually consistently overlooked by concert programmers within his own country? Why do we not have more recordings?
Wilson himself was self-aware: it is difficult to strike a balance between writing music that is fulfilling for the composer and challenging for the musicians on the one hand, and yet accessible to the paying public on the other. So often one is achieved at the expense of the other - and, usually, it is a question of making easy money writing short incidental pieces or enduring extended periods of relative hardship on the altar of longer, more challenging and ultimately better quality works. Above all, Wilson wanted his music to reflect the age in which it was written but was dogged with dissatisfaction at performances of his music whenever, in his own words, he felt the musicians had not understood his intentions. However, as he tended to shy away from conducting his own work, it is easy to conclude that herein lay the main problem.
And yet, as the Csengele Quartet recently proved to critical acclaim, the man may no longer be with us, but he has left a rich legacy of music waiting to be revisited by a new generation who are now able to look back on the time in which it was written with clear and more appreciative eyes. Wilson could soon become known as the composer who bestrode two centuries - writing in the 20th and being performed in the 21st. He would have been 85 this year. It's time to celebrate this modest man's genius.