About this Recording
8.225162 - WHITLOCK: Holiday Suite / Music for Orchestra / Wessex Suite
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Percy Whitlock (1903-1946)

Holiday Suite • Wessex Suite • Balloon Ballet • Ballet of the Wood Creatures

March Dignity & Impudence • Suite Music for Orchestra

Regarded as one of the outstanding English organist-composers of his generation, Percy Whitlock is remembered nowadays for his solo organ and church music. This recording brings together his hitherto neglected lighter orchestral compositions.

Percy William Whitlock was born in Chatham, Kent, on 1st June 1903, the only child of a couple originally from Northamptonshire. He wrote his first composition at the age of seven at about the time he became a probationer chorister at Rochester Cathedral. His musical association with the Cathedral lasted nearly twenty years and he served successively as head chorister and assistant organist. In 1920 he won a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music in London, where he was a composition pupil of Stanford and Vaughan Williams.

Whitlock’s parents were keen amateur singers and enjoyed not only the great choral repertoire but also light opera and musical theatre. Percy inherited this love of both the sacred and the secular. He was the antithesis of the remote organist in a distant organ-loft, showing a great interest in all types of organ, including the early examples of theatre organs being installed in larger cinemas during the 1920s.

In 1930, having been passed over for the position of cathedral organist at Rochester, and keen to make some progress in his career, he moved instead to the sea-side resort of Bournemouth as Director of Music at St Stephen’s Church. Despite finding the town ‘so distant in every way from the cathedral city of my earliest years’, Whitlock remained there for the rest of his life. After five increasingly turbulent years he left St Stephen’s to take up the full-time position of Borough Organist on an annual salary of £350. He presided over a large dual-purpose Compton pipe-organ housed in the Pavilion Theatre and was required to play every type of music from pantomimes to revues and concertos to oratorios. Whitlock’s reputation grew quickly, following the publication of several collections of organ pieces, and his fame as a performer was spread through regular national radio broadcasts, both as an organ soloist and with the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra. Although he had already written several orchestral pieces in Rochester, this regular contact with a full-time orchestra stirred him to fresh endeavours. The Municipal Orchestra numbered several fine light music composers, including Byron Brooke, Jean Gennin, Theo de la Rivière and Cecil White, and Whitlock was encouraged to compose new concert pieces by both the orchestra’s founder-conductor Sir Dan Godfrey and his successors Richard Austin and Montague Birch.

The organ, however, remained Whitlock’s primary love and he devoted many hours perfecting his ideal instrument. He tinkered constantly with the Pavilion organ and also took a keen interest in the new electronic instruments which appeared in the mid 1930s. He wrote knowledgeably about the Allen and Compton Electrone instruments and we feel sure that he would have played quite happily on the electronic instruments used for these sessions.

At the beginning of the war in 1939 Whitlock applied his intellect to the organization of rationing in Bournemouth’s Food Control Office, which was conveniently situated in the Pavilion’s Ballroom. His musicianship, sincerity, charm, enthusiasm, and sense of humour made him a unique and delightful character, attributes which are embodied in his music. He died on 1st May 1946, one month before his 43rd birthday.

For his musical journalism and several lighter works, including the Wessex and Holiday Suites, Whitlock adopted the music pseudonym ‘Kenneth Lark’, and occasionally KL happily wrote reviews of performances by PW.

The Concert Overture: the Feast of St Benedict, Whitlock’s only overture, was completed in 1934 and entered for The Daily Telegraph’s Overture Competition. However, the judges - Sir Henry Wood, Sir Hamilton Harty, Frank Bridge and Arthur Bliss - awarded the first prize to Cyril Scott’s Festival Overture, much to Whitlock’s chagrin. ‘Not even a favourable commendation’, he complained. He noted sarcastically in the score: ‘An arrangement is pending for two tooth-picks and a gas jet’. In a programme-note written for a broadcast performance, Whitlock revealed that the Overture’s three principal themes represented ‘festivity, love and religious feeling’ and that the work was ‘intended to express the spirit of a continental festa’.

The Ballet of the Wood Creatures was composed in 1939. This delicate movement in B minor features a short quotation from Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture.

In Whitlock’s Wessex Suite the opening Waltz Revels in Hogsnorton refers to the mythical village of Hogsnorton created by the English comedian Gillie Potter. The Blue Poole combines two real locations, the town of Poole, near Bournemouth, and the Blue Pool, a beauty spot situated near Wareham on the Isle of Purbeck. The suite ends with a rousing, swashbuckling march, Rustic Cavalry. In the trio section, the accompanying counterpoint hints at It’s A Long Way to Tipperary.

The suite Music for Orchestra was assembled in 1941 from ‘old’ Rochester music and newly-minted movements. Peter’s Tune, published as Allegretto for organ, dates from 1929 and was inspired by the whistling of Peter Burney, a Cathedral chorister. Caprice was sketched before the outbreak of war and completed in January 1941. The original manuscripts of Reverie (1927) and Peter’s Tune are missing but we know what they are scored for. They were published as organ solos. The Fanfare on the Tune Song of Agincourt, to give it its full title, was composed in December 1940 when Whitlock heard a broadcast of the Agincourt Song. His wife Edna said "‘You should write a piece on this fine tune’ so I did, & started on the score straight away."

We only have the piano scores of the two charming songs Come along, Marnie and Susan, the Doggie and Me. Together with the ballet pieces and the Holiday Suite, were written for a fund-raising matinee under the title the DayDream Family, for which Whitlock wrote over forty minutes’ worth of music.

Like the Wessex Suite, the Holiday Suite opens with a waltz and closes with a march. In the Ballroom refers to the magnificent ballroom behind the Bournemouth Pavilion Concert Hall. The Spade and Bucket Polka is scored for a smaller orchestra and incorporates the well-known tune Cherry Ripe. The Civic March was originally given the less ‘municipal’ title of Picnic March.

Balloon Ballet was originally composed for the DayDream Matinee. This ‘spinning wheel’ movement is in B flat major and in 6/8 time.

The march Dignity and Impudence dates from 1932. This rousing march takes its title from the celebrated oil painting of two dogs by the Victorian artist Sir Edwin Landseer. With its knowing wink at Elgar, Whitlock’s piece could almost be considered a cousin of the first Pomp and Circumstance March.

Malcolm Riley


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