In a few days, I will post an essay on one of Percy Whitlock’s better-known organ pieces. This work is suitable for the beginning of the imminent Advent season. In the meantime, I present a slightly edited version of an essay I wrote for MusicWeb International. It was published there in 2000. In this I gave a brief overview of the ‘man and his music.’ I have rechecked my facts, made a few corrections and several edits.
At the time when Ralph Vaughan Williams was writing his middle-period symphonies and Benjamin Britten was beginning to find his mature voice, a composer was writing music for the organ (and other forces) which would become part of the standard repertoire. Percy Whitlock did not devise a 'new' music - he was no Marcel Dupré or Olivier Messiaen. However, what he achieved was a perfect fusion of three styles or genres: late-romantic, neo-classical and dance hall - with the emphasis on the late-romantic. He was a master-craftsman who is impossible to classify. He cannot be defined as a 'light' music composer - witness his great Organ Symphony. Yet he was able to produce 'pop' pieces such as the 'Bucket and Spade Polka' and the ‘Picnic March.’ He was eclectic and in this sense his style appeals to all except those who despise any nod in the direction of what is popular.
Percy Whitlock was born in Chatham, Kent on 1 June 1903. At the age of seven he was given a voice trial at Rochester Cathedral, where he was successful in being accepted as a probationer. This was the beginning of a long association with the organ loft. He was a scholar at the Cathedral Choir School and then the Kings School, Rochester. He attended the Royal College of Music between 1920 and 1924. There he studied organ with Henry G. Ley and composition with Ralph Vaughan Williams. One of his tutors was the indefatigable Sir Charles Villiers Stanford.
In 1921 Whitlock became the assistant organist at his old 'alma mater'. The organist of Rochester at that time was Charles Hylton Stewart (1884-1932). Around this time, Whitlock was organist and choir master at St Mary's Chatham and then at St Mathew's Parish Church, Borstal. It was always expected that he would become the organist at Rochester when the post became vacant. However, a certain Harold Aubie Bennett was appointed when Hylton Stewart left for Chester Cathedral. Whitlock resigned as assistant and moved to Bournemouth where he became organist at St Stephen's Parish Church (1930-35). However, Whitlock’s main appointment of the nineteen-thirties and forties was the Borough Organist at the Municipal Pavilion, commencing in 1932. He remained in this post until his untimely death in 1946. It was here that he discovered his truly eclectic spirit. The post required an ability to play 'heavy' classics and 'light' dance music. He was a master of both.
In January 1931 Percy Whitlock married Edna Kingdon who was also a musician.
In the pre-war years, Whitlock was much occupied with giving recitals in London, Bournemouth and other parts of the South. He gave many performances for the BBC. A perusal of the appendices to Malcolm Riley's biography (1998) reveal a fine catalogue of journalism. A regular contribution to the Bournemouth Daily Echo was published under the pseudonym of Kenneth Lark. This 'nom de plume' was also used in some compositions written at the time. There were several literary contributions to the standard musical journals of the day.
Percy Whitlock died on the 1st May 1946, an untimely death at the age of 42. It was a loss regretted by all who knew him. L.S. Barnard in the obituary for Musical Opinion (June 1946) states that ‘[Whitlock] had the most extraordinary and endearing personal qualities. His personality carried with it an atmosphere of serenity and gentleness seldom encountered in these sophisticated and disingenuous times. He had, too, a virile wit and sense of fun…’
Whitlock had several other interests than music. He was a Meccano aficionado, a railway enthusiast and built working clocks. He wrote a monograph on the steam locomotives of the South Eastern & Chatham Railway.
Percy’s Whitlock's catalogue is not extensive. The range of his compositions is limited: this is not a criticism. For what has survived the vagaries of time, is of an exceptional standard of workmanship and is an invaluable addition to the literature. The main corpus is the organ music. From the relatively light ‘Chanty’ from the Plymouth Suite (1937-39) to the deeper waters of the two Fantasie Chorales, Whitlock never allows the quality of his writing to slip. He rarely attempts to surprise the listener with 'harmonic or formal novelties'. His music is quite conservative in its sound and structure. Although much of his writing has a delicious ‘light' quality to it, it never becomes sentimental or trite. The listener may hear echoes of the 'cinema organ’: it is often equally possible to imagine an accompaniment to a 'high ceremonial' in a great cathedral.
There were excursions into orchestral music and chamber pieces. He wrote, as was common with many composers of the day, a Phantasy Quartet in A minor. There were works for string quartet and violin and piano. Unfortunately, many of Whitlock's scores have either been destroyed or lost. It will remain impossible to hear much of what he wrote.
There is a fair catalogue of choral music. This includes settings of the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis, a simple communion service and several anthems and liturgical pieces. Two pageants were written severally for the communities of Bridgewater and Rochester which were designed for chorus and orchestra. In this case it is probably difficult to rescue what were highly ephemeral pieces of music.
Whitlock fans are lucky that in 2001 Marco Polo/Naxos (8.225162) released an album of Whitlock’s orchestral music. Nearly two thirds of the surviving scores are included on this CD. Most of it is frankly 'light' music though none the worse for that. They have evocative titles such as the Wessex Suite and the Holiday Suite. This first of these has sentimental but attractive movements such as 'Revels in Hogsnorton' and 'The Blue Poole' - the second suite enjoying evocative titles such as the 'Bucket and Spade Polka' and 'In the Ballroom'. Echoes of holidays by the sea - especially at Bournemouth.
More profound is the Prelude Air and Fugue of 1939 which was given at Bournemouth to somewhat mixed reviews. I understand that although the full-score of this work is available, it has yet to receive a recording.
There is much organ music. Many of the pieces have become favourites of those who haunt organ lofts. Most organists probably have one or more of them well and truly under their belts.
The earliest were the Five Short Pieces (1929) with the most popular number being the second piece, ‘Folksong’. It has all the trappings of the 'English folk song revival'. Four Extemporisations were issued in 1933 followed by the two volumes of Seven Sketches on Verses from the Psalms. Whitlock entered on a more serious period with his Two Fantasie Chorales (1931-33) - one in D flat major and the second in F sharp minor. Both these pieces reflect Whitlock’s romanticism at full flight. The Organ Sonata in C minor (1935-36) dwarfs most of the other pieces that Whitlock wrote. There is little of the 'sea front and deck chairs' about this work although the Scherzetto has a lot of 'fun' about it.
The Plymouth Suite is probably the composers most famous and most popular work. The Toccata and the quieter Salix retains it place in the repertoire of most organists. There was gap of six years between this famous work and the two volumes of the Six Hymn Preludes of 1945.
The last published organ music Whitlock wrote was Reflections (Three Quiet pieces) given in 1946.
Malcolm Riley (1998) mentions a lost set of Variations which were the last piece to exercise the composer before his untimely death.
Whitlock's masterpiece is his 'Organ Symphony' of 1936/37. It is a work in four movements lasting nearly three quarters of an hour. Scored for large orchestra including two harps, it is set in four movements. The concerto was inspired by an article in the Radio Times where George Thalben-Ball lamented the fact that there was no good 'English Organ Concertos' in existence. (I was unable to locate this article). Whitlock rose to the challenge and produced this work which is more of a 'concertante' piece than a concerto. Musical detectives have found references to the styles of many composers in this work including Edward Elgar, Richard Strauss, Frederick Delius and Sergei Rachmaninov. It is important to understand that this is no pastiche: no cut and paste exercise. It is pure Whitlock. A highly romantic and tuneful work which deserves to be in the repertoire of all concert organists and is just crying out to be played at the Proms.
The 'Organ Symphony' is an extremely moving work, touching the heart and mind much more than many supposedly finer and more subtle works produced by the 'big boys' of the immediate pre-war days.
Riley, Malcom, Percy Whitlock: Organist and Composer, (London, Thames Publishing, 1998)
Ed. Riley, Malcolm, The Percy Whitlock Companion, (The Percy Whitlock Trust, 2007)