Philip Lee Williams has been composing music for orchestra and chamber ensembles his entire creative life, starting when he was a teenager. Between the ages of 17 and 19 he composed and scored a symphony for full orchestra, along with a single-movement concerto for four horns and orchestra.
He composed smaller works off and on during the years of his adult years until 50, when he began to compose with a fierce passion. To date, his orchestral and vocal oeuvres are extensive. Full scores of all his compositions and and computer realizations of them prepared by the composer are on file at the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Georgia.
His work is mostly for large orchestral forces and moves along clear tonal centers but with a strong influence, too, from such composers as Carter and Ligeti.
Symphony Number One: Williams composed his first numbered symphony in 2000 at the age of 50. In a sense it is an homage to his first strong influences as a composer, the works of mid-century symphonists such as Peter Mennin, Howard Hanson, Samuel Barber, Nicolas Flagello, Roy Harris, Giya Kanchelli, and dozens of others. A strong and clear symphony with rhythmic clarity and melodic centers, it is a powerful statement of intent.
Symphony Number Two, “Easter.” This work, for solo soprano and orchestra, is a deeply moving and spiritual setting of the Christian Easter story.
Symphony Number Three, “The Bridge.” Based on the poem of the same name by Hart Crane, this symphony leaves behind the more traditional structures of the first two symphonies and deals musically with many of the themes that Crane worked with in his long poem.
Symphony Number Four. A symphony with no subtext, it begins an aurally more adventurous period for Williams.
Symphony Number Five. A 25-minute work, the Fifth Symphony is in four movements, Allegro, Waltz, Lento, and Finale.
Symphony Number Six, “Andersonville.” This symphony is in memory of the dead in Georgia’s notorious Civil War concentration camp of the same name. Nearly 13,000 Americans died in the horrific conditions at Andersonville.
Symphony Number Seven, “9-11-01.” A reaction to the attack on the United States an extremist group led by Osama bin Laden. A dark and violent work with unstable tonal centers and rhythmic clusters, this work is dense and difficult but ends hopefully.
Symphony Number Eight, “For Small Orchestra.” A light symphony, almost classical in its proportions and materials. A reaction to the dark tones of the seventh symphony.
Symphony Number Nine, “Inferno.” Williams’s obsession with Dante goes back to his college days. In his literary work, The Divine Comics is a modern retelling of the Divinia Commedia. This symphonia deals with the Inferno section. Williams began working on a musical reaction to the Inferno in 1970 but didn’t finish it until more than 40 years later.
Symphony Number Ten. This large-scale symphony is an attempt to compose a work in line with other such works with large orchestral forces, such as Shostakovitch’s Tenth Symphony.
Symphony Number Eleven. An offbeat work with movements that have both whimsy and passion. The four movements are called “Legend,” “Lament,” “Liar,” and “Later.”
Symphony Number Twelve. One of the few large-scale works that Williams has composed that ends with a slow movement.
Symphony Number Thirteen, “Gravity’s Rainbow.” This three-movement work is in honor of Thomas Pynchon’s pathbreaking novel which Williams first read in 1976. The three movements are “A Screaming Comes Across the Sky, “They’ve Cut Slothrop Loose Again,” and “In the Zone.”
Symphony Number Fourteen. A somewhat spiky four-movement work with named movements.
Symphony Number Fifteen. A one-movement symphony, about nineteen minutes long, this work is quieter and more relaxed than much of Williams’s orchestral music.
Symphony Number Sixteen, “1950.” Williams was born in the year 1950, and in this work he set out to create three movements that would each take nineteen minutes and fifty seconds to perform. At the written tempi, the work comes close to fulfilling that humorous map.
Holocaust Symphony. The work that Williams considers his finest work for orchestra alone, the Holocaust Symphony is a reaction to the plight of Jews during World War II. Each movement of the Holocaust Symphony is named for one of the nightmarish camps in which thousands died at the hands of the Nazis. While Williams realizes that millions of non-Jews also died at the hands of the Nazis, he wishes in this symphony to memorialize the sacrifice of Jewish victims. The movements of the symphony are, in order: Ravensbruck, Sobibór, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, Chelmno, Treblinka, Buchenwald, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. The final, ninth movement of the symphony is called Kaddish, a memorial to the dead.
“While the symphony is filled with music of great violence, it also has long stretches of deep tenderness and sorrow,” said Williams. “Frequently, both moods appear within the framework of a single movement.”
The symphony is scored for large orchestra, and some movements include additional instruments such as piano, pipe organ, or zither. One movement (Chelmno) is for a string quintet and solo oboe, while another (Buchenwald) is for string orchestra, piano, and oboe.
The longest movement is Auschwitz-Birkenau, at almost 28 minutes, while the shortest named movement is Treblinka at 12:40. The Kaddish movement is 10:40. In all, the Symphony lasts well more than two hours.
King Lear Symphony. This is an unnumbered five-movement symphony based on the Shakespeare play. The movements are titled “Abdication and Division,” “Goneril and Regan,” Fool in the Storm,” “The Death of Goneril,” and “Cordelia in Lear’s Arms.”
Concerti. Williams has composed concerti for numerous individual instruments including piano, clarinet, oboe, trumpet, cello, and flute.
Two Works from Youth. In his late 50s, Williams re-orchestrated and made performing versions of two works he composed in his late teens, Youth Symphony and Concerto Grosso for Four Trombones and Orchestra.
Opera: Emma Devlin. From childhood Williams wanted to compose a full opera, and he fulfilled that goal with his tragedy Emma Devlin. A powerful, deeply moving work of revenge and betrayal, it is in three acts.
Requiem Mass. Deeply moved by setting of the mass as a young teenager, Williams in his fifties set out to compose his own mass, though he is not a Roman Catholic. This setting of the traditional texts of the mass is for chorus, soloists, and full orchestra and takes just under an hour and ten minutes to perform.
Dozens of other small pieces are part of Williams’s musical legacy as well.