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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 Harwood’s Concerto in D major and Charles Lloyd’s 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 ‘Maclean’s 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 Whitlock’s works. First and foremost he was a composer for the organ. Unlike many such composers not all Whitlock’s 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 Whitlock’s 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. Verdi’s 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 Stravinsky’s son, Soulima. The audience also heard the suites from Pulcinella & The Firebird. Whitlock was not overly impressed – he recorded in his diary that ‘Pulcinella was rotten…’

Thomas Beecham conducted the orchestra in Haydn’s 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 Concerto.

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 Glass’s Fifth, Atterburg's Sixth, Madetoja's Second and Peterson-Berger’s '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 Symphony.

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: -

  1. Allegro Sostenuto

  2. Elegy ( for organ and strings)

  3. Scherzo

  4. 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, Mary’s 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 Whitlock’s 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 composer’s 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 year.

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 composer’s 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.


Select Bibliography

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 produced.


Percy Whitlock – Organist & Composer Malcolm Riley Thames Publishing 1998


Leslie S Barnard ‘Percy Whitlock’s Symphony’ – Musical Opinion August 1937 p981


Malcolm Riley – ‘Percy Whitlock’s Organ Symphony’ – Organists Review November 1993 Vol. 79 No 312 pp 283-288


© John France

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

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