Catalogue of Organ works
The Organ Symphony
Some Orchestral compositions
Obituary from the Musical Opinion, June 1946
Introduction and the Plymouth Suite
At the time when Vaughan Williams was writing his middle-period symphonies
and Britten was beginning to find his mature voice, a composer was writing
music for the organ which would become part of the standard repertoire. Percy
Whitlock did not devise a 'new' music - he was no Dupré or Messiaen.
However, what he achieved was a perfect fusion of late romantic, neo-classical
and dance hall styles - with the emphasis on the late-romantic. He was a
master-craftsman who is impossible to classify. He cannot be termed a 'light'
music composer - witness his great Organ Symphony. Yet he was able
to produce 'pop' pieces such as the 'Bucket and Spade Polka'. 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.
The composer Percy Whitlock was born in Chatham, Kent on June 1st
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. 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.
In 1921 Whitlock became the assistant organist at his old 'alma mater'. The
organist of Rochester at that time was Charles Hylton Stewart. At the same
time Whitlock was able to be the organist and choir master at St Mary's Chatham
and then at St Mathew's Parish Church, Borstal. It was always regarded that
he would become the organist at Rochester when the post became vacant. However,
a certain Harold E. Bennet was appointed to the post 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. He remained
there until 1935. However the main task of the thirties and forties was his
appointment in 1932 as the Borough Organist at the Municipal Pavilion. He
remained in this post until his untimely death in 1946. It was here, perhaps
that he discovered his truly eclectic spirit. The post required an ability
to play 'heavy' classics and 'light' dance music.
During this period he was much occupied with giving recitals in London,
Bournemouth and other parts of the South. He gave performances for the BBC.
A perusal of the appendices to Malcolm Riley's book shew 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
a number of compositions written at the time. There were a number of 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. A loss regretted by all who knew him. L.S. Barnard writing
the Obituary in Musical Opinion 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
He was interested in things other than music. He was a great Meccano enthusiast,
building working clocks. He wrote a monograph on the steam locomotives of
the South Eastern & Chatham Railway.
Whitlock was survived by his wife Edna, who was also musician.
Whitlock's catalogue is not extensive. The range of his compositions is somewhat
limited. However this is not a criticism. For what has survived the vagaries
of time is of an exceptional standard of workmanship and is a invaluable
addition to the literature. The main corpus is the organ music. From the
relatively light Chanty from the Plymouth Suite to the deeper
waters of the Fantasie Chorals Whitlock never allows the quality of
his writing to slip. He never attempts to surprise the listener with 'harmonic
or formal novelties'. In many ways his music is quite conservative. Yet on
the other side, although much of his writing has a 'light' quality to it,
it never becomes sentimental or trite. Although sometimes it is possible
to hear echoes of the 'cinema organ' it is also just as 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 be impossible to hear much of what he wrote. However the manuscript
for his Piano Quartet is available at the British Library and
may one day be revived.
There was a fair amount of choral music written. Settings of the Magnificat
and the Nunc Dimittis, a simple communion service and a number of other anthems
and liturgical pieces. There were two pageants written for the communities
of Bridgwater and Rochester which were for chorus and orchestra. However
it is probably difficult to rescue what were highly ephemeral pieces of music.
Whitlock fans are lucky that the CD company Marco Polo is due to release
an album of his orchestral music. In fact nearly two thirds of the surviving
scores are due to be published. 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 suites has
sentimental but attractive movements such as 'Revels in Hogsnorton' and 'The
Blue Poole' - the second suite enjoying pieces called the 'Bucket and Spade
Polka' and 'In the Ballroom'. - Echoes of holidays by the sea - especially
More profound is the Prelude Air and Fugue of 1939 which was given
at Bournemouth to somewhat mixed reviews.
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 - perhaps the most popular
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 Chorals -one in D flat major
and the second in F sharp minor. Both these pieces reflect the Whitlock
romanticism at full flight.
The Organ Sonata in C minor dwarfs most of the other pieces that this
composer wrote. There is little of the 'sea front and deck chairs' about
this work although the Scherzetto has a lot of 'fun' about it.
However, Whitlock's masterpiece must be 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 piece was inspired by an article in the Radio Times where George Thalben-Ball
lamented the fact that there was no good 'English Organ Concerto' in existence.
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 a number of composers in this work including Elgar, Richard
Strauss, Delius and of course Sergei Rachmaninov. However 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.
To the present writer it 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 day.
But music is about heart and mind - and Whitlock serves both well.
The 'Plymouth Suite' was a highly competent return to a somewhat more
approachable vein - in fact it is probably the composers most famous and
most popular work. 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.
Riley mentions a lost set of Variations which were the last piece
to exercise the composer before his untimely death.
Whitlock 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
The piece was composed between August and November of 1937. A glance at the
catalogue shews that it followed the Wessex Suite for Orchestra, a
'Foxtrot' the manuscript for which has been lost & a Shanty
selection which has also been lost without all trace. However 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 was the organist of Chichester Cathedral and had succeeded W.G
MacNaught 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 music this movement is not easy to play. It is a
somewhat laid back Allegro Risoluto with pretension to sounding like
a theme for a passacaglia. This theme is treated in an extremely competent
manner with robust harmonies. The second theme 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 writer Peter Hardwick in his
article 'The Organ Music of Percy Whitlock' notices a number of neo-classicist
finger-prints leading to some interesting dissonaces. There are polytonal
and polymodal parallel triads working 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 the 'changing rhythms and moods of
The second movement is entitled 'Lantana' - the dictionary definition
of which is a 'tree-like shrub.' However it is translated by Whitlock as
the 'Wayfaring Tree.' This movement was dedicated to the organist of Buckfast
Abbey, Dom. Wilfred. The monk was well known for 'organ' crawls and even
collected bits and pieces of kit for use on his own instrument. The mood
is peaceful and quite distant in it's atmosphere. There is no doubt that
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. Reginald
Dixon. Apparently this gentleman was regarded by Whitlock as being the 'generally
the naughty boy at any party.' Here we have a genuine Plymouth reference.
Quite definitely a nautical piece in a quick 2/4 rhythm. Riley points out
that this piece 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 his one of his concerti grossi. The time signature
of this was 3/2. A 'shanty was definitely a sailor's song - devised to make
hard manual work easier by assisting the rhythmic motions of task aboard
The fourth movement, called 'Salix' is an example of the pastoral
style. It would be easy to see such a piece composed by the likes of Finzi
or perhaps William Lloyd Webber. The depth of the piece is actually more
intense than the 'light hearted' dedication would imply. Apparently the dedicatee
was a certain Henry Austin Dewdney who was a Bournemouth pianist. He was
involved in most of the local music making in the nineteen thirties. Whitlock
states of him '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 quite definitely one of the composers finest miniatures.
One wonders what it would sound like arranged for strings or small orchestra.
The last movement is a robust toccata. This was dedicated to the Borough
Organist of Plymouth, Dr. George Harry Moreton. Strangely, perhaps this is
Whitlock's only essay in the form of Toccata. However this piece 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,
however 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, fairly slow moving pedal theme is set against a semi-quaver
accompaniment on the manuals. The solo reed emerges to lift this piece into
the heavens. This uses a wider melodic range and shorter note values.
It would make an excellent recessional for a wedding if only more people
were aware of it's existence.
The Plymouth Suite is well served in recordings. The definitive version is
probably Graham Barber's recording on the Hull City Hall organ. [Priory PRCD
489] However Jennifer Bate & Donald Hunt have also made it their own.
The Toccata is a regular concert pull.
Whitlock died at an early age. Who knows what would have issued from his
pen if he had lived until the 1980's, say. He would have seen the demise
of the seaside orchestras and the music-making of a pre-rock and roll era.
The public's interest in hearing organ recitals waned and dancers danced
to the sound of records rather than a resident band or instrumentalist.
However, we have a excellent corpus of works from this very fine and competent
composer. And amongst this corpus are a number of real treasures. The Organ
Symphony and the Sonata would entitle any composer to huge respect if not
the suggestion of genius.
© John France 31th October 2000