Stephen Wilkinson

Class of 1937

Stephen Austin Wilkinson, 1919-2021 (Mac’s,1932-1937)

 

The following obituary was taken from ‘The Daily Telegraph’

 

Stephen Wilkinson, who has died aged 102, was a choral conductor, composer and Radio 3 producer, having suffered terrible wartime injuries in an explosion, he recovered to become director of the BBC Northern Singers, moulding them into a skilled and versatile ensemble who were equally at home in the baroque polyphony that he so adored as in the contemporary music that he championed so eagerly. He also spent nearly 40 years working with the Manchester-based William Byrd Singers and was a guest conductor with the RTE Singers in Dublin, the Netherlands Kamerkoor in Utrecht, and the BBC Singers in London.

 

In 1974, he conducted the BBC Singers in the first modern performance of Holst’s Nunc Dimittis, which had been sung at Westminster Cathedral on Easter Sunday 1915 but then forgotten until it was revised by the composer’s daughter, Imogen. Wilkinson had a remarkable ability to draw the best from his choirs, whether professional singers or amateurs. “Never sing a note unless you have a picture in your mind,” he told them. Another maxim was that no note or word should be sung in isolation. “Always know where it has come from and where it is going,” he said. He was known for his poetic imagery, describing the music at one point in Hubert Parry’s Songs of Farewell as like “going through the eye of the needle”. His big obsession was with putting across the text and he made whole new editions of choral pieces where the length of each consonant was written out meticulously. Such detail extended to the rests and in one edition he included both crescendo and diminuendo marks over one of these silent notes.

 

Day after day, evening after evening, and holiday after holiday, Wilkinson devoted his life to music. He started the ensemble Capriccio for young string players, ran a series of workshops and composers’ competitions, and was a fixture at summer schools such as Dartington, Little Benslow and the Ernest Read Music Association. For 10 years he conducted a week-long choral course at the Preggio Music Festival in Italy.

 

Although he championed the music of others, commissioning works from Wilfred Mellers, Richard Rodney Bennett and William Walkton, he was also an accomplished composer in his own right. A selection of his songs, written over 80 years, was released in 2017 on a CD entitled The Sunlight on the Garden, its title coming from the dark lyricism of his setting of a Louis MacNeice war poem.

 

Despite being thorough in his musical preparation, Wilkinson could sometimes be spectacularly impulsive. He once used the few hours between rehearsal and concert to climb Helvellyn in the Lake District, while on another occasion, when a family camping holiday coincided with a concert, he emerged from his tent ready to conduct in full evening dress.

 

Stephen Austin Wilkinson was born at the Old Rectory in Great Eversden, six miles south-west of Cambridge, on April 29 1919, the second of three sons of the Rev Gordon Wilkinson, MC, TD, and his wife Marion (nee Corke). He was sent to Christ Church, Oxford, as a chorister under William Harris and was educated at St Edward’s School, Oxford. While there he took a handful of composition lessons with Sir Thomas Armstrong, who in 1933 succeeded Harris at Christ Church. Returning to Cambridge in 1937 Wilkinson, by then an accomplished pianist, was awarded an organ scholarship at Queens’ College. During the war Wilkinson served with the Royal Navy, at first on Atlantic convoys. He then spent two years as a mine disposal officer in the requisitioned trawler Northman in the Faroe Islands. In 1943 he transferred to HMS Vernon, a torpedo school and experimental establishment at Roedean School, near Brighton, but was invalided out after an explosion while rendering safe a German mine, one of several captured on a barge in Antwerp. Surgeons fought for months to restore the partial use of his right hand. It recovered sufficiently for him to resume playing the piano, though not the organ as he might have wished. In August 1944 he was mentioned in dispatches for his “courage and undaunted devotion to duty”.

 

Back at university Wilkinson completed his music studies and in 1947 was appointed director of Hertfordshire Rural Music School at Hitchin. He also conducted the Hertford Choir, leading them in many outstanding concerts across the region. The choir celebrated the Festival of Britain in 1951 by commissioning Cutty Sark, a setting of Hart Crane’s poem for voices, strings, piano and percussion by the composer-conductor Anthony Hopkins, with Wilkinson conducting its first performance.

 

Two years later he joined the BBC in Leeds as assistant music producer and by 1961 was working in Manchester, where since 1954 he has been directing the BBC Northern Singers. They evolved into one of the finest choral groups in the country, praised by the Guardian critic Edward Greenfield as “a choir to equal, or even outshine, any in this country”. They travelled widely and he brought them to the Proms for several performances of early music. He also directed the BBC Northern Singers on disc, including a delightful selection of part-songs by Mendelssohn in 1976 accompanied by the pianist Keith Swallow and another in 1977 of choral works accompanied at the organ of York Minister by Francis Jackson. The choir was effectively privatised in 1991, emerging as the Britten Singers, Wilkinson conducting the first concert in their new guise with a programme that included Judith Bingham’s aptly named Unpredictable but Providential, dedicated to him. Wilkinson, who was blessed with sharp eyes, a sharp mind and an even sharper beard, had a gentle wit and enjoyed playing with words. He received an honorary degree from the University of Manchester in 1982 and was appointed MBE in 1992.

 

Three years earlier his 70th birthday had been marked by an appearance as artist of the week on Radio 3, with a series of choral works written in his honour by composers including John Joubert, John McCabe and Elizabeth Maconchy.

 

By the age of 90 he was reluctantly persuaded that his conducting career had reached its final cadence, but he devoted more time to composing. Many of his folk-song arrangements were heard in a concert to mark his 100th birthday devised by his Radio 3 colleague Paul Hindmarsh. He also embarked on a new career as a reader and narrator, bringing his mellifluous voice to Courtiers of Grace, the early music ensemble that features his daughter, the mezzo-soprano Clare Wilkinson.

 

At home he never lost his wartime abhorrence of waste, and every left-over scrap of food, including the dregs from bottles of cola or ketchup, was incorporated into his mud-colours soups. He declined to write a memoir, insisting that he only look forward, never back.

 

Stephen Wilkinson married Anna Dam, whom he met in the Faroe Islands, in 1945. She died in 1975 and that year he married Delyth Jones, a soprano and a psychotherapist. She survives him, with their two daughters; three sons and a daughter from his first marriage also survive him. Four of his children have pursued careers in music.

 

Stephen Wilkinson, born April 29th 1919, died August 10th 2021.

 



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