Stanley Wilson

Camille Pisarro: Dulwich College, London (1874)

Where Stanley Wilson served as music director for the last 8 years of his life





Amongst the rising "names" of the '20s and '30s Stanley Herbert Wilson's has sunk from sight.  A figure in the musical life of Suffolk his significance was not purely local. His fine romantic music which merits revival, does not, on the evidence of archive recordings, deserve oblivion. His Skye Symphony, which, if only as a name, has done more than anything else to keep his historical reputation alive, received a Carnegie United Kingdom Trust award in 1928. This was an important peak which triggered an isolated decade of public success. It may be helpful in light of the renaissance of interest in music of this era to outline his career.

Wilson was born in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire in 1899 and educated at Berkhamsted School. He gained an open scholarship for composition to the Royal College of Music in 1915 when he was only 15. At the College he studied composition with Sir Charles Villiers Stanford and conducting with Adrian Boult. His special subjects were composition, conducting, piano, organ and harmony and recreations included walking, cricket and chess. His college education was interrupted by war service from 1917 to 1918.

Stanley Wilson by Sarony He returned to the College in 1918 and continued there until 1921 (having graduated ARCM) when he was appointed Music Master at Ipswich Grammar School, a post he held until 1945 when he was appointed Director of Music at Dulwich College.

The 1922 Berkhamsted Pageant had music composed and arranged by Wilson. He was conductor of the Ipswich Philharmonic Society, an orchestra which he formed from "local players, musical pupils and school staff." The orchestra was disbanded in 1938 when "Stanley found that he needed more time for composing and the orchestra dispersed as most players were in other local orchestras or ensembles." Wilson married Susie Dorothy Thuell. Dorothy, as she was always known, was "a fine cellist". Stanley was a member of the Incorporated Society of Musicians. For many years the couple lived at 22 Ivry St, Ipswich then, after his Dulwich appointment, at 24 Aubrey House, Maida Vale, London, W.2.

The Ipswich years were recalled in June 1996 by the composer, Jack Hawes:-

"I was invited to the Wilsons' home with one or two other 'budding' composers and found that two rooms had been made into one and one half housed a large Bechstein Grand piano and a lovely Rogers Grand, side by side. From around 1935 until the outbreak of World War II, I was a frequent visitor, with a few others, and we discussed musical matters and examined our own compositions. We also gave many musical evenings at the house for friends. ... The Wilsons and friends often met at another house to listen to the old style 78 rpm records (long before LPs even) and also concerts on the 'wireless' (no transistors in those days) in order to hear orchestral and choral music. ... During our musical evenings ... at Stanley Wilson's house we sometimes were able to persuade him to play his 'party pieces' and he would improvise the National Anthem in the style of different composers! These were very good but were never written down. ... I heard Stanley play piano music by many composers - Debussy, Brahms, Chopin, etc. One superb rendering was of Chopin's Etude Opus 25 No. 9. ... Although I was not officially a pupil of Stanley Wilson, the standard and technique of my piano-playing was transformed rapidly over the years and I was eventually playing most of the Schumann Piano Concerto from memory and lots of Brahms, Bach, Chopin, etc. The Wilson's nephew came to Ipswich for a time to be coached on the 'cello by Dorothy Wilson who, with Stanley, was a pupil at the Royal College of Music under Stanford, When rehearsing, I often acted as piano accompanist for him in C sar Franck's Sonata, the Elgar and Dvorak Cello Concertos, Kol Nidrei (Bruch) Faur 's Elegie and Apres un Reve etc. I played for one of his exams and later he won a scholarship to the R.C.M., I understand, and eventually played in the London Symphony Orchestra before becoming a free-lance 'cellist. ... I was often present when Stanley was writing a new composition and heard sketches being played over. He was a fine composer, craftsman and pianist and I received many tips on composition, orchestration, etc from him - also much encouragement ... I have not heard performances of his major works in recent years but some church settings are still in use - e.g. "Wilson in C" (Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis) and sets of piano pieces."

He was appointed Director of Music at Dulwich College in September 1945. He held this post until his death in December 1953. The school concert programmes for these years indicate first performances of a number of works including a piano concerto performed by Terence Beckles, a piano trio and a Cornoation Anthem This Royal Throne of Kings. In addition the Skye Symphony and other established works were performed there.

Wilson's Skye Symphony Op. 38, in C major, dates from 1927. Inspired by the West-Coast Scottish island of Skye, it was published by Stainer and Bell in 1928 under the Carnegie Scheme. It was the third score he had submitted to the Carnegie Committee; the first to be accepted. The scoring is for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, double-bassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass tuba, timpani, percussion, bells, glockenspiel, harp and strings. The movements are: I Andante con moto - Allegretto - Allegro vivace - Allegretto - Allegro vivace; II Andante sostenuto; III Allegro giocoso (with a jaunty decidedly 'Scotch' flavour to it); IV Moderato animo. It lasts circa 39 minutes. The manuscript is in the RCM under Ms5859. The premiere was given in a studio concert in 1929 by the BBC possibly in a cut version as timings quoted indicate 28 minutes. This was followed by eight other performances, including ones at Belfast, Birmingham and Bournemouth.

Bournemouth, the scene of so many British music triumphs, gave Wilson his chance to appear regularly during four seasons (1929-1934) as guest conductor of the Municipal Orchestra. The Symphony was performed there under his baton on 25 April 1929. Dan Godfrey, the prodigiously industrious conductor of the Municipal Orchestra, was also one of the Carnegie adjudicators and this connection may well have been significant to the appointment. Wilson gave the third movement with the Ipswich Philharmonic Orchestra (disbanded in 1939) in 1938 in a mammoth concert which also included Eda Kersey playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto and Wilson himself as pianist in the Franck Piano Quintet. His wife was the cellist. Two movements of the symphony were broadcast during the 1950s conducted by Alexander Gibson. The Two Impressions for orchestra were completed in 1929. Again the work was inspired by a holiday in Skye. The movements are Gull Cove and Bracadale. It was premiered on the Midland Regional network and repeated in London and at Bournemouth on 25 July 1934. There was a further performance by the BBC Midland Orchestra conducted by Leslie Heward on 22 June 1937.

In the initial flush of celebrity associated with the Carnegie success he had the first of his two piano concertos premiered at the Queen's Hall Proms season in 1929 with himself as conductor and James Ching as soloist. Ching took up the work in concert hall and on radio, performing it three times: at the Queen's Hall, in the Midlands and at Bournemouth (16 January 1930). The Violin Concerto dates from 1930 and was given two performances in the Midlands and again at Bournemouth (3 April 1930) by Eda Kersey, a violinist later closely associated with the Bax Violin Concerto.

On Friday 26 February 1937, Wilson conducted the BBC Orchestra (Section D) in the first performance of a drastically cut version of his Double Concerto for violin and viola. This was a studio broadcast with distinguished soloists: Albert Sammons and Bernard Shore. The BBCSO was conducted by the composer. The work had been completed in 1935. The movements are Tr umerei (Dreaming), Erheiterung (Excitement), and Freude (Joy). Contemporary press reaction greeted it as "a highly original composition and full of musical interest ... Especially in the second and third movements ... there was very little of the music that passed the ear without making an incisive impression on the mind ... If in the first movement ... the inspiration appeared to function a little haltingly, that was ... because in the cutting of the Concerto to meet broadcast requirements - it was pruned to run for 32 minutes, whereas the complete work plays for 50 minutes - it was the first movement which suffered most. Anyway the concerto which is scored for modern orchestra with strengthened percussion, including the xylophone, seemed to me to be full of writing, which represented large steps of progress in the composer's creative achievement."

The composer provided a programme note quoted here without its music examples:-

"The First movement opens with [a] motive which forms the material from which the themes of the first two movements are constructed. The theme is given out in various ways by the orchestra and is followed by a cadenza for the two instruments.

"This short introductory section is imbued with peaceful serenity and if we are to find any programme in this work, depicts the natural peacefulness of man in contrast to the excitement and sophistication and jazz-consciousness of the twentieth century so vividly portrayed in the second movement.

"This dance-like [second] movement follows immediately upon the cadenza and the first theme is played by the clarinets and bassoons against a pizzicato bass. This is repeated in various ways in orchestration until the solo instruments take it up with double-stopping. A development both in melody and rhythm follows until we reach the second section of the movement.

"The theme is developed and occasionally interspersed with snatches of previous themes eventually entering in a powerful tutti which diminishes gradually until the third main theme is played by the solo viola and is repeated by the violin etc in various ways. After an exciting rhythmic passage for the orchestra a recapitulation of the first movement theme occurs in the orchestra, the soloists still maintaining the present theme as an over-counterpoint. The mood quietens and gently the cellos foreshadow the opening theme of the last movement.

"This movement opens with ... [a] slow theme played by the soli in turn. Next a quicker theme is announced by the oboe against a harp figure which is developed and leads to a cadenza after which the first theme is played loudly by the orchestra. Then follows a repetition of theme 2 which after a "smorzando" phrase with a pause gives way to a quick section set in motion by a clashing chord. The chief characteristics of this section are a pulsing quaver background, a quick running theme for the soli.

"Later the ... [another] theme enters and reaches fever excitement. Gradually this gives way to spiritual fervour and the slow theme reaches its climax and the highest light of the whole concerto. The whole work then ends with a very quick and brilliant finish." The Cello Concerto (1936) had to wait sixteen years for its premiere which was given in a broadcast by William Pleeth with the BBC Northern Orchestra conducted by Vilem Tausky on 29 January 1952. Wilson had set to work on a second piano concerto in 1937 but this does not appear to have achieved any performance. Again Jack Hawes' recollections shed further light:

"Stanley and I played several standard orchestral works on the two pianos over the years - Bach's 2-piano concertos and some of the Brandenburg concertos, Symphonic Variations by C sar Franck, the Brahms Haydn Variations in Brahms' own original 2-piano version, Capriol Suite (Warlock) etc., and also arrangements of Stanley's own works, including a new ballet and a Second Piano Concerto which the Music Committee of the BBC agreed to hear played through. On a warm Summer's day, Stanley and Dorothy Wilson and I met the Committee in the Concert Hall of Broadcasting House, London and played the Concerto for about 40 minutes on two full-size concert grands, Stanley played the solo part, with Dorothy turning the pages, and I played the equally difficult orchestral reduction with page- turning assistance. When writing the work it was noticed that the rhythms in the last movement sounded like Morse Code and, for a Joke, the name - 'Stan' is cleverly hidden in Morse Code manual."

The Portrait Variations (on a theme of Brahms) date from early in 1938. They play for circa 23 minutes and were given their first performance at Queen's College Chambers Lecture Hall, Birmingham on Friday 3 June 1938. The Birmingham Philharmonic String Orchestra were conducted by Johan Hock and the concert was broadcast (and repeated) on the National Programme. The work is scored for string quartet and string orchestra. The "portrait" element is explained in the titles of the movements although it is the personality of the composers rather than the style of their music which each is intended to reflect: 1. Theme, 2. Romance (Schumann), 3. Alla fuga (Debussy), 4. Canzonetta (Tchaikovsky), 5. Danse la Russe (Mussorgsky), 6. Intermezzo (Rimsky-Korsakov), 7. Ostinato (Borodin), 8. Elegy (G.V. Cassini), 9. Iayel (self-portrait), 10. Caprice (Robert Hudson), 11 Scherzo (Beethoven), 12. Choral (Bach), 13. Passacaglia (Franck), 14. Hungarian Dance and Coda (Brahms). The self-portrait quotes from his own works.

Boxhill a Fantasy for Strings had many performances and was broadcast on 27 October 1937 by the Birmingham Philharmonic String Orchestra conducted by Johan Hock alongside Howells' Elegy for solo viola and strings. On 6 July 1938 his two scenes from the ballet The Legend of Osiris were given an airing at an RCM Patron's Fund Concert on 6 July 1938 conducted by Boult.[3] Edwin Evans found them "... for the most part rather blatant, with strident brass, gongs, and other aggressive devices. The effect was theatrical, but one would need to know the scenario of the ballet to judge how far it was suitable." Another press comment (Radio Times), identified the two movements as The destroying of the body and The raising of Osiris. These "might be described as "decrescendo" and "crescendo" ... It is a bulky, noisy and clamorous body that has to be destroyed and no doubt it is dramatically necessary that we should have to be made conscious of its grossness before the ethereal spirit is released. It is not unnatural therefore that the second scene beginning from a quasi-Oriental dance tune and rising to a sonorous climax, should be the one which shows the composer's ability the more adequately. From these specimens one gathers [that this is] a work of considerable power."

Unperformed, so far as can be discovered and unknown until Jurgen Schaarw chter's book on the British Symphony, is his major Symphony No. 2 in E minor 1942. This was completed on 15 February 1944. The work is to be found in the RCM library Ms5860. It is scored for 2 flutes (doubling piccolo); 2 oboes (doubling cor anglais); 2 clarinets (doubling bass clarinet); 2 bassoons; contrabassoon; 4 French horns; 3 trumpets; 3 trombones; tenor and bass tubas; 3 timpani; bass drum; various percussion including xylophone, tambourine; cymbals, celesta, piano, strings, baritone solo and SATB choir. There are four movements: I Conflict - allegro moderato; II Design - Allegro molto, quasi Presto; III Vision - Adagio; and IV Freedom - Allegro con spirito - Andante Sostenuto - Allegro - Allegro moderato. The work concludes with a choral finale to idealistic words by the baritone Steuart Allin[4] reflecting a spirit of desperate optimism: "Freedom shall sing ... / And Man in unity with God, / with Nature and Brother Man / Shall sing unto Eternity / Of Freedom, Love and Life."

Among the chamber music (Cobbett comments "on its refreshing lack of eccentricity") there is the String Quartet Op. 44 Cuillin (published 1930), again inspired by a visit to Skye; the title a reference to the Cuillin Hills on Skye[5]. This was performed many times including at Ipswich in 1930 by the Marie Wilson[6] String Quartet at one of the chamber music society concerts and in London with the Stratton Quartet. The most recent performance was by the Martin String Quartet which broadcast the piece on the Third Programme on 20 September 1954. There are also Three Rhapsodies for string quartet Op. 13 (OUP) dating from the same year as the Skye Symphony. Cobbett says of the work that: "the First, Moderato in C major, is rugged in character, its second theme, animato, forming a graceful contrast to the rest. The Second, Andante in A minor, is poetic and mono-thematic. The Third, Allegro F major, is lively with its second subject allotted to the cello." The Allegro is "extremely vivacious, with its second subject given to the cello." These were performed at the R.C.M. and at Ipswich by the Brosa Quartet.

The Suite No. 1 for cello (or violin) and piano has, as noted by Philip Scowcroft, movement titles reminiscent of Schumann's Scenes of Childhood: (Fancy, Still Thought, Doll's Minuet, Pixy Dance). For cello and piano there are Gaelic Rhapsody (1935), Irish Rhapsody (1938?) and Serenade and Elegy. Jack Hawes "heard Dorothy Wilson play Stanley's two 'Cello Rhapsodies (with piano) in their house many times - also Brahms' F major 'Cello Sonata and other music." His music for voices includes an opera Midas (to a libretto by Gladys Mathew[7]). This dates from 1939 but was never produced and the orchestration, if ever completed, has apparently disappeared. Jack Hawes writes:

"At the end of 1938 an American lady came to stay a few doors from where I lived with my parents in Ipswich and I was delighted to find that she - Gladys Mathew - was a tip top operatic soprano from New York who had sung at the Salzburg Festival and in Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier in Europe. She stayed in Ipswich until the spring of 1939 and, after introducing her to the Wilsons, she volunteered to sing at short notice in a recital of our own compositions we were playing in Ipswich. She later performed a number of my songs in Columbia University New York at her Master of Arts recital and later in a Town Hall club concert, New York - and elsewhere in the USA. Gladys Mathew had written the libretto for an Opera Midas - and eventually, Stanley set this to music - but the war intervened and, although Gladys eventually had a Vocal Score in New York, she was unable to trace or find out if the work had been orchestrated. Her efforts to interest American conductors did not succeed. I was in regular correspondence with her for many years and she died a few years ago."

As with so many English composers Wilson was drawn to Housman but his medium of expression was unconventional. In 1929 he published Four Songs from A.E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad. Not surprising as a title but these were settings for chorus (TTBB) and piano. The poems he selected are: The Street Sounds to The Soldier's Tread, The Cherry Tree, Ludlow Fair, The Lent Lily). The BBC Men's Chorus presented these songs on 21 November 1937 conducted by Leslie Woodgate, with Harold Williams[8] as the baritone soloist and Ernest Lush (piano). These were also performed by the Gloucester Orpheus and Holme Valley Choirs enjoying a brief vogue. There is also an isolated setting: When I was One and Twenty Op. 37 No. 1 for unaccompanied chorus (SAB) (1928).

Other choral pieces include The Quest of the Grail (which had a BBC performance), Tewkesbury Road, Gibberish (to words "Many a Flower have I seen blossom, ..." by Mary E. Coleridge - performed in 1938 by the Ipswich Choral Society) and a much used Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in C (which was published in 1928). Songs for voice and piano: Under the Willows; Mamble; England; and, setting Frances Cornford, To a lady seen from a train. This Royal Throne for chorus, orchestra and organ, patently a "Coronation work", was published in 1952. The Te Deum Laudamus and Jubilate Deo in C was published by Stainer and Bell in 1954. Although, by all accounts, an accomplished organist there appear to be no published organ compositions.

Amongst his solo piano music there are Two Preludes (1925) the first of which was revised in 1937. His aptitude for teaching is reflected in his educational pieces. These included Under the Willows (published 1928 and at one time very popular with piano teachers), Hansel and Gretel, The King's Highway, Androcles and the Lion, Hiawatha and Masquerade (six pieces, published 1938). The piano suite Ship Ahoy was published by Forsyth in 1932. Raymond Parfrey mentions that Wilson's name is well known to piano teachers as a composer of teaching pieces for children. Mr Parfrey states his preference for Wilson on account of his music being less Germanic in its harmonic processes.

Wilson died suddenly at the age of 54 of coronary thrombosis on Sunday 29 November 1953. He was comparatively young. He died only a month or so after the death of Arnold Bax. The funeral took place at Dulwich College Chapel on Thursday 3 December. His obituary in the Musical Times (January 1954, p. 40) is brief and pathetically inadequate. As Philip Scowcroft has pointed out he is ignored by reference books.

Acknowledgements: I am indebted to many people in producing this interim effort: Jack Hawes for the recollections which have injected whatever life the reader might find in this piece and also for an invaluable collection of press cuttings; Christopher Field, deputy Master at Dulwich College, the encyclopaedically-inclined and ever supportive Philip Scowcroft, Bob Field (for access to archive recordings); S.C. Newton and Paul Edwards for the biographical entry in "Who's Who in Music, 1950"; Richard Noble for information about broadcasts, Stephen Lloyd for information from his book "Sir Dan Godfrey - Champion of British Composers" (Thames, 1995), and Jurgen Schaarwuchter for information on the Symphony No. 2.

(c) Robert Barnett