Obituary: John Whitworth, countertenor

Charlotte Smith
Thursday, September 5, 2013

The British countertenor John Whitworth has died at the age of 91. Alongside fellow countertenor Alfred Deller, Whitworth was instrumental in bringing about a resurgence of high male singing in the mid-20th century. The two memorably appeared in duet in works by Purcell and John Blow – not least in a celebrated 1953 recording featuring ‘Sound of the Trumpet’ from Purcell’s Come Ye Sons of Art on L'Oiseau-Lyre.

Born in Ely, Cambridgeshire, Whitworth won a choral scholarship to King’s College Cambridge in 1946, and after graduating in 1949 was appointed alto lay vicar of Westminster Abbey – a position he held until 1971. His first professional solo appearance was in Handel's Messiah at the Central Hall, Westminster, in 1950. Soon afterwards he joined the Deller Consort at Maida Vale studios for the first of many broadcasts, and made his first solo broadcast - songs by William Byrd - in 1952. He was also director of the Renaissance Singers and toured extensively with the Golden Age Singers.

Whitworth taught at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama from 1965 and at Uppingham school in Rutland from 1988 where his students included the now celebrated countertenor Robin Blaze. He was also organist at St Paul’s Covent Garden from 1964 to 1971, deputy music advisor for Leicestershire County Council from 1971 to 1986, and an early music specialist, researching and transcribing many works held in the British Museum and British Library.

In December 2005, for Gramophone’s 1000th issue, critic Richard Lawrence chose Whitworth as the past performer he would most like to hear again, writing: ‘My command performer is English, rooted in the Anglican choral tradition – and not Alfred Deller. Deller was a wonderful singer, perhaps a little precocious at times, and cornered the concert and recording market in the 1950s and 60s. But for my money he was outclassed by John Whitworth. He had a voice of great beauty, rich in the lower register, trumpet-toned in the upper, and without the Deller vibrato. It would be a treat to hear him again in the anthem This is the record of John by Gibbons, with the choir of Westminster Abbey, 1959 vintage, and Sir William McKie on the organ.’

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