The Organ

The Percy Whitlock Companion

Malcolm Riley: The Percy Whitlock Companion
The Percy Whitlock Trust
ISBN 978-0-9555669-0-5
£18 (+ £2 p&p); available direct from Malcolm Riley, 32, Butcher Close, Staplehurst, Kent, TN12 0TJ

This is a splendid companion, not least to the excellent biographical study published in 1998 and revised in 2003, which I much enjoyed reading and reviewing for the magazine. I feel the same about this publication, which is dedicated to Leslie Barnard in honour of his ninetieth birthday. A significant proportion of the correspondence in the Companion is between Whitlock and Barnard. The book is an anthology of correspondence, diary entries and articles (some for the Organ) spanning Whitlock’s life. There is a simple and helpful chronological arrangement of material, divided into three chapters: 1903-1930; 1931-1939; 1940-1946. There are also some interesting appendices, including the family tree (going back to the 17th century), a chronology, Whitlock’s recitals for the Organ Music Society and his BBC broadcasts between 1926 and 1946, a select bibliography, an articles index and a substantial general index.

The material reveals much about Whitlock the performer and composer, but just as much about him as a person, and about the social and cultural mores of the period. Early schoolboy correspondence talks of ‘hols’ and ‘ripping chaps’ in a ginger-beer/ripping-yarn kind of way, though already at 13 we learn of Whitlock deputising at Rochester Cathedral and showing literary and artistic talent that could clearly have been developed further if he not chosen to focus on composition and organ playing. The organ-mad schoolboy is evident in the talk of specifications and trying new instruments: what an interesting note of composition pedal arrangements on page four – a different approach to registration that left mixture stops to the last! His wife-to-be Edna was already being wooed, though it is not recorded what her reaction was to his present of a short history of the local railway company!

Throughout the book there are interesting touches of life in the 1920s and 1930s: the fascination at staying in a hotel with en suite bathroom facilities; the shortages and deprivations of the war years. There are glimpses of the affection and love between Percy and Edna, his wife. Then there is the sadness at Whitlock’s failing health. But there is also much of value in his writings about organs and organists, and concerning the broader musical scene. Though his spelling and grammar were at times eccentric – at least in his personal correspondence – Whitlock was a fine writer about music and the organ. One of the most interesting articles is that concerning the Baroque revival, where he talks with shrewdness (if from a 1930s perspective) about the neo-classical organs then being built in the States by G.Donald Harrison. His is a balanced view for the day. His writings on organ design and stop registration are also worthy of serious study.

This really is a splendid book, and a very good read. It is very well produced indeed. There are some excellent complementary black-and-white illustrations, though I wish that the photo of Whitlock at the Pavilion organ in 1936 were not so small. I recommend this book most highly to all who are interested in Whitlock, twentieth-century organ and music making and, indeed, the period between the Wars more generally. Congratulations Mr Riley!