Mezzo-soprano Clare Wilkinson talks to Kate Romano about her father, the Cambridgeshire born composer and conductor Stephen Wilkinson
'For the careful reader, the notes come of themselves’ says Clare Wilkinson, quoting her father, the late Stephen Wilkinson. ‘It's a paraphrase, but that's what Dad used to say. It perfectly captures his approach to the setting of poetry to music’. Stephen Wilkinson who died in 2021 at the age of 102 had a long life immersed in words and song. One of the UK’s leading choral directors for over 50 years, he led professional and amateur choirs across Europe and was renowned for his work with the BBC Northern Singers and the William Byrd Singers of Manchester. He composed throughout his life and his strikingly original songs are - in Clare’s words - unique, yet rooted in the English song tradition of Finzi, Gurney and Quilter.
The paraphrase comes from William Byrd’s preface to his 1605 Gradualia - an unusual and elaborate collection of liturgical music written for clandestine use by English Catholics at a time when they were forbidden to practice their religion in public. Byrd writes tantalisingly about the ‘intangible and hidden power’ of the texts and how ‘the most appropriate musical settings come to the surface, spontaneously’ if one meditates carefully and seriously on the words. ‘Dad’s work was always deeply text-led’ says Clare. ‘He chose poems he loved and a song would emerge from the words.’ Stephen Wilkinson had eclectic tastes: Shakespeare, Auden, Matthew Arnold, Andrew Marvell and Louis MacNeice were his favourites, but he also loved children’s poems such as Please Mrs Butler and the nonsense rhymes by Lear. ‘He had a great sense of humour and he liked things that made him laugh.’ recalls Clare.
Wilkinson retired from conducting at the age of 90 and devoted himself to composing. He was 56 when Clare was born and her childhood recollections are of a very hard working father who spent a lot of time in his study playing the piano and composing. ‘We could always go in though’ says Clare 'and he’d show us a chord progression he was particularly fond of! He told us a great deal about music - his own and the music of other composers - and even as a young child I somehow had a sense that it was important to take it all in’.
At the age of 14, Clare joined her father’s choir of keen and extremely knowledgeable amateurs. ‘He was unfailingly gentle and encouraging towards his children’ says Clare 'but in the choir he could become frustrated and bad tempered. He was a stickler for detail. He even wrote out his own versions of scores with extra rests and consonant lengths notated. He demanded such unusually high levels of preparation that his gentleness wasn’t always in evidence'. Clare recalls that he was ‘politely scathing’ (in private) if he didn’t like a piece of music, but always generous and courteous to composers. Bach and Byrd were his musical gods and they appeared time and time again in his programmes alongside countless new works he had instigated: Walton, Holst, Maconchy, Maw, Lennox Berkeley, McCabe, Mellers and Joubert to list a few. ‘Dad was a careful programmer’ says Clare. ‘He made people think’.
His songs evoke World War 2, East Anglian landscapes, changing seasons and nostalgia for past traditions and ways of life. Wilkinson often takes a sharp sideways glance at his subject matter and his songs are succinct, expressive and emotionally intense. Amongst Wilkinson’s finest settings are the beautifully searching choral work Dover Beach (Matthew Arnold) and Grantchester (Rupert Brooke) for tenor and piano which seems to conjure up ghosts of a way of life long gone: vivid imagery set against a skeletal weightlessness.
The image illustrating this blog, generously provided for us by Clare, shows Clare with her father on the back steps of their family home in Sale, Manchester. Stephen is approaching 80, Clare is in her 20s. He wrote many songs for Clare, who is a major driving force and champion of his music. Summarising her father, Clare singles out his intellect, his humour and his kindness. ‘Most of all’ she adds ‘I’m just really proud of him’.
Saturday 9 July | 7:45pm
THE DANCE CONTINUED: walking in our fathers’ footsteps through the landscape and through song
Music by Stephen Wilkinson, Gerald Finzi, Frank Bridge and Ivor Gurney, curated by Clare Wilkinson and performed by her together with tenor James Gilchrist and pianist Anna Markland