SOME ORCHESTRAL COMPOSITIONS BY PERCY WHITLOCK
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 Schöenbergs
Pierrot Lunaire and
Bachs St Matthews 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 composers 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 dAmour' 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 Stephens 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 Whitlocks 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 Stephens Church to take up his new job at the
Pavilion, the organist of a neighbouring church was reputed to have said,
Its 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
classics to the pops and was also able to compose
a group of pieces which are amongst some of the very best of light
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 Whitlocks
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 composers point of view. The prize went to the fifty-five year
old Cyril Scott for his less than typical Festival
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 Saints
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, Whitlocks 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 Holidays 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 Childrens 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 composers wife played a mother character
in what must have been quite a sugary production certainly not to
todays taste! The composers 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
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
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 composers 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 childrens 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
composers skill and sheer musical professionalism.
The Holiday Suite was the one piece in Whitlocks
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
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 composers 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
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 Alwyns
'Festival March' or perhaps Parrys 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 mans 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 Godfreys
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
Mascagnis 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 'Its 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
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 composers life. The first movement is called Peters
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 composers 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 Whitlocks 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
Percy Whitlocks 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. Whitlocks 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
Personal correspondence between author and Malcolm Riley.