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Organ Sonata in C minor


A large proportion of Whitlock’s works – both published and unpublished – could fairly be described as miniatures, but within a year or so of leaving St Stephen’s he completed two serious large-scale works lasting around forty-five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.

from notes by David Gammie © 2004


Whitlock: Organ Sonata
CDA67470Archive Service


Movement 1: Grave – Animato
Track 1 on CDA67470 [13'10] Archive Service
Movement 2: Canzona
Track 2 on CDA67470 [5'57] Archive Service
Movement 3: Scherzetto
Track 3 on CDA67470 [4'40] Archive Service
Movement 4: Choral
Track 4 on CDA67470 [20'33] Archive Service

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