The Organ Symphony in G minor Percy Whitlock
A Brief Study
There are relatively few organ concerti for the concert hall -at least from
the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There was the ubiquitous Symphony
No.3 by Saint-Saens but that is more a concertante work than a traditional
set-too between soloist and orchestra. There were of course a number of other
French pieces Guillamant and Widor for example, produced concerted
pieces for the organ. But as for British Concerti there was little to speak
of. A brief study of Charles Villiers Stanford's catalogue reveals a
Konzertstuck with a solo organ part. If my memory does not fail me
Ebeneezer Prout wrote an Organ Concerto albeit in a reportedly
pedantic style. But as no-one claims to have heard it in the last 120 years
it is difficult to comment on.
The Radio Times in 1936 carried an article by George Thalben Ball who lamented
the fact that there was a deficiency of suitable concerted pieces for organ
and orchestra. Of course Malcolm Riley points out that the maestro from Temple
Church had overlooked the competent works of Basil Harwoods Concerto
in D major and Charles Lloyds Organ Concerto. However these
were both written at the turn of the century they were
Edwardian works pre Great War. What was needed was something
that reflected the musical language of the mid-nineteen thirties.
It was this challenge which inspired Percy Whitlock to fill the gap. Furthermore,
an Organ Concerto by the forgotten composer Quentin Maclean had been
performed at Bournemouth on the 4th October 1933. Whitlock attended
this first performance and felt that he could do better. He noted in his
diary Macleans work has a lovely second theme; but [there are]
one or two ugly patches especially near the end. Besides it was not
scored for full orchestra.
To consider the importance of the Symphony in G minor it is necessary
to review the scale of Whitlocks works. First and foremost he was a
composer for the organ. Unlike many such composers not all Whitlocks
organ works were designed for ecclesiastical use. Many have secular titles.
One only needs to think of the Plymouth Suite, the Organ Sonata
and the Fantasie Chorales. Then there were a number of arrangements
for use in the Bournemouth Pavilion - The Fantasy on Welsh Airs and
a couple of Foxtrots. Of course he had been assistant organist in
Rochester Cathedral and organist in various other churches in Kent and Sussex.
As a result there was a definite ecclesiastical leaning in some of his
better-known works for the organ. The Three Preludes on Hymn Melodies
and the Seven Sketches on Verses from the Psalms for example. Most
of Whitlocks choral music was for church use including Communion
Settings, Hymns, Chants and a couple of settings of the Magnificat and Nunc
Dimittis. There was a selection of twenty or so songs for soloist and pianoforte
accompaniment these are invariably secular. However many of the titles
suggest a light musical context for example Gypsy
Song, Susan the Doggie and me' and Children
young and Mild.
One of the hidden surprises of his catalogue is the chamber music. Like many
composers of his generation he wrote a Phantasy for String Quartet.
There are also a couple of pieces for Violin and Piano and a Sonata for Violin
with Organ accompaniment.
The main run of orchestral music would by any stretch of the imagination
be classified a light for example the evocatively named
Holiday Suite with movements such as the Picnic
March and the 'Spade & Bucket Polka, the Wessex Suite
and the Ballet for the Wood Creatures. In fact Marco Polo is due to
release a CD of some of these works on the British Light Music Series. Much
of this orchestral music was arranged for the resident orchestra at the Pavilion.
However there is a corpus of pieces for full orchestra some of which
was composed with organ solo or accompaniment.
The musical life of Bournemouth at that time was excellent. As an example
Malcolm Riley gives some details of the Music Festival that ran from
22nd to 28th March 1936. Verdis Requiem
was performed on the opening night given by the Municipal Choir and
supported by an augmented Municipal Orchestra. Frank Idle conducted it. Igor
Stravinsky conducted his Capriccio for piano and orchestra. The solo
part was played by Stravinskys son, Soulima. The audience also heard
the suites from Pulcinella & The Firebird. Whitlock was
not overly impressed he recorded in his diary that Pulcinella
Thomas Beecham conducted the orchestra in Haydns 99th
Symphony and Brahms Second. Whitlock was present at the rehearsals
but not at this concert. Later in the week Henry Wood was on the rostrum.
Apparently Whitlock spoke to the maestro and the topic worked round to Organ
Concertos! E.J. Moeran was present for the first performance of his Two
Pieces for Orchestra, Lonely Waters & Wythorne's Shadow. The concert
that evening also included Sibelius 1st Symphony
and Artur Rubenstein playing the solo part of Tchaikovsky First Piano
Whitlock, then was exposed to many different genres of music and to some
of the top performers and conductors. Even if he was not enamoured with
Stravinsky, he was still aware of its particular sound world. However I think
that the Sibelius Symphony and his well know love of Rachmaninov may well
be most relevant to our consideration of the Organ Symphony.
It is very easy to look for influences and allusions in any but the most
innovative composers work. In a CD review of the Symphony by Mr Rob Barnett
the first movement has been shewn to have the plunging romanticism
of Louis Glasss Fifth, Atterburg's Sixth, Madetoja's
Second and Peterson-Bergers 'Journey to the South'. It
is not possible to deduce from the context of the review as to whether the
author imagined that Whitlock knew these above-mentioned works. The next
sentence of the same review states that 'here are Elgarian influences'. Finzi
is quoted as having influenced the slow movement - The Finale is a
statement of eloquence which we associate with Rachmaninov before diving
into a skittering reflection of the flightier moments of the Elgar Second
Now I agree with Rob Barnett that it is possible to get a feel for influences.
It is possible to see allusions to all kinds of composers in any composer's
works. Yet the key issue is this. To what extent is any work modelled consciously
on another work or series or works and to what extent does a composition
simply refer to memories of heard music. Now we know that Whitlock
had heard Sibelius and we know that he admired Rachmaninov. Elgar had only
been dead a few years and was influential in the music of the day. Many of
these influences have been digested and no doubt turned to good account in
this work. However at the end of the day it is a unique creation by Whitlock.
It is romantic, it has many of the touches of between the wars
British and European music. It is a work in its own class; it is a 'Child
of its Time'. It is not a patchwork of styles, tunes, harmonies and textures.
It is a well-wrought and well-structured essay in the symphonic medium.
The Symphony in G minor for Organ and Orchestra lasts some 43 minutes in
the Francis Jackson Recording on Amphion CDs. It has four movements: -
Elegy ( for organ and strings)
Toccata and Fugue.
In many ways it resembles the work of Saint Saens, as it is more of a
'concertante' work than a classic concerto with soloist pitted against the
orchestra. Although there are some excellent solo passages in this work the
organ is often used to provide additional texture to the orchestral parts.
Whitlock used a large orchestra with one or two unusual additions. It is
scored for triple woodwind, brass, percussion including gong and bells, celeste,
two harps and strings. It is interesting to note that a distinctive feature
of Whitlock's writing is the use of 'divisi' cellos.
Composition began on the 23rd June1936. After three days Whitlock
had completed the 1st & slow movts of my new opus
Most of the work appears to have been in place by the 2nd July
as he gave a run through to his wife. Also present were Dick
Austin the conductor of the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra from 1934 1940
and also the dedicatee of the Symphony and Bernard Walker a personal friend
of Whitlock and art master at Bournemouth Grammar School. There was agreement
that the first movement was weak, chromatic and decadent. The
finale promised to be amusing although at this stage it was only in
draft form. The finale was later abandoned and a new one composed early in
the New Year. However it is believed that the second and third movements
were written or at least sketched earlier in April 1936. There is a reference
on the score of the Elegy to "M&B Chichester 27.4.1936". Apparently these
were the initials of two young ladies whom Edna and Percy met whilst on holiday
in Chichester. According to Riley, M was Mary Busck, who was
the daughter of the Vicar of St. Bartholomew's and the other was Betty Adams,
Marys friend and also church organist. The third movement's ancestry
can be traced back even further. In the holograph score of the scherzo there
are pencil sketches relating to that movement that is dated 4/34.
After the first performance, Whitlock made a number of alterations to the
score. A baritone saxophone part was added to fill the Bass Clarinet cues
and also to double the cellos in certain places.
The first movement begins in waltz time, and we see immediately the concertante
nature of this work. For the main theme is given to the orchestra with the
organ providing a kind of running commentary in semi-quavers. A slower passage
with a lovely horn phrase and some very romantic string passages create almost
a feeling of repose. Soon the time signature changes to 4-4 and a modulation
to Bb. This time it is the turn of the organ. A second subject is introduced
by the soloist and then is taken up by the orchestra. There is the first
climax followed by a rapid subsidence towards the classical development section.
The brass writing is so effective that it makes one wish Whitlock had written
for this medium. We hear the first theme played on the cor anglais and the
bass clarinet. The second subject is reprised by a beautiful combination
of solo violin and cello. There is a passage for full orchestra followed
by an elaborate coda.
The second movement is called an Elegy. Here I have to agree with the
commentators. I do see the fingerprints of Finzi in these passages. However
these references raise a minor problem. The present Symphony was composed
basically in 1936. If we examine the Finzi catalogue we find relatively few
works of that master as having been composed at that time. The only orchestral
work on the books was the Severn Rhapsody. There were a number of
songs and choral pieces. The ill fated Violin Concerto was not published
in it's entirety -with only the introit appearing in 1935. So to what extent
was Whitlock aware of Finzi's music? I presume he must have known the Severn
Rhapsody. The music of Finzi is a combination of English Pastoral and a deep
understanding of the early keyboard music. Bach was an icon and much of his
writing exhibits the keyboard technique of the German master. Furthermore
the second theme is organically related to Whitlocks own Organ
Sonata. The first eight notes replicate exactly the Canzona theme at
a fifth below.
The second movement of the Symphony is scored for organ and strings
only. It is written in the key of B minor and in waltz time. The structure
of the movement is simple - ternary form. The organ repeats the opening section
provided by the strings. There is a short cello 'divisi' followed by a beautiful
heart-rending melody given by a solo viola - this is developed and given
to unison violins. There is an echo of the melody from the viola. The organ
meditates on the opening theme of the Elegy. Accompanied by the strings the
movement comes to a reflective close.
Malcolm Riley suggests that the Elegy could be an In Memoriam
for the composers father who had died in May 1935. But whatever the
programme', this is a truly fine piece of music. For how long have
lovers of English Pastoral overlooked it?
The third movement is a good old-fashioned Scherzo. It is written in 6-8
time in the key of Eb major. Once again this movement is in ternary form.
It is quite definitely in Whitlock's lighter vein. Shades of the 'Spade and
Bucket Polka'! The opening theme has muted trumpets and passage for full
orchestra. This is actually an excellent theme that is well capable of carrying
considerable development. The organ enters with an insistent phrase that
is developed by the soloist. The two themes are tossed around between the
orchestra and soloist. There is a brief bridge passage on the organ supported
by pizzicato strings. The trio is in Ab minor and is 'alla valse' and Dvorak
and Richard Strauss have been identified as models. We hear the celeste and
divisi strings. Hints of the opening theme are heard. Whitlock described
the trio as 'having something of the flavour of a medieval church melody."
I am not so sure - End of the pier rather than the transepts! Muted trumpets
bring us back to the opening theme. Side drums and a degree of parallel chordal
writing bring the Scherzo to a 'fun' conclusion.
The finale is the longest part of the work and is quite a tour-de-force.
It is described as a Toccata and fugue. The opening section is in D major
and written in 2-4 time. The organ announces itself after a few bars with
a short cadenza. The complex figuration is typical of the perpetual motion
so beloved of the French School of organists. There are loud brass fanfares,
a kind of detached chordal dialogue between orchestra and soloist.
The second subject is given in the relative major, Bb. There are entries
for horns, trumpets and violas. This is generally felt to have been influenced
by Rachmaninoff and certainly it is a big tune. With gorgeous
long held notes high in the strings and a delicious falling brass phrase.
A quiet passage with a scale from the celeste and then the organ solo leads
to a slightly troubled cantilena on the strings and another restatement on
the organ. There is a moment of repose-almost pianissimo and a full close.
This is followed by fugal passages with the woodwind well to the fore. The
baritone saxophone is heard in its toothsome part. Throughout
the Finale there are echoes of the First movement and the Elegy. The quasi-cyclic
nature of the piece is reinforced by reminders of the Scherzo. After a huge
build up a fanfare and a drum role, the big brief encounter theme
returns in all its glory references to the toccata theme and a final
short coda complete this most satisfying movement.
The first performance was given at Bournemouth Pavilion, on the
21st March 1937. Percy Whitlock himself was the soloist with his
friend Richard Austin conducting the resident orchestra. Apparently the first
performance went reasonably well, although Whitlock complained that the
rehearsals had been less than desired. Leslie Bernard, writing in the Musical
Opinion August 1937 stated that the Symphony was received with gratifying
enthusiasm by the Bournemouth audience.
The revised work was performed at the Pavilion five months later on
19th August 1937. This performance was broadcast by the BBC. Whitlock
gave a number of performances of the work at Hull City Hall (1939),
at Leeds Town Hall (1938), Goldsmiths College (1938), London and finally
at Bournemouth (1940). Thereafter the holograph score and parts were stored
at the library of Oxford University Press. It was earmarked for publication,
however the onset of the Second World War meant that this was permanently
shelved. In 1962 the orchestral parts, were for some reason, destroyed.
The resurrection of this great work is largely due to the Whitlock scholar
and champion, Malcolm Riley. The OUP Hire Library Manager in the mid-eighties
was Mr Simon Wright. In 1986 he came across the score of this work in an
unmarked box in the companies Oxford cellars. Then Malcolm Riley began the
arduous task of preparing a new score, organ solo part and orchestral parts.
This mammoth task came to fruition in 1989 when the work was revived in Llandaff
Cathedral. The performance was given by the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra
under the baton of Grant Llewellyn with Graham Barber as the Soloist. Finally
it was recorded in York Minster on 21st & 22nd
June 1999 with the University of York Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jonathon
Wright with Francis Jackson at the console. It was released the following
Whitlock suffers from being a composer largely confined to the organ loft.
This is unfair to his reputation. There is a large corpus of orchestral and
vocal music and even a small amount of chamber music.
However, there is no doubt that the Organ Symphony can be regarded
as the composers masterpiece. Some commentators would argue that the
Organ Sonata wins on points.
The organ repertoire has been well recorded recently Priory Records
have released most of the extant pieces. Soon Marco Polo will issue a disc
of light orchestral pieces. There is certainly room in the repertoire
for the Fantasy Quartet in A minor and a number of songs.
However the jewel in the crown is the Organ Symphony. This has been
well recorded by Francis Jackson and the University of York Symphony Orchestra.
There is room on the market for an alternative recording. With the correct
marketing and ample live concert exposure this masterwork could well become
one of the top five organ concertos if it is not already in that slot
today for it is an exciting piece full of good and even gorgeous tunes
and excellent orchestration.
No writer on the Percy Whitlock can afford to ignore the excellent book listed
as '1.' below. It is a fine example of how a study of a composer should be
Percy Whitlock Organist & Composer Malcolm Riley Thames
Leslie S Barnard Percy Whitlocks Symphony
Musical Opinion August 1937 p981
Malcolm Riley Percy Whitlocks Organ Symphony
Organists Review November 1993 Vol. 79 No 312 pp 283-288
© John France