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Whitlock: Fidelis

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Published on Sep 23, 2008

Edith Hanselman, organist and music director of Strathroy United Church performs Percy Whitlock's "Fidelis" as the offertory during the September 21, 2008 Sunday service.

Percy William Whitlock (1 June 1903, Chatham, Kent 1 May 1946, Bournemouth) was an English organist and composer. A student of Vaughan Williams at London's Royal College of Music, Whitlock quickly arrived at an idiom which combined elements of his teacher's output and that of Elgar. The result was immediately striking, particularly since his lush harmonic style also bore traces of Gershwin and other popular composers of the 1920s. Like Vaughan Williams and Delius, he often used themes that sounded like folksongs but were, in fact, original creations.

From 1921 to 1930 Whitlock was assistant organist at Rochester Cathedral, Kent. Later (1930-1935) he served as music director at St Stephen's Anglican Church, Bournemouth, combining this from 1932 with the role of that city's borough organist, in which capacity he regularly played at the local Pavilion Theatre. After 1935 he worked for that theatre full-time. A tireless trainspotter, he wrote at length and with skill about his hobby. Sometimes, for both prose and music, he used the pseudonym Kenneth Lark.

Among Whitlock's organ works are Five Short Pieces (1929), Four Extemporisations (1933; these are actually much more cogent than their title suggests), Seven Sketches on Verses of the Psalms (1934), and — perhaps his masterpiece — Plymouth Suite (1937). He did produce an Organ Symphony in the same year as the Plymouth Suite; but it has hardly ever been played, nor (according to those few who have heard it or seen the score) does it represent the composer at his finest. Whitlock's gifts expressed themselves most convincingly in the smaller forms, and as a miniaturist he can stand alongside many composers much better remembered than himself.

While only in his 20s Whitlock was diagnosed with tuberculosis; he also suffered from hypertension, and near the end of his life he lost his sight altogether. His early death, a few weeks before his 43rd birthday, deprived English music of a refreshing voice. For decades afterwards he remained largely forgotten. This neglect has eased in recent times, with the increased popularity of romantic and postromantic organ literature; his oeuvre's representation on compact disc continues to grow.

The Percy Whitlock Trust, founded in 1983, aims to make the composer's output better known. It co-ordinates many events and recitals, and publishes articles and features which relate to the composer. President of the Trust is Dr Francis Jackson CBE. The Trust Secretary is Malcolm Riley, who published the authorised biography of Percy Whitlock in 1998.

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