In memory of my mother, Edith Violet Wright ( nee
1919 - 2002
SIR IVOR ATKINS
Dr David C F Wright
Sir Ivor Atkins was born in Llandaff on the 29 November 1869. His father,
Frederick Pyke Atkins was the organist at St Johns Church, Cardiff.
Frederick was born in Gloucester in 1830. When he was very young he
moved to Llandaff and was very active in music making in Wales and in
the Eisteddfod movement. He was responsible for all the music for the
re-opening of Llandaff Cathedral in 1889. His brother, Reginald Mozart
was also a fine organist and his sister, Florence, was a gifted pianist.
Ivor was brought up with music and this coupled with his Welsh nationality
and the Welsh devotion to music gave him a good grounding.
He was educated at Roath and privately. He was not only outstanding
in music but in many other subjects as well. He was an authority on
Welsh history and other aspects of history and the history and the culture
of the Saxons particularly fascinated him.
He helped his father and was his official assistant at St Johns from
the age of fifteen. At the age of 17 he took up his first organ post
at Stonehaven between Montrose and Aberdeen
He was a pupil of G.R. Sinclair who was born in Croydon in 1863 and
studied at the Royal Irish Academy of Music. He was the assistant organist
at Gloucester cathedral from 1879 but was the organist and choirmaster
at Truro cathedral from 1880-9.
In fact Sir Ivor followed George Robertson Sinclair around, becoming
his assistant at Truro in 1885 and when Sinclair became organist at
Hereford Cathedral in 1899 Ivor became his assistant from 1890 onwards.
Ivor met Elgar in 1890 at the premiere of Froissart.
The following year he met distinguished musicians such as Madame Albani,
Edward Lloyd and Plunket Greene. In October of that year he attended
the Birmingham Triennial Festival and met Dvořák
and the conductor Hans Richter.
But in 1893 Ivor became the organist and choirmaster at Ludlow Parish
Church. Such was his talent and great administrative skills that he
was appointed organist and choirmaster at Worcester Cathedral in August
1897. He was 27. It was also the year that his father died.
This appointment was important because of the Three Choirs Festival
which involved the three cathedral cities of Gloucester, Hereford and
Worcester where these organists took turns in conducting the choirs
On 25 January 1898 he made his debut as a conductor which programme
included Elgar's My love dwelt in a foreign land.
In one of his regular organ recital at Worcester Atkins included the
Elgar Organ Sonata. This was on 17 November 1898 and Elgar was delighted.
Late he was to ask Atkins's advice on the composition of the Enigma
Variations and so began the weekly visits Ivor made on Friday afternoons
to Elgar. Thereafter Ivor was asked to proof-read everything that Elgar
wrote but often the stubborn older man did not pay any heed.
Atkins's conducting debut at the Three Choirs Festival was in 1899
and received some adverse criticism owing to his lack of experience.
The fact of the matter was that Elgar had let him down very badly promising
him the premiere of the Gordon symphony inspired by General
Gordon of Khartoum. Elgar never wrote it. That festival included Elijah
and Messiah and Coleridge Taylor conducted his Solemn Prelude op. 40
and Horatio Parker his Hora Novissima.
For 1900 Atkins invited Coleridge Taylor to conduct his Hiawatha.
On his second appearance in 1902 Atkins excelled himself with a stunning
performance of Richard Strauss's Death and Transfiguration.
The year 1899 was the year of his marriage to the daughter of Rev Edward
Butler of Llangoed Castle, Breconshire. This took place on 29 April
1899. The bride was Katharine May Dorothea, known as Dora. She was to
become the first woman High Sheriff in England and was Mayor of Worcester
in 1936-7. In her younger days she had sung in choirs under Elgar and
later in life was the Chairman of the Worcester Royal General Infirmary.
She died in 1954. Their son, Wulstan, born on 24 November 1904 had Elgar
as his godfather. Wulstan was to become the chairman of the trustees
of Elgar's birthplace and museum at Broadheath. He had pursued a career
in civil engineering and was awarded the MBE.
His name was chosen under the influence of Elgar and his Catholicism.
There was a Roman Catholic Church at Little Malvern called St Wulstans.
The first performance of Elgar's Enigma Variations was given
by Sir Ivor at the organ of Worcester Cathedral which event he repeated
on later occasions.
In the 1901 Three Choirs Festival Sir Ivor took part in the now forgotten
Piano Trio no. 2 by Benjamin Godard. He also adjudicated at the Feis
Ceoil in Dublin that year.
There were endless problems in staging Elgar's Gerontius at
the Three Choirs Festival since it included doctrines which were unlawful
to the Church of England. Atkins was also a good administrator and diplomat
and the work was performed every year until Elgar's death.
At the 1902 Festival Atkins conducted many items from Bach to Brahms's
Symphony no. 3 in F.
About this time Elgar's letters to Sir Ivor was addressed to Firapeel
and some of the things he wrote troubled my great uncle. Elgar would
write, "Don't hate me, please" and sometimes signed his letters " Love,
In February 1903 Atkins conducted works by Richard Strauss including
Wanderers Sturmlied. Elgar wrote a fan letter to Strauss who
replied with a simple comment that he had heard how well Sir Ivor had
performed his work. Elgar was not pleased. In December 1904 Strauss
conducted several of his works in Birmingham including Don Juan,
Death and Transfiguration, the rather odd Violin Concerto and
his masterpiece, Ein Heldenleben.
Ivor received his Doctorate of Music by examination at Oxford. He was
a brilliant scholar and an expert on many aspects of music and other
subjects as well. He established himself as a very fine conductor and
the greatest organist of his day. He conducted at the Three Choirs festival
in 1899, 1902, 1905, which premiered his Hymn of Faith, 1908,
1911, 1920, 1923, 1926, 1932, 1935 and 1938.
He was awarded the Honorary RAM in 1910. He was awarded FSA and FRCO.
He was President of the Royal College of Organists for 1935-6. He was
a Fellow of St Michael’s College, Tenbury.
He was also the conductor of the Worcester Festival Chorus.
Sir Ivor was a keen cyclist. For example, in 1905 he took his bicycle
to Oban for a cycling holiday. He also enjoyed a cigarette.
Atkins was offered two prestigious posts in America which would have
been very lucrative but he turned them both down. He was not a man for
Elgar was always calling for him. "Only Sir Ivor lifts me out of my
many depressions", Sir Edward said..
By 1907 Atkins was considering performing Sgambati's Requiem Mass
written in 1896 and reviving Schubert's Lazarus. He presented
Stanford's beautiful Stabat Mater and a rarity by Grieg, Recognition
In 1908 Sir Ivor gave the premiere of Elgar's Wand of Youth suite
no 2, Op 16. In the Three Choirs Festival of that year he put on Beethoven's
Violin Concerto with Mischa Elman as the soloist much to Elgar's annoyance.
Parry, Bantock and Stanford conducted works of their own.
A holiday in Scotland was immediately followed by Sir Ivor conducting
a concert in Tewkesbury Abbey.
Atkins was a very fussy conductor and somewhat autocratic but he certainly
knew what he was doing. He was tall and very thin and used a long baton
such as the type used by Sir Adrian Boult. He knew the scores inside
out and in minute detail. He would employ only top soloists .
My friend, Frank Downes, who was principal horn in the CBSO in their
glory days under Weldon, days that have not been seen since, tells a
story of how he was to take part in a concert in Worcester during the
Second World War and had to 'cadge' a lift on what was known as a Queen
Mary lorry which carried RAF parts. Frank and his friends arrived a
half hour late and Sir Ivor was cross. The late arrivals returned the
compliment and Atkins calmed down.
Frank Downes vividly remembers Sir Ivor conducting a stupendous performance
of Elgar's The Kingdom and in which he took part.
Atkins received his BMus Oxford in 1892 by examination and his D Mus
at Oxford also by examination wheras Elagr had no formal music qualifications.
. Atkin's examiners for his doctorate were Ralph Vaughan Williams, Percy
Buck and Hugh Allen. Elgar tampered with Ivor's projects altering the
libretto to Atkins's Hymn of Faith for soloists, chorus and orchestra
and making a few unnecessary suggestions to Sir Ivor's edition of the
Bach Passion so that he could put his name alongside that of
Bach and inflate his already disturbing pride. Atkins had to later correct
Elgar's additions because they were wrong and inappropriate!
After the successful premiere of Elgar's Symphony no. 1 on 3 December
1908, Sir Ivor introduced it to Worcester in November 1909 along with
Sir Alexander Mackenzie's Dream of Jubal. Elgar was absolutely
delighted with the performance of the symphony but miserable that a
dream he considered inferior to his should be presented.
Jubal had upstaged Gerontius!
Jaeger, the Nimrod of the Enigma Variations, died in
1909. Elgar was inconsolable. Sir Ivor was touched by his grief but
wondered why it was so excessive.
His loyalty to the troublesome and arrogant Elgar is commendable (he
did not desert him as almost everyone else did; his son Edward Wulstan
Ivor remained true as well) as is equally commendable the fact that
Sir Ivor was the organist at Worcester Cathedral for 53 years. It tells
us a great deal about the fundamental goodness of his character.
Elgar was always interfering. He knew best every time. As already intimated,
he told Sir Ivor Atkins that he could not and must not include Beethoven's
Violin Concerto in the 1908 Festival as it was too secular. The truth
is that he was contemplating composing a violin concerto and felt that
the inclusion of the Beethoven would hinder a performance of his when
it was written.
In 1910 Sir Ivor and Lady Atkins toured Southern Germany and Austria
with the two Miss Martleys. They attended the Oberammergau Passion Play
but Atkins was preoccupied with putting on Beethoven's Choral Symphony
at the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester that year. Again, Elgar,
the great interferer, was against this. He was completing his Violin
Concerto and that was to be given priority performance, not Beethoven.
Sir Ivor worked industriously at Bach's St Matthew Passion. Elgar was
not that interested . He was now working on his Symphony no. 2. His
contribution to the Bach editing was so slight as not to be worthy of
his name being included. When meetings were arranged concerning the
Bach, Elgar would respond to Atkins's gracious letters by saying that
could but possibly come. The work on the Passion was Atkins own.
Elgar who had objected to the Beethoven Violin Concerto being performed
at the Three Choirs Festival because it was too secular, now demanded
that his Violin Concerto be performed there along with his Symphony
Among all the scathing remarks Elgar made about everyone the inclusion
of Granville Bantock's Overture to a Greek Tragedy in 1911 engendered
Elgar's famous remark about burning all heretics, a particularly unpleasant
reference to Bantock. The Atkins's edition of the St Matthew Passion
was included and with Elgar's name as a co-editor.
But Sir Ivor began to become like Elgar. His letters being extremely
Atkins did not compose much and that is a pity. He did write The
Virgin's Lullaby which he sent to Elgar at Christmas 1912 which
Elgar admired but Sir Ivor was now hooked on Elgar and devoted all his
spare time to his cause. He gave the premiere of Elgar's Go, Song
of Mine, Op. 57 in 1911.
He spent hours correcting mistakes in Elgar's The Music Makers.
Sir Ivor was successful in securing the visit of Saint-Saëns to
the 1913 festival where he conducted the first performance of his new
oratorio The Promised Land.
Elgar was abusive about this and all new works except his own. He lampooned
Florent Schmitt's setting of Psalm 47 which Atkins wanted to
conduct at the 1914 festival. The truth was that Elgar had a setting
of Psalm 48 and did not want it to be rivalled or upstaged .
Eight years later Elgar was vitriolic about Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy
given at the 1922 festival and his abuse of Walton and his Viola
Concerto is well known.
Sir Ivor put on a performance of Messiah in 1914 to raise monies
for Belgian refugees. Elgar said that this gesture was demeaning but
then set about writing Polonia ostensibly to raise funds for
Polish refugees. He had to go one better than Sir Ivor.
In 1916 Atkins repeated his act of humanitarian care by performing
The period of the First World War had many casualties and some not
through war itself. In February 1917 Sinclair died suddenly in a Birmingham
It was solely due to Sir Ivor that the Three Choirs Festival resumed
after the Great War. This was in 1920 and the management, in recognition
of his sterling work as an administrator, prevailed upon him to revive
his Hymn of Faith which he did.
For that festival in Worcester between September 5 and 10 Sir Ivor
conducted the following works:
Hymn of Faith Atkins
Music Makers Elgar
Hymn of Praise (Symphony no. 2) Mendelssohn
Dream of Gerontius Elgar
There is an old belief Parry
Fantasy on Dante's Divine Comedy Walford Davies
Symphony in D minor César Franck
St Matthew Passion Bach
Four Hymns for tenor and strings Vaughan Williams
For the fallen Elgar
Worcestershire Rhapsody A E Brent Smith
That is quite an undertaking for anyone!
He was knighted in 1921 for his services to music. During that year
he toured Belgium and Holland giving organ recitals.
In 1922 he joined the Athenaeum Club in Pall Mall London because Elgar
said it was the right thing to do. Sir Ivor worked at this time on an
edition of Bach's Mass in B minor.
Sadly, Atkins composed little.
Among his works is a splendid Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis for
chorus and orchestra. He wrote many anthems some of which are still
in use today.
He wrote a pamphlet on the Organists of Worcester Cathedral and a preface
to early Worcester Harmony. In 1928 he wrote a treatise entitled An
Investigation of two Anglo-Saxon calendars.
The 1928 festival included the visits of two composers conducting their
own works. Ethel Smyth conducted her Mass in D and proved to
everyone how strange she was, and Kodály conducted one of his
many masterpieces the Psalmus Hungaricus with Steuart Wilson
as the tenor soloist.
To Elgar's disgust, Sir Ivor included the Walton Viola Concerto and
conducted Szymanowski's glorious Stabat Mater at the 1932 festival
When Elgar died in 1934 Atkins made all the arrangements for a memorial
service at Worcester Cathedral.
The festival that year was at Gloucester and included Elgar's The
Kingdom, conducted by Herbert Sumsion (always known as John), the
dreadful Symphony no. 2, conducted by Percy Buck, and Sir Ivor conducted
The Dream of Gerontius. The Dean and Anglican officials would
not allow these concerts to be recorded. What is on record is the universal
opinion that Atkins's Gerontius was the best ever performance.
I received scores of letters from people saying this, and others who
said that Elgar was a poor conductor not only of his music but everyone
The years of the Second World War as to the Atkins household are not
well documented. Lady Atkins worked industriously as a hospital administrator
and her noble work should not be overlooked. Sir Ivor continued as organist
and in raising monies for worthwhile causes.
Without Elgar he allowed that fundamental goodness of his character
to blossom. He was caring, if a little aloof, and profoundly humanitarian.
He retired from his cathedral post in Easter 1950. Sadly I have to
say that all the information I have received indicates that his successor
was anxious to remove him and was very unkind to him since he too was
in the Elgarian mould of self-importance! It is also commonly reported
that his successor was also very unpleasant to George Weldon and Ruth
Gipps and this is commented on in my biography of the late Dr Gipps.
My great uncle, Sir Ivor Atkins, died in Worcester on 26 November 1953,
three days short of his 84th birthday.
Copyright David C F Wright 1966 , revised 2002.
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All the facts and details of Sir Ivor's life was collected
in 1966 after the death of Horace Atkins.