The Organ

Percy Whitlock, Organist and Composer: a biographical study

William Sessions
Revised by Malcolm Riley
Ebor Press, 2003 (2nd Edition)

This is a wonderful book. Like many organists the world over, I have played Whitlock for more years than I care to remember. There can be few organ lofts in the English-speaking world that have not at least been home to Folk Tune. As the author points out, however, there is far more to Percy Whitlock than a few short organ voluntaries.

Firstly there is the music - a far richer canon than one might initially suspect from the most popular of the organ pieces. Here was a considerable talent, strongly influenced by the key figures of twentieth-century English music - Stanford and Vaughan Williams, to name but two. Riley traces not only Whitlock’s development as a composer, but also draws attention to the many influences and antecedents that shaped it. I was left pondering what Whitlock might have achieved had he not suffered poor health for much of his life and lived to a greater age.

Then there is the organist. Like many musicians of his generation, he divided his time - and earned his living - between church and concert hall. The numerous contemporary accounts of his playing clearly show Whitlock to have been a performer of considerable ability. Then there is the design of organs, including Whitlock’s own attempts at drawing up specifications and even building instruments.

It is a significant achievement of this book that such care and attention has been paid to the many and varied primary sources - including interviews with surviving family, friends and contemporaries. This is musicological research and writing at its very best. And this thorough, professional approach also provides the reader with a fascinating, entertaining and at times poignant picture, not only of Whitlock the man, but the educational, cultural and musical mores and practices of his time. We can learn much about organ playing, choir training and church and concert performance from a study of this book.

This is a very full and rich biography, coupled with a fine study of Whitlock’s music and the times in which he lived. The text is completed by a full list of works, writings and recordings, a comprehensive bibliography and specifications of the organ with which Whitlock was most closely associated. There are numerous illustrations - the author deserves a note of congratulation for amassing these alone. This is a superbly written, thoroughly researched, well produced book that should be on the shelves of anyone interested in twentieth-century English music. It forms a fitting tribute to Percy Whitlock in the 100th anniversary year of his birth.

David Baker