Saturday, 10 October 2009

Percy Whitlock: The Feast of St Benedict

Percy Whitlock’s only concert overture – The Feast of St Benedict, was actually written some time before the appointment to the post of organist at the Bournemouth Pavilion The work was conceived as an entry into a competition run by the Daily Telegraph newspaper in 1933/34. It is very hard to imagine the said broadsheet having such an event in the 21st century. However, it was an important event in its day. They managed to get a few big names on the panel of judges. Sir Henry Wood and Sir Hamilton Harty were the conductors and Arthur Bliss and Frank Bridge were considering the work from a composer’s point of view. The prize went to the fifty-five year old Cyril Scott for his less than typical Festival Overture.
There is no doubt that Percy Whitlock was a touch peeved at being overlooked. He claims that he did not even get a mention, far less a commendation. He added a note to the score stating that ‘…an arrangement is pending for two toothpicks and a gas jet.’ Although this was a typical Whitlockian jest, it does betray a degree of bitterness.

The work itself is extremely competent – inhabiting that territory which lies well beyond light music. This work owes much to the ‘romanticism’ of Elgar - especially in the extremely effective opening section. It perhaps reflects the In the South type of mood that flooded light into so many works of this period. It is quite manifestly not an ‘Anglican’ celebration of this Saint’s feast day; the intention of the composer was to write it in the spirit of a ‘continental’ fiesta. There are ostensibly three sections or themes running through the work; that of Festivity, Love and Religious feeling. Yet these themes interplay. There are moments of quiet amongst the boisterousness of procession. If any criticism could be made of the work it is that in places it is a little too diverse in style. There are some extremely constructive sections whereas occasionally one feels that the composer is padding a little. Some of the tranquil moments are extremely poignant. These betray an almost ‘Finzian’ pastoralism, yet we know that Finzi had written little at this time. What one cannot fault is the scoring. This was a piece for full orchestra, which also called for harp and organ. To balance such forces was an achievement for any composer. However, Whitlock’s handling of the brass is especially effective. I have regretted in other places that he never chose to compose for brass band – the March Phoebe excepted. Some of the scoring and the textures look forward to the magisterial Organ Symphony. This work is no whimsical joke; it is the product of a fine and balanced musicianship; it is romantic music at its best and deserves to take its place as one of the fine concert overtures produced by any English composer in the last century.
Listen to Whitlock’s The Feast of St Benedict on Marco Polo

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