Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Percy Whitlock: Carol from Four Extemporizations.

In 1933 Percy Whitlock composed his Four Extemporizations for organ. The titles of the pieces are: Carol; Divertimento; Fidelis; Fanfare. Peter Hardwick has pointed out that the word Extemporization is something of a misnomer. Despite Whitlock’s expertise at improvisation, the only piece in this collection that has the feel of something devised at the organ keyboard is the third, ‘Fidelis’. However, this is hardly problematic.

Firstly, what is a Carol? I guess that most people associate the ‘form’ with Christmas: that is why I am posting about this piece in the days running up to the 25th December. However, a ‘carol’ (derived from the French ‘carole’) was originally a pagan round dance in which the participants sang a chorus or refrain whilst dancing in a circle. The leader of the group would sing the stanzas. A few of these original ‘carols’ have survived, such as some old Wassailing songs. Another source of carols would have been the medieval mystery plays. One well-known example is the ‘Coventry Carol’. It was not until after the Reformation that the word gained its current meaning, that of a Christmas song typically celebrating the Nativity, the Angels, the Shepherds and the Magi. However, it is possible to have seasonal carols for other times of the year, as well as secular ones.
It begs the question, therefore, as to what image or mood was in Whitlock’s mind at the time of its composition.

Whitlock’s ‘Carol’ is the first of the four extemporizations. It was dedicated in ‘Homage to F.D.’ Even a cursory hearing will disclose that the inspiration can be none other than Frederic Delius. Yet this is not an aimless ramble in a summer garden in search of the first cuckoo of spring. Despite the enthusiastic use of secondary 7th and 9th chords, double pedalling and a Delian 6/8-time signature, this organ piece is formally well-constructed and shows a considerable advance in Whitlock’s harmonic language. It is music that paints a pastoral scene rather than highlighting theology or Yuletide folk-traditions. Yet there is something that does chime with the winter season. I think that amongst the earth standing hard as iron in the Bleak Mid-Winter, there is the hope of springtime and the eventual warmth of summer days. In fact, look out for the cuckoo call at bar 11 with the typical falling minor third (A-F). In this case it is played by the thumb of the right hand in the lower manual, whilst the second and fifth fingers are playing on the swell.
There is no doubt that this piece is one of the most impressionistic works that Whitlock composed. It seems futile to argue whether this is pastiche or parody. Clearly, Delius is the model, for virtually every aspect of the composition. However, Whitlock has been sensitive in paying his homage. The registration is subtle with much swapping of manuals, the use of string stops to provide an unfocussed accompaniment, and the judicial use of solo stops such as the ‘clarinet’ and ‘orchestral oboe.’

The Four Extemporizations were reviewed in the January 1934 issue of the Musical Times. The critic ‘O’ explained that ‘an extemporization may be called a wandering of the thoughts given some immediate form in art.’ Turning to the ‘Carol’ he suggests that Whitlock ‘seems to have been thinking the same thoughts Delius so often has thought, and as a result there is a movement in pastoral time, lilting along, with caressing, indecisive harmonies.’

In 1933 Oxford University Press published the Four Extemporizations with subsequent reprints in 1961 and 1992. This latter was reprinted in the collection The Complete Shorter Organ Music of Percy Whitlock.  There have been several recordings of this work: I would recommend Graham Barber playing the Organ of Hull City Hall. (Priory PRCD 489, 1994). There is a YouTube posting of the Carol being played by George Thalben Ball.

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