Composer Percy Whitlock (1903-46)
and his wife Edna had gone on a trip to Plymouth to attend a conference of The
Incorporated Association of Organists. The Plymouth Suite was the
outcome of this visit. There are five movements. Each of them is dedicated to
an organist who had attended the convention. It was written between August and
November of 1937. A glance at the catalogue shows that it followed the Wessex
Suite for orchestra, a 'Foxtrot' the manuscript for which has been lost and
a sea shanty selection which has also been lost without all trace. The major
work of the previous year had been the Symphony in G Minor for Organ and
The first movement was dedicated to the then famous organist Harvey Grace. Harvey Grace (1874-1944) was the organist of Chichester Cathedral and had succeeded W.G. McNaught as editor of the Musical Times. He was well known as an adjudicator at music festivals up and down the country. His book on the Organ Music of J.S. Bach enjoyed a vogue.
Like much of Whitlock's oeuvre
this Allegro Risoluto is not easy to play. The opening melody is treated
in an extremely competent manner with robust harmonies. The second subject has
been influenced by a phrase from the first movement of Rachmaninov's Second
Symphony. The two themes are worked quite extensively with the first
re-appearing towards the end. The piece concludes with tuba fanfares. The musicologist
Peter Hardwick in his article ‘The Organ Music of Percy Whitlock’ (The Organ,
July 1985) notices several neo-classicist fingerprints leading to some
interesting dissonances. There are polytonal and polymodal parallel triads running
in opposition to each other and spare parallel fourths and tritones. The metre
is also subject to 'modernism' - there are quick alterations between 5/4 and
3/4 time and 2/4 to 3/4. Hardwick suggests that this is done to suggest
“changing rhythms and moods of the sea.”
The second movement is entitled Lantana - the dictionary definition of which is a 'tree-like shrub.' Yet, it is translated by Whitlock as the 'Wayfaring Tree.' This movement was dedicated to the organist of Buckfast Abbey, Dom. Winfrid (né Joseph Rechtsteiner) (1879-1965). This brother was well known for 'organ crawls’ and even collected odds and ends of kit for use on his own instrument. The mood is peaceful and quite distant in its atmosphere. There are echoes of Edward Elgar in the working out of the melody.
The third movement is a Chanty, which is written for manuals only. It is dedicated to the Lancaster Roman Catholic Cathedral organist Dr James Hugh Reginald Dixon (1888-1976). This gentleman was regarded by Whitlock as being “generally the naughty boy at any party.” Here we have a genuine Plymouth reference. This is quite definitely a nautical piece in a quick 2/4 rhythm. Malcolm Riley (Percy Whitlock: Organist and Composer, London, Thames Publishing, 1998) has pointed out that this is more in the style of an eighteenth-century Hornpipe rather than a Shanty. Hornpipes, however, did not always have a nautical association. Handel used the form in one of his concerti grossi. The time signature of this was 3/2. A 'shanty’ was a sailor's song - devised to make hard manual labour easier by assisting the rhythmic motions of task aboard ship.
The fourth movement, called Salix, is an ideal example of the pastoral style. It is easy to imagine such a piece composed by the likes of Gerald Finzi or William Lloyd Webber. The dedicatee was a certain Henry Austin Dewdney (1898-1965) who was a Bournemouth music teacher and pianist. He was involved in most of the local music making in the nineteen thirties. Whitlock states that he was “a perpetual grouser, yet with much humour.” Salix means a willow tree - a weeping willow. The main theme is a gentle 'Sicilian' tune in 6/8 time. It is one of the composer’s finest miniatures. The depth of this piece is more intense than the 'light-hearted' dedication would imply.
The final movement is a robust toccata. This was dedicated to the Borough Organist of Plymouth, Dr Harold George Moreton (1864-1961). Strangely, this is Whitlock's only essay in the form of a Toccata. It is in the tradition of the great French Toccatas of Böellmann, Gigout and Mulet. This is a grand finale to a fine suite. Superficially, it is ‘easy’ to play, but the subtle changes of key and figuration make it much harder to 'bring off' than a first glance would suggest. There are two themes at work. A wonderful, slow-moving pedal tune is set against a semi-quaver accompaniment on the manuals. The solo reed emerges and lifts this piece into the heavens. It uses a wider melodic range and shorter note values. The Toccata would make an excellent recessional for a wedding if only more people were aware of its existence.
The Plymouth Suite is well served in recordings. The definitive version is probably Graham Barber's offering on the Hull City Hall organ. [Priory PRCD 489]. However, Jennifer Bate and Donald Hunt have also made it their own.
With thanks to MusicWeb
International where this essay was first published in 2000. I have made several
corrections and edits.