The Organ

Full with Wills: My Life in Music - a Memoir

Arthur Wills: Full with Wills: My Life in Music - a Memoir
Pen Press
ISBN 1-905203-89-6

What a wonderful read this book is! Arthur Wills is well known – both nationally and internationally – in the organ world. It is so good to read his autobiography, for it gives the read a rich insight into the man as well as the musician and composer. The title of the book is taken from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 136: ‘Ay, fill it full with will’; and this work is indeed full of a big man in every sense of the epithet. This is evident simply from looking at the two appendices – of his compositions and his recordings. It comes as no surprise that the first of these lists is a long one – evincing the man’s abilities in a wide range of musical forms and genres; but Wills is also a remarkably prolific recording artist, and not just of his own music, but of much other organ and choral music in particular.

The book is ordered chronologically in the first instance, though later chapters consider his life as organist, teacher, choir trainer, composer, performer and recording artists, with some telling comments, amongst others, on the changes in church and cathedral music during Wills’ lifetime. There are some poignant moments and reminiscences in the first chapter, charting as it does his early life and teenage years in war-affected Coventry. This section of the book is a telling social record of the time: how things have changed! While there were deprivations that we now we find difficult to accept and appreciate, there was also a level of parish church music-making of which modern organists can only dream!

Already in this first chapter we see the strong influences that shaped Wills as composer, and one of the most fascinating aspects of the whole book is the way in which the author links his experiences – both musical and general – with not only his approach to composition in general but also particular works, many composed much later in his career. The effect of his mother’s death is just one such example. Nor is he afraid to chart the disappointments and hardships of his early life: not for Arthur Wills an Oxbridge education or first passes at examinations! But even in his teens, there are the opportunities to meet the great players of the day, and a first ‘tug’ towards Ely Cathedral – an attraction that would lead to a lifetime’s service there.

When Wills was appointed Assistant at Ely, after a number of other organist roles, he had the princely salary of £200 per annum! Again, what a different world! And how performance practice has changed when it comes to the daily service, with its ‘monastic’ approach! Standards have changed and improved since then, but, again, Wills’ description of local and school music-making at the time shows that we lost much too. Wills talks warmly of Michael Howard and his leadership in the interpretation of early music; of his years at the Royal Academy of Music; and of his association with Cambridge University and the Royal School of Church Music. There are many points where he clearly influenced others – and not just those destined for the organ loft. Simon Rattle and James Bowman are but two named. There are amusing anecdotes too, including an early visit to Paris, which combined trips to night clubs with time in the organ lofts of famous French organists! What a time that must have been, for Wills gives us a roll-call of great organist-composers who were all still in post in the 1960s and 1970s.

Later chapters stand alone as commentaries on the different facets of Arthur Wills. I personally was most intrigued by what he says about himself as a composer. This is an honest critique from a man who comes across as humble about both his output and his achievements. He is not afraid to quote from critical reviews of his work, as well as more complimentary ones. Nor is he ashamed to describe his association with Hammond organs. He is similarly honest about his views of the Ely organ since he left office, albeit in the most gentlemanly way one could imagine. The chapter on Wills as recitalist – written as a kind of high-level diary – makes very interesting and enjoyable reading, not least because the author is able to depict what it is like to be living and playing out of a suitcase! Arthur Wills has clear views on what has happened to church and cathedral music during his lifetime: there is talk of ‘dumbing down’ and ‘greasy’ modern tunes. I think that most of us devoted to cathedral music would heartily concur with the sentiments expressed.

This is a fine autobiography. Wills is a first-rate writer and the book is well produced (I spotted only a few literals in a work of 300 pages) and excellent value for the money. There are some complementary black-and-white illustrations. There is a telling final chapter summing up much of Wills’ life, work and philosophy which left me wondering if we will ever experience big men such as him again. I doubt it, for I think Arthur Wills is special enough to be called a one-off. The organ, musical and church worlds should be duly grateful to him, not least for this fine book.