Stephen Wilkinson: Revered choral director and composer

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Stephen Wilkinson at 90 in 2009 conducting the William Byrd Singers  (Stefan Schweiger)
Stephen Wilkinson at 90 in 2009 conducting the William Byrd Singers (Stefan Schweiger)

One of that select but notable band of provincial choral directors to achieve both national and international status, Stephen Wilkinson, who has died aged 102, represented at its most dynamic that immediate post-war generation of musicians who achieved so much in reviving British music in often-difficult times.

Raising both the BBC Northern Singers and the William Byrd Singers to a level of excellence that had few, if any, equals, his work undoubtedly influenced many of the ground-breaking choral groups and conductors that followed. An equally gifted arranger and composer, his output is refined and elegant like the man himself.

The middle son of a distinguished country parson, born at Eversden Rectory in Cambridgeshire, Stephen Austin Wilkinson began his musical career as a chorister at Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford. In 1937 he exchanged Oxford for Cambridge, having been elected Organ Scholar at Queens’ College. While playing a prominent role in student music-making, he came under the stern but benevolent tutelage of many musical heavyweights that included Edward Dent, Cyril Rootham and Boris Ord. However, like so many of his contemporaries, his seemingly effortless progress was rudely interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War.

Joining the Royal Navy, initially serving on Atlantic convoys, he subsequently became a mine-disposal officer based on HMS Northman in the Faroe Islands. An unfortunate explosion badly damaged his right hand, which resulted in a long spell in hospital. He was eventually invalided out of the service.

Between 1947 and 1953, returning to Cambridge to complete his studies, he became part of Hertfordshire Rural Music School, touring the county’s schools to teach music. While there he also conducted what later evolved into Hertford Choral Society. Six years later he moved north, initially to Leeds, to join the BBC as a music producer. He later transferred to Manchester.

There, he inherited a somewhat ad-hoc group of singers who, from 1954, were designated the BBC Northern Singers. Renamed The Britten Singers in 1991, Wilkinson stayed as their conductor until 1993.

Quickly distinguishing itself with its capacity for real, convincing communicative liveliness, this mixed-voice chamber ensemble became an important training ground for generations of young singers. Among them were Elizabeth Harwood, Pauline Tinsley, Henry Herford, Meriel Dickinson and Alfreda Hodgson. Wilkinson also had the freedom to commission new music. Following an appearance at the Sir Henry Wood Promenade Concerts, music critic Edward Greenfield described them as, “a choir to equal, or even outshine, any in this country”.

Radio listeners, too, had quickly come to appreciate Wilkinson’s talent for innovative programme-planning. This was also very much in evidence on a series of commercial recordings he made with his singers throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Beginning with the charmingly varied Mendelssohn collection of songs with and without words and a similarly planned Gustav Holst record, he then proceeded to reveal little-known aspects of Ralph Vaughan Williams with a youthful Dame Gillian Weir at the organ. Arnold Bax and Herbert Howells came next, as did his highly praised Voices For Today LP. These four new choral settings by Berkeley, Britten, Musgrave and Walton had each been written within the space of four months in 1974-75. An elegant tribute to the musicians of York Minster followed.

In honour of Stephen Wilkinson’s 100th birthday in 2019, the BBC Singers broadcast a special recital including a broadcast premiere of Dover Beach (Andrew Wilkinson Photography)
In honour of Stephen Wilkinson’s 100th birthday in 2019, the BBC Singers broadcast a special recital including a broadcast premiere of Dover Beach (Andrew Wilkinson Photography)

In 1970, Wilkinson found a further expressive outlet for his talents becoming conductor of the newly formed William Byrd Singers. Over the course of the next 39 years he successfully developed this amateur grouping into another outstanding ensemble. Based in south Manchester, many memorable European tours supplemented their domestic concert schedule. None more so than their 1972 visit to the Wroclaw Festival in Poland.

Alongside Wilkinson’s numerous folk-song and carol arrangements, BBC colleague David Ellis became the first of many to create new works for the choir. In 1991, noting that there was no training orchestra in the Manchester area, he founded Capriccio, a companion string ensemble designed as a springboard for the National Youth Orchestra.

Having studied composition with the then organist of Christ Church Cathedral, Thomas Armstrong, while at school in Oxford, Wilkinson retained a lifelong fascination for the process. Retirement at the age of 90 allowed him more freedom to indulge this enduring passion. Among his output of choral works, two Tempest settings, Juno’s Song and Summer Floods, were created for the group I Fagiolini. Exploring new directions was The Singing World, a setting of words by George Herbert for choir, organ and trumpet. Its main melody forms a four-part round, evolving as a pseudo-medieval puzzle which involves reading upside down as well as back to front.

During his career Wilkinson also worked with the BBC Singers and Dublin’s RTE Singers as well as choral ensembles in Iceland, Holland and New Zealand. As a visiting lecturer at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, he was also a valued contributor to the Ernest Read Music Association, the Benslow Music Trust and Canford Summer Music School. In April 2019, in honour of his 100th birthday, the BBC Singers broadcast a special recital. Alongside works by his favourite composers, Gal, Bach, Byrd, Holst and McCabe, the programme’s centrepiece was a broadcast premiere of what is widely acknowledged to be his finest choral work, Dover Beach.

Twice married, he is survived by his second wife, Delyth, and their two daughters, together with three sons and a daughter from his first marriage.

Stephen Wilkinson, choral conductor, arranger and composer, born 29 April, 1919, died 10 August, 2021

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