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Percy Whitlock (1903-1946)

Organ Sonata

John Scott (organ)
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Label: Hyperion
Recording details: January 2004
St Paul's Cathedral, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Julian Millard
Release date: October 2004
Total duration: 70 minutes 50 seconds

For his last recording as Organist of St Paul’s Cathedral in London—he takes up his appointment as Organist and Director of Music at St Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, New York, in the autumn of 2004—John Scott turns to the music of Percy Whitlock.

Whitlock would perhaps be better known today but for his early death (of tuberculosis at the age of forty-two) and his personal preference for a musical life in that twilight zone of the organ world to be found far from the mainstream of Cathedral life—only as Borough Organist at the Bournemouth Pavilion could he indulge his passion for concert organ performances. In this capacity (and as the prolific builder of fiendishly complex Meccano constructions) he won for himself quite a reputation, a solid broadcasting career, and the opportunity to write music ranging from orchestral fripperies for the Bournemouth orchestra to liturgically appropriate organ pieces for the Church. Alongside this world of divergent miniatures he also composed a massive Organ Symphony, and the Organ Sonata recorded here. And what a work it is: a towering landmark on the generally rather dreary landscape of British organ music of the time, and one admirably captured by the Hyperion engineers in John Scott’s performance on the Grand Organ of St Paul’s Cathedral.


‘Julian Millard has caught the St Paul's organ to perfection, setting it at the heart of the cathedral's sumptuous acoustic while offering a dazzlingly clear view both of the instrument's myriad tone colours and Scott's superb virtuosity’ (Gramophone)

‘In a word, then, these performances are exemplary. The technical quality of the recording is equally high … this is a wonderful disc’ (International Record Review)

‘John Scott's performance on the organ of St Paul's Cathedral are wholly sympathetic and convincing. The recording captures a good deal of the venue's ambience’ (Fanfare, USA)

‘You have to have this—for so many reasons’ (Organists' Review)
Percy Whitlock was born in Chatham on 1 June 1903, the only son of a miller’s clerk. His parents were enthusiastic amateur musicians; they encouraged his obvious talent, and when he was seven he was accepted as a probationer in the choir of Rochester Cathedral. He made rapid progress, and before the end of the First World War, when adult music staff were sometimes in short supply, he was already accompanying cathedral services on the organ. When he was fourteen he began taking piano and harmony lessons at the Guildhall School of Music in London, and two years later he won the Kent Scholarship to study composition at the Royal College of Music; his professors were Stanford and Vaughan Williams, and fellow students included Edmund Rubbra and Constant Lambert. By the time he was eighteen, Whitlock was acting as assistant organist at Rochester, and during the next ten years he established a solid local reputation as an organist and composer of user-friendly vocal, chamber and orchestral music. The cathedral organist Charles Hylton Stewart described him as the finest all-round organist he had ever heard, and added that he was ‘writing cathedral music better than anyone else at the present day’.

In 1928 Whitlock was stricken by the first serious signs of the tuberculosis that was to kill him at the age of forty-two, and he spent three months convalescing in a sanatorium. Two years later Hylton Stewart resigned. Whitlock had hopes of succeeding him, but his application was unsuccessful; he decided to leave Kent altogether and accepted the position of organist at St Stephen’s Church in Bournemouth. Apart from the probable advantages to his delicate health, he was attracted by a generous salary and an outstanding Gothic Revival building (designed by J L Pearson, the architect of Truro Cathedral) which he described as ‘a most inspiring place, brimming with atmosphere’. Whitlock stayed in Bournemouth for the remaining thirteen years of his life; during the 1930s he became a regular broadcaster for the BBC, and received national recognition as one of Britain’s finest concert organists.

In 1932 Whitlock took on another responsibility as part-time Borough Organist at the new Bournemouth Pavilion, and it was here that he found his true vocation; in 1935 he accepted the appointment full-time, and resigned from St Stephen’s. The four-manual Compton organ in the Pavilion Concert Hall was, he wrote, ‘a veritable giant among organs. [It] has been most skilfully designed, so that it is possible to perform on it music of the most severe type or the latest fox-trot with equal facility!’ Whitlock revelled in the versatility which his duties at the Pavilion demanded – playing in classical concerts with the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra one evening, and improvising medleys of popular dance tunes the next, giving solo recitals, or playing with the pit orchestra to accompany the great variety stars. During his years as Borough Organist he encountered or worked with a comprehensive array of the musical luminaries of the time – composers (Stravinsky, Percy Grainger, Cyril Scott, E J Moeran), conductors (Beecham, Sargent, Henry Wood) and performers (Solomon, Rubinstein, Kathleen Ferrier, not to mention Gracie Fields and Paul Robeson).

In many ways Whitlock was a perfect example of a peculiarly British (and now sadly endangered) stereotype. In his youth he was a single-minded collector of organ specifications and an avid trainspotter, and he never lost his delight in small-scale domestic engineering. His own home was full of clocks and organ parts (‘the blower in a stable, the console in a bedroom, and a pipe of the pedal Bourdon on each tread of the stairs in ascending order …’). And he was a wizard with Meccano: in the early 1940s he built a Meccano clock which according to the local paper was ‘no ordinary clock … it tells not only the hour of the day and the date and state of the moon, but the age of the moon, the time it crosses the Meridian, the signs of the Zodiac and even the state of the local tides’.

However, there is nothing stereotypical about Whitlock’s music. Although he never gave up his long-held ambition to become a cathedral organist, he found at Bournemouth the perfect setting for his unique gifts as a master of memorable melody and deft harmonic colouring, and these gifts found concrete expression in a range of different guises, from light music in popular style for the Bournemouth Orchestra to organ works of all shapes sizes for both service and recital.

The earliest works on this disc are the Five Short Pieces which were written in 1929 while Whitlock was still in Rochester; they were published the following year just after his move to Bournemouth, and they brought him his first major success as a composer: ‘among the most encouraging of recent organ publications’, said the Musical Times, ‘… the music has tune and freshness’. The engaging stylistic diversity of these unpretentious works was prophetic of Whitlock’s future career: two light concert pieces (Nos 1 and 4), together with two sweetly melodic slow movements (Nos 2 and 3) and a rousing finale, these three equally suited to either church or concert hall.

Whitlock’s two substantial Fantasie Chorals were composed in 1931, soon after his arrival at St Stephen’s – a church which John Betjeman described as ‘a lofty hall of stone-vaulting providing view after view as you walk round it, each lovelier than the last, and worthy of a vast cathedral’. The (almost) French title perhaps suggests a tribute to the three expansive Chorals of César Franck, and the leisurely developments of the Fantasie Choral No 1 certainly require big resonant spaces in which to bloom: this is concert music conceived for the church. The serene, hymn-like chorale theme in D flat major is contrasted with a more fluid and passionate second subject in F sharp minor, and then developed through a sequence of three very free variations (the last a wonderfully delicate scherzo). The second subject inspires a definitive climax, and this finally evaporates into a concluding reprise of the hushed antiphonal writing from the opening bars.

A large proportion of Whitlock’s works – both published and unpublished – could fairly be described as miniatures, but within a year or so of leaving St Stephen’s he completed two serious large-scale works lasting around forty-five minutes each, an Organ Sonata and a Symphony for organ and orchestra. Like Elgar’s Organ Sonata written forty years earlier, Whitlock’s monumental Organ Sonata in C minor represents a towering landmark in the generally rather dreary landscape of the British organ music of its time (though entries in the composer’s private diary bear engaging witness to his compulsive modesty: 11 January 1936 – ‘Finished 1st Movement of organ sonata’; 5 February – ‘My organ sonata sounds ghastly’). In the spirit of Elgar’s ‘Enigma’, Whitlock dedicated the sonata to his favourite detective writer Dorothy L Sayers, and prefaced it with a Greek cryptogram, which once decoded (with the aid of a Greek New Testament) reveals the thinking behind this remarkable work. The inspiration came from his favourite modern orchestral symphony: the heading reads ‘On hearing the Second Rachmaninov in spring’. The implied tribute is, of course, not only to Rachmaninov, but also to Frederick Delius, who died in June 1934. The generous, melancholy spirit of Rachmaninov animates much of the surging drama and emotion of the sonata’s outer movements, and there is more than a whiff of Delian chromatic harmony too, but there is also the shadow of another great composer behind the first movement in particular, and that is Elgar, who had died earlier the same year. However, the impression of the whole is anything but derivative – the sonata is pure Whitlock from start to finish, in its unfailingly memorable melodic invention, its imaginatively crafted formal structure, and the mastery with which it recreates an orchestral style of writing in terms of the British organ.

The opening sonata-form movement begins with a portentous introduction, presenting two important motifs – a brassy four-note motto-theme which reappears at salient points throughout the movement, and a more lyrical theme in free rhythm. The music then presses forward into a surging toccata-like Allegro, followed by a more relaxed presentation of the lyrical theme from the introduction. A few notes from a solo clarinet lead into the second subject-group, which also consists of two elements – a wistful, distinctly Elgarian motif, followed by a new tune on the clarinet. These various thematic ideas are welded together into a large-scale structure which maintains a truly symphonic ebb and flow of emotion, colour and intensity, culminating in an exciting coda and a final emphatic statement of the four-note motto from the opening bar.

Emotional and structural complexity are laid aside in the sonata’s two shorter middle movements. The Canzona is an eloquent song-without-words in the finest English lyrical tradition, while the irregular pointed rhythms and ear-tickling harmonies of the Scherzetto reflect Whitlock’s love of the light dance music of his day. The finale returns to more serious things, in an epic musical journey which takes the form of a very free chorale with variations. The sombre modal chorale provides almost all the musical material, with a little help from a contrasting theme first heard on the third page on a solo clarinet, but as the piece proceeds it also incorporates ideas from the first movement and the Scherzetto. The first big climax, with fanfares, flourishes and trills, leads into an extended passage (eight pages) of brilliant contrapuntal writing. After this a few bars of profound, spacious tranquillity lead to a magical moment – a miraculous transformation of the chorale, which abandons its initial modal severity, and briefly and gently blossoms into a heart-warming ‘big tune’. At this stage the tune is swept aside by further animated developments, which build to another climax with more fanfares, flourishes and trills. This heralds the long-awaited moment of fulfilment, which finally arrives in a glowing, unashamedly emotional statement of the big tune. After this there is nothing left to say; the music winds down and quietly fades away, like a summer sunset sinking into the night.

David Gammie © 2004

The Grand Organ of St Paul’s Cathedral
Built by Bernard Schmidt (‘Father’ Smith) in 1697 with a case designed by Sir Christopher Wren and carvings executed by Grinling Gibbons, some pipework of the original organ survives to this day. It was reconstructed to its present layout in the chancel by Henry (‘Father’) Willis in 1872 and enlarged to five manuals, including a section in the North East Quarter Dome gallery, in 1900. Henry Willis III was responsible for further alterations and electrification of the action between 1925 and 1930. Following war damage the organ was repaired in 1946 and 1949, and more repairs were made in 1960. From 1972 to 1977 N P Mander Ltd reconstructed the whole of the action, soundboards and console, preserving the pipework surviving from the Willis instrument of 1872 but broadening the resources of the organ with much new material, notably the new North Choir, Dome Chorus and West sections. In 1992 the console piston system was upgraded to take advantage of modern solid-state technology and more recently it has been possible to restore further some of the sonorities lost in the post-war years.

David Gammie © 2004

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