Page 1: Biography
Singer, conductor, singing teacher
This biography, written by Brian W. Pritchard, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
Sidney Williamson was born in London, England, probably in 1870 or 1871, the son of Sarah Roberts and her husband, Philip Andrew Williamson, a bootmaker. The family emigrated to New Zealand in 1874 or 1875, and settled in Sydenham, Christchurch. Sidney attended Sydenham School but little else is known of his early life. By 1893 he was working as a blacksmith. In Christchurch on 27 October 1897 he married Sarah Jane Ash.
Williamson's baritone voice showed considerable promise, and he was encouraged by Henry Wells, a leading Christchurch organist and choral conductor, to undertake vocal studies abroad. In 1903 he departed for the Leipzig Conservatory. After graduating he gave a number of lieder evenings in Leipzig in 1908–9, at which the quality of his voice was praised by several leading critics.
Williamson returned to Christchurch in mid 1909 and embarked on a career as a professional musician. Only a period of study in England in 1920–21 under William Shakespeare, a distinguished concert and oratorio singer and teacher, interrupted nearly 30 years' vigorous contribution to Christchurch's musical life. On 27 August 1909 he gave his first song recital, the forerunner of an annual subscription series of vocal concerts. By the 1920s his recital lists comprised some 250 items. Although much of his repertoire reflected his German training and introduced local audiences to a wealth of lieder, he also championed songs by early and contemporary British composers. Singlehandedly he raised public appreciation of solo vocal music beyond the level of the late-Victorian sentimental drawing-room ballads and established the status and artistic validity of the lieder recital. Williamson soon acquired a national reputation as a singer and teacher, giving recitals from Auckland to Dunedin and adjudicating at numerous competitions throughout the country.
Williamson also became involved with Christchurch's many choral groups. Within a year of returning from Leipzig he was conducting the Lyttelton Choral Society (1910–12) and the Zealandia Musical Society. He was choirmaster at St Andrew's Presbyterian Church from 1910, was associated with the Christchurch Amateur Operatic Society, and from the late 1920s directed the Christchurch South Choral Society. Williamson was also conductor of the Royal Christchurch Musical Society from 1924 until January 1927. The society had a policy of appointing its conductor on a yearly basis and, amidst some controversy, decided to appoint a new conductor in 1927. During his time as conductor, Williamson directed the first local performance of Elgar's Caractacus in September 1925, and an open-air performance of Handel's Messiah in the Botanic Gardens in December 1926.
More significant were the choirs he established and conducted: the Christchurch Glee and Madrigal Society (1912–19) and the St Cecilia Choir (1923–27). Both were specialist groups, distinguished either by repertoire or personnel. The former concentrated on programmes of part-songs and madrigals interspersed with vocal and instrumental items; the latter, comprising female voices only, was the first choir of its kind in Christchurch. Williamson's fastidious direction achieved new standards of choral expertise, which was recognised by the St Cecilia Choir's guest appearances on 18 and 19 February 1926 during the New Zealand and South Seas International Exhibition at Dunedin.
As a specialist teacher of singing, Williamson brought a heightened sense of professionalism to what was often merely an adjunct to piano teaching. Throughout his career he supported all efforts to raise the status of the professional music teacher. From 1913 he was variously secretary, treasurer, or president of the Canterbury Society of Professional Musicians, and was one of two Canterbury representatives on the Music Teachers' Registration Board of New Zealand from its inception on 9 April 1929.
Williamson was interested in fostering music among young people, and formed a juvenile choir in connection with the St Cecilia Choir in 1925. Earlier, in 1911, he had been appointed the first teacher in music at the Christchurch Training College. He held this part-time position until 1920, giving instruction in vocal music – which was necessary for teacher certification – and subsequently establishing a class in glee-singing.
Sidney and Sarah Williamson were divorced in 1919, and in Christchurch on 7 August 1922 Sidney married Adelene Langtree Masters. He was a Freemason, belonging to the Civic Lodge, but seems to have had few other interests outside his professional life. He died at Christchurch on 7 October 1935, survived by his wife and their two children. After his death he was praised by James Hight, rector of Canterbury University College, for 'services to this city and province that are worthy of permanent record in the history of their artistic and intellectual development'.