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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

SOME ORCHESTRAL COMPOSITIONS BY PERCY WHITLOCK
John France

 

Many years ago my parents took me to hear John Moravia at the end of Llandudno Pier. It was at a time of my life when I was beginning to come to terms with such diverse pieces as Schöenberg’s ‘Pierrot Lunaire’ and Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion. Yet here was a musical ensemble that intrigued me. It was not playing any of the music I was getting to know. On the contrary the names of the composers presented in the programmes (which I still possess) were from a very different sound world to the baroque and dodecaphonic masters whom I was busy trying to assimilate. Albert Ketèlbey was a staunch favourite at these concerts; as was Sir Arthur Sullivan and of course music from the 'shows'. The orchestra itself was basically a chamber ensemble, supported by piano. The conductor was also the first violinist. Now this music making had one profound effect on me; it made me appreciate ‘light’ music. Over the years since the late sixties I have explored many highways and byways of classical music. But I have always retained a healthy admiration for well written or arranged light music; especially when this music is played with conviction and with every effort made to express the composer’s intention.

Someone once said that "light music is music with a ‘tune’ that is memorable." Something the ‘mythical’ errand boy can whistle as he delivers the meat and vegetables on his Raleigh bicycle. And there is some truth in this. However this definition needs expanding if we are to make a case for the continual appreciation of a strand of music that does not claim to be ‘art’ music of the most profound character. We must look at what is best in ‘light’ music to see if it has a number of features which set it apart form the run of the mill and the totally average.

Firstly, is the music accessible? Can the majority of music lovers and listeners find enjoyment and pleasure in the musical style? Secondly, does the music display all the qualities of a consummate musical skill? Is the orchestration effective? Are the formal elements of the piece sufficient to give coherence as opposed to aimlessness? Thirdly, is there a sense of sheer enjoyment in the music? Although wistfulness is a well-known quality of this kind of music, light music composers do not usually write ponderous and profound navel gazing monuments to their own spiritual struggles.

We are extremely lucky in having a corpus of music that fits these demands. In fact the ‘light’ music composed in the United Kingdom over the last century or so has many claims to be regarded as a major contribution to the national musical effort. The names of these composers hardly need rehearsing. However a few names will serve, as a reminder of how wide and diverse is the field. Edward Elgar wrote much that is regarded as ‘light’ – the ‘Chanson du Matin’ and the 'Salut d’Amour' for example. Both fine miniatures in whatever arrangement they appear. Eric Coates is probably the most typical of all the composers in this style; who does not love, at least secretly, the London Suites? Ernest Tomlinson, Sydney Torch, Ronald Binge and Richard Addinsell to suggest another four. Some ‘heavy’ composers have also written ‘light’ music as an integral part of their opus; for example Malcolm Arnold and Benjamin Frankel.

Percy Whitlock drifted into the ‘light’ music scene after his application for the position of organist was rejected by the authorities at Rochester Cathedral. He decided to move to the seaside town of Bournemouth. There he became the musical director of St Stephen’s Church. However after some difficult times there he took up the post as the Borough Organist at the Pavilion Theatre. This was a position he was to retain for the rest of his life.

Up until this appointment, Whitlock had been involved with mainly ‘church’ or ‘cathedral’ music. His compositions had been designed very much for the organ loft. In spite of this connection, much of his organ recital pieces do not necessarily have a ‘churchy’ feel to them – even when they are blessed with a ‘liturgical’ title. It is within the context of his ability at writing approachable music that we must consider a selection of orchestral works – most of which were produced during the ‘pavilion’ years.


It is only recently, with the release of the Compact Disc by Marco Polo (8.225162) that we are able to hear Whitlock’s orchestral compositions in the form they were originally conceived. True, there have been a number of arrangements for organ, both by the composer himself and Malcolm Riley, available for a few years. But this disc allows us a unique opportunity to hear music that was written for a definite time and perhaps more importantly a definite place. When Whitlock left St Stephen’s Church to take up his new job at the Pavilion, the organist of a neighbouring church was reputed to have said, ‘It’s a pity he is giving up such a good Church post to go to a place where organ playing is merely an accompaniment to eating and drinking’ (Riley 1998 p.92) This of course is probably a semi jesting remark. However it does belie much of the implied criticism that runs as an undercurrent between ‘serious’ and ‘light’ musicians. For us today, with the benefit of hindsight, we see that far from producing music to aid digestion, Whitlock was able to use his post at the Bournemouth Pavilion to play music of a tremendous variety – from the ‘classic’s to the ‘pops’ and was also able to compose a group of pieces which are amongst some of the very best of ‘light’ music compositions.

I intend to consider only the works that have been recorded on this CD as it the height of folly to try to write about music one has never heard!

The first piece I will consider was actually written some time before the appointment to the post of organist at the Pavilion. This was Whitlock’s only concert overture – ‘The Feast of St Benedict.’ This work was conceived as an entry into a competition run by the Daily Telegraph newspaper in 1933/34. It is very hard to imagine the said broadsheet having such an event in the 21st century. However, it was an important event in its day. They managed to get a few big names on the panel of judges. Sir Henry Wood and Sir Hamilton Harty were the conductors and Arthur Bliss and Frank Bridge were considering the work from a composer’s point of view. The prize went to the fifty-five year old Cyril Scott for his less than typical ‘Festival Overture’.

There is no doubt that Percy Whitlock was a touch peeved at being overlooked. He claims that he did not even get a mention, far less a commendation. He added a note to the score stating that ‘…an arrangement is pending for two toothpicks and a gas jet.’ Although this was a typical Whitlockian jest, it does betray a degree of bitterness.

The work itself is extremely competent – inhabiting that territory which lies well beyond light music. This work owes much to the ‘romanticism’ of Elgar - especially in the extremely effective opening section. It perhaps reflects the ‘In the South’ type of mood that flooded light into so many works of this period. It is quite manifestly not an ‘Anglican’ celebration of this Saint’s feast day; the intention of the composer was to write it in the spirit of a ‘continental’ fiesta. There are ostensibly three sections or themes running through the work; that of Festivity, Love and Religious feeling. Yet these themes interplay. There are moments of quiet amongst the boisterousness of procession. If any criticism could be made of the work it is that in places it is a little too diverse in style. There are some extremely constructive sections whereas occasionally one feels that the composer is padding a little. Some of the tranquil moments are extremely poignant. These betray an almost ‘Finzian’ pastoralism. Yet we know that Finzi had written little at this time. What one cannot fault is the scoring. This was a piece for full orchestra, which also called for harp and organ. To balance such forces was an achievement for any composer. However, Whitlock’s handling of the brass is especially effective. I have regretted in other places that he never chose to compose for brass band – the March ‘Phoebe’ excepted. Some of the scoring and the textures look forward to the magisterial Organ Symphony. This work is no whimsical joke; it is the product of a fine and balanced musicianship; it is romantic music at its best and deserves to take its place as one of the fine concert overtures produced by any English composer in the last century. Perhaps Whitlock got the last laugh; to my knowledge the winner of the Telegraph competition, Cyril Scott, does not have his piece recorded on CD!

 

It is necessary to consider the Holiday’s Suite, the Balloon Ballet and the Ballet of the Wood Creatures together. All three works make use of re-cycled material for the ‘Daydream Family’ show that was presented at the Pavilion in early 1939. He had been commissioned to write the music for this play. The libretto was by a certain Madge Beaumont. The play seems to have been performed on 11th February 1939, before an audience of children from the Church of England Children’s Society Waifs and Strays. The music was played by the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra with Montague Birch on the rostrum. Malcolm Riley notes that the libretto has not survived so it is quite difficult to reconstruct what actually happened and what music was used and in what order. However it seems that all the music mentioned above was used at some point in the play. It is interesting to note that the composer’s wife played a ‘mother’ character in what must have been quite a sugary production – certainly not to today’s taste! The composer’s wife referred to it as a ‘Little Lord Fauntelroy-ish piece. It is unlikely to be revived! However we are fortunate in having some of the best music from it.

Percy Whitlock worked these pieces up into stand-alone pieces. We must be extremely grateful that this music did not disappear like so many of his compositions.

The Ballet of the Wood Creatures is a deliciously scored miniature wholly in the tradition of British light music. Straight away on the opening one is reminded of Tchaikowsky's ballet music, then somehow it slips effortlessly into a delicious essay of all that is best in miniature writing. The scoring is delightful - with lovely gentle cymbal clashes creating the emphasis in a typically 'light' tune. The woodwinds are playing little figurations like falling leaves or perhaps chirruping insects. Every now and again there is an image of Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream. And I suppose this is what it is all about. The wood creatures are not specified, however it is quite manifestly an adult looking at the 'magic' woods with the wistful eye of a man slowly approaching middle age. I should not wonder that these 'creatures' speak. I certainly could imagine this music being used to accompany a 'dance' based on Wind in the Willows. Another work that springs to mind, not only in this piece but in much of Percy Whitlock's other orchestral music is the incidental music to ‘'Where the Rainbow Ends' by Roger Quilter. It has the same pensive qualities. I mentioned Mendelssohn, and it is actually quite strange that Whitlock chooses a 'motto' from the Hebridean Overture. The piece ends rather wistfully. Perhaps the creatures have gone to sleep?

The work was reworked shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. It belies the imminent crisis in its innocent portrayal of a magic wood. It is just too short, and one is constantly wishing for another movement. What a pity that Whitlock did not compose a full ballet. It would have been a treasure.

The Balloon Ballet is another delightful miniature that leaves one wishing for more. The sleeve notes describe this piece as a ‘spinning wheel’ movement in Bb. But to me it is much more than this. Once again we are conscious of the composer’s skill at employing the orchestral resources available to him. The movement in 6/8 time does indeed have a definite swing to it. There is an opening flourish before we here the main tune with its ‘spinning wheel’ accompaniment. The middle section is somewhat more poignant than the opening material. Then there is the drum role followed by the reprise of the main theme. Light brass fanfare figuration adds a certain subtlety to this piece. This is definitely children’s music –not so much written for them, perhaps, but as a reflection on their innocence. It is a fine example of the genre, considering that it was salvaged from something that was quite manifestly ephemeral. It says much for the composer’s skill and sheer musical professionalism.

The ‘Holiday Suite’ was the one piece in Whitlock’s repertoire that I most wanted to hear. To my mind the titles of its three movements express much of the emotion that surrounds the thoughts of a holiday by the sea in England. It is an epitome of much that has passed into history. However, holidays at Bournemouth and Llandudno will always be with us. And as long as people enjoy the simple pleasures of life this music will serve as a reminder of much that is precious in the British psyche. This may be strong words for a slight piece –but this is what ‘light’ music is about – approachability. A friend of mine who does not claim to understand or appreciate the complexities of Bartok String Quartets or the transcendental piano music of Franz Liszt finds this Holiday Suite full of evocative images. And these are images of her holidays too. Memories of girlhood at Scarborough and Bridlington are evoked in these three movements. And who is to say that Max Jaffa is not as important to musical enjoyment as Yehudi Menhuin? Certainly neither of these two gentlemen!

Three movements and one enigma. The suite opens with a fine Waltz: ‘In the Ballroom.’ This is in the spirit of so many similar pieces by Eric Coates – a fine English Dance. We feel that at times it is a somewhat restrained movement. Perhaps it is a tea dance? But then the orchestra breaks out into a fine sweep, which along with the saxophones leads back into a typical lilting swing. Then a short codetta and off into the next eight! I can so easily see a pre-war audience moving gracefully around the ballroom. The Ballroom in the title is of course the one behind the Bournemouth Pavilion Concert Hall.

The second is a delightful polka that manages to incorporate the good old English tune ‘Cherry Ripe.’ This had been done already by Frank Bridge in one of his string orchestra pieces and of course by Eric Coates in his London Suite. Whitlock would have known both these works. It is the composer’s delightful sense of humour that gave this piece the back to front title – ‘Spade and Bucket’ Polka. It is a well-written miniature, which certainly evokes thoughts of major excavations on the beach!

The last movement is entitled quite simply, ‘Civic March.’ Yet there is an enigma here. The Performing Rights Society has this listed as the Picnic March. However the score and the parts all have the current title of Civic March. I asked Malcolm Riley about this discrepancy and he is of the opinion that the official title links it in nicely to the ‘municipal’ – the ballroom and the Pavilion belonging to the town council. However I have listened to this march a number of times and am unable to imagine processions of aldermen and the newly made Mayors and civil dignitaries and their partners. For me the music is too bright and breezy. There is an open-air quality to this tune. Perhaps it is easier to imagine the Famous Five off on a picnic with their ginger beer and jam sandwiches. To my mind it fits in with the idea of ‘being at the seaside.’ The last thing I would want to do as a child is watch a lot of old fogeys dressed up in outdated clothes shamble along the High Street! However, I will defer, for scholarships sake and concede that this last movement is a rather bright and gay ‘civic’ march.

A brief glance at the catalogue shews that there are a number of other miniatures that would seem to derive from the 'Daydream Family' music. These include the Troubadour Song for voice and small orchestra, Three Demon Dances for small orchestra and the Bouquet Ballet. All these manuscript appear to have been lost. However the 1st violin part for the Troubadour Song survives in the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra Library at Poole.

The two songs that have been well orchestrated by Malcolm Riley for this recording are Susan the Doggie and Me and Come Along Marnie. Both of these derive from the 'Daydream Family' Show. In their new guise they are attractive pieces that are redolent of English Pastoral. They can only be described as thoughtful and slightly melancholic. They both have quite delightful tunes that somehow one seems to already know very well. They are charming additions to both the Whitlock corpus and to light music in general.

The March: Dignity and Impudence is one of those many pieces of music which, if written by someone else would have had a totally different history. I could name half dozen marches by English composers that languish in the shade of Elgar and Walton. One need only to think of William Alwyn’s 'Festival March' or perhaps Parry’s March from ‘Aristophones’ to see two pieces which have become submerged between Pomp & Circumstance and Crown Imperial.

It is not difficult to see that Whitlock had a great admiration for the music of Sir Edward Elgar. Much of the music on the present CD has quite obvious Elgarian fingerprints. And the Dignity and Impudence March is no exception. References to Elgar's 4th P&C essay have been detected. The title given by Whitlock suggested to my mind the gorgeous if not downright sentimental picture by Sir Edwin Landseer. However, Malcolm Riley assures me that Whitlock was certainly not a ‘dog-lover.’ This was not attempt at presenting two different character sketches of man’s best friend! Actually the piece is a nod and a wink to Elgar himself. Perhaps it is Pomp & Circumstance No 6? Certainly if it had been, it would have been played at the Proms and on Classic FM. Perhaps we can read Imperial for Impudence and Pomp for Dignity. Certainly this is a fine example of a march. All the elements are there. Brass fanfares and a fine opening ‘minuet’ theme, which in many ways nods at both Elgar and the yet unwritten Crown Imperial March. It by and large follows in the traditional form of a march, with the big tune repeated. However the minuet theme is more complex than many marches. It combines two contrasting elements that work together exceptionally well. The trio is quite gorgeous. It is a really big tune; perhaps one of the finest that any composer has written for a march. Whenever I listen to it now I cannot help feeling that if this were known it would be widely loved. Everything we expect of a concert march is here; it is a minor masterpiece. Malcolm Riley has arranged it for the organ, although Percy Whitlock used to play it at the Compton organ in the Pavilion, presumably from memory or from the short score. It was composed in 1932 and received its first performance at Bournemouth under Dan Godfrey some two years later.

The Wessex Suite is another of those pieces of music that evoke summer holidays by the seaside. Early in 1934 Percy Whitlock suggested to Richard Austin that he write a suite for orchestra. Austin was Dan Godfrey’s successor as conductor of the Municipal Orchestra. At this time Whitlock was still organist and choirmaster at St Stephens Church. However it was not until September 1937 that the suite materialised. It was written under the nom-de-plume of Kenneth Lark. This is perhaps the most ‘light’ of all the pieces recorded on this CD. Some of the instrumentation and harmonisation is tending towards the ‘dance bands’ of the era. This is made more obvious by the scoring that includes three saxophones and the vibraphone. The suite is in three movements; - Revels in Hogsnorton; The Blue Poole and March: Rustic Cavalry. Revels in Hogsnorton derives from a mythical village created by the popular comedian Gillie Potter. It is a thirties ‘Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh’. It is an attractive waltz with a distinctly ‘modern’ trio. The second movement is the loveliest thing on this CD. The title, The Blue Poole is a concatenation of two beauty spots. The Blue Pool on the Isle of Purbeck and of course Poole harbour itself. The movement opens with a brief upward phrase for saxophone. Then there is a cadenza for solo violin. There is a rocking motion in the accompaniment; a gorgeous tune is given to saxophones. The vibraphone is heard in the background. Muted brass lead to a variation of the tune; a harp glissando leads into a middle section. Then suddenly it is up-tempo. The xylophone is busy with figurations. Then the mood music returns, first for strings, then into the languorous theme- even the two solo violins seem slightly out of tune- just as it may have been in some far off performance. The movement ends quietly, with a vibraphone added note chord. It is a perfect picture of lazy days by the seaside. Lovers walking hand in hand, without a care in the world.

The last movement is entitled Rustic Cavalry – seemingly related to Mascagni’s opera Cavalleria Rusticana. The programme notes describe this march as ‘rousing and swashbuckling’ – and it certainly is. Elgar, however, is the musical inspiration rather than the Italian operatic composer. Riley notes allusions to Froissart and mentions the fact the Radio Times billed this work as the Rustic Chivalry March. Elgar had prefixed his score of Froissart with ‘When chivalry lifted high her lance on high.’ Listeners have also detected references to the First World War Song – 'It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.’ I do not quite understand what it is doing in a Wessex Suite; it does not really help with tone painting of a holiday by the sea. However, perhaps the clue lies in its description as swashbuckling. Is it meant to refer to things piratical and nautical?

The latest work that we shall consider is the Music for Orchestra, produced in 1941. This is in fact a compilation of re-cycled music from different periods of the composer’s life. The first movement is called Peter’s Tune. This is better known to those who haunt the organ loft as the Allegretto from the Five Pieces for Organ that was composed in his last year at Rochester in 1929. The tune was supposedly based on the whistling of a chorister, a certain Peter Burney. The piece opens with dotted quavers in 4/8 time, and swings along in a wistful manner. This rhythm is heard virtually throughout the piece in varying guises and at slightly different tempi. It is one of the finest miniatures to come from the composer’s pen. The orchestral version complements the original organ edition admirably, with a subtle sense of light and shade. A true gem. The Caprice is almost quicksilver. It was worked out some time before the Second World War began. In some ways it is a miniature ‘organ concerto.’ The orchestra and soloist are given material to be played ‘antiphonally’ which gives the piece a sense of drive and direction. The material is slightly darker than ‘Caprice’ may suggest; it certainly is not a ‘humorous’ piece as the dictionary definition of the title presumes. The Reverie again has an integral organ part; it actually began life as the third movement of Three Pieces for Organ and Strings. However, although there is some attractive material, there is a little problem with balance between the organ and orchestra. Not tonally but almost certainly structural. There is a sense of 'organ then band; organ then band'.

The last piece is quite interesting. It is quite in a little world of its own. The Fanfare on the tune Song of Agincourt was composed in 1940. He had heard the song on the radio and his wife, Edna, suggested he write a piece based on the tune. The harmonies in this piece are quite different to much that has come from Whitlock’s pen. Parts of it suggest quite a ‘warlike’ felling. Perhaps it is the use of parallel harmonies reminiscent of Vaughan Williams less pastoral moments. Or maybe it is the spare ness of a psuedo ‘sackbut and drum’ sound that makes this piece sound as it does. Once again it is presented antiphonally. The organ playing the ‘tune’ of the ‘chorale’ and the orchestra commenting. A good finish to this collection of quite disparate music. It is perhaps this lack of coherence between the movements that makes this is the least convincing of the larger works that we are able to listen to on this CD.

Percy Whitlock’s orchestral music fulfils all the requirements of good music. It is tuneful, it is well constructed, and it has almost immediate appeal. His ability as an orchestrator is shewn time and time again in the pages of these works. However, much of this music is on the boundary between what critics would call ‘light’ music and ‘serious’ music. It inhabits a world that became less and less popular as composers tried to be innovative. Whitlock’s orchestral music has a unique quality. It is often wistful and melancholic but never profound. He cheers the mind and eases the heart. And that is good. So many composers leave us totally unmoved. It is not until we consider his masterpiece, the Organ Symphony, that we find this composer creating a work that has the power to move our hearts and minds to the highest degree.

I often regret that Whitlock did not produce a few more works for the mainstream concert platform. However, we must be thankful for these relatively few pieces that have survived the test of time. Most people will still regard Percy Whitlock as a composer of organ music, and this is a pity. Certainly many of his finest works were for the king of instruments. But Whitlock was a competent musician who was able to turn his hand to a variety of forms and styles. This present offering which is so welcome proves that perhaps it was no bad thing that he left the organ loft for the dance floor. Let us hope that the remaining pieces in the orchestral repertoire are given an occasional airing so we can further judge the compositions of this very able and talented composer.

Brief Bibliography: -

Percy Whitlock – organist & composer Malcolm Riley 1998 Thames Publishing, London.

Personal correspondence between author and Malcolm Riley.

Catalogue of Organ works
The Organ Symphony
Some Orchestral compositions
Obituary from the Musical Opinion, June 1946
Whitlock index page

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