Obituary: Allan Wicks, organist and choirmaster

Martin Cullingford11th Feb 2010
Allan Wicks, Canterbury organist (photo: Kentish Gazette)Allan Wicks, Canterbury organist (photo: Kentish Gazette)

When cathedral organists are judged by posterity, attention understandably turns to their performances, either as remembered by those who heard them, or captured on disc. In the case of Allan Wicks, who died on February 4, an organist of phenomenal skill and originality, this would be absolutely right. But it would only include half of the story. For perhaps Wicks's most enduring legacy is to be found in the musicians who passed through the choir stalls of Canterbury Cathedral during his 27 years as organist and master of the choristers, and who left with their love of music indelibly enriched.

Born in Harden, Yorkshire on June 6, 1923, the son of a clergyman, Wicks became organ scholar at Christ Church, Oxford in 1942, his studies sandwiched either side of war service in the army. On leaving, he became sub-organist at York Minster in 1947, then in 1954 organist and master of the choristers of Manchester Cathedral. His time there, during which he oversaw the rebuilding of the war-damaged organ, contained all the hallmarks of his lifelong commitment to contemporary music, including one of the first UK performances of Stravinsky's Canticum sacrum.

In 1961 he moved to Canterbury where he cultivated a musical life which was ambitious and notably courageous for its day – the names of Messiaen, Ligeti, Tippett, Lennox Berkeley and Alan Ridout often nestling on the service sheet among the likes of Tallis and Gibbons. Even where the names were more predictable, the works were not. As The Sixteen’s founder and conductor Harry Christophers, a Canterbury chorister from 1962 to 1966, recalls: “Boy’s voice services were memorable for their anthems – not some twee little piece by an insignificant composer but soprano and alto arias from the Bach Passions or Handel oratorios and even Mozart’s Exsultate jubilate”. In the early 1970s another chorister, the composer Gabriel Jackson, found himself singing the Monteverdi Vespers – “none of us had ever heard anything like it before,” he recalls.

The choral culture Wicks fostered was well caught by a Gramophone review from 1974. “The choir's repertory is adventurous, rehearsals are always stimulating and sometimes hilarious, but when the choristers gravely take their place in the stalls they sing as if the music had been new-minted that day and had the dew of the morning fresh upon it.”

The conductor Stephen Barlow remembers of his time as a chorister that “everyone was made to feel that they were different”. The result was a sound which emphasised spontaneity over blend. But on an individual level it was also reflected in the choristers' personal musical journeys. Barlow recalls conversations with Wicks about Bruckner symphonies, and the choirmaster knocking on his study door to present him with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s recording of Strauss’s Four Last Songs.

Contemporary music remained an integral part of Wick’s recital programmes at Canterbury, on tour, and on disc, including works by Peter Maxwell Davis, Iain Hamilton and Malcolm Williamson. “Never a dull moment with Allan Wicks, who communicates his own unique brand of infectious excitement to every note he plays,” wrote Gramophone of one recital, noting of another that were his instrument anything other than the organ Wicks would be world-famous. The music of Messiaen remained a great love. When Barlow won his organ scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, Wicks wrote him a note: “Congratulations. Now I expect you to learn every single note of Messiaen and play it in recital”. Barlow duly obeyed: another musical passion was thus transmitted from teacher to pupil.

Wicks retired from Canterbury in 1988, having served under three Archbishops and taught several generations of choristers. “To come under the influence of this extraordinary, charismatic personality at such a young age was the greatest privilege imaginable,” said Jackson. “His approach to music, indeed, to life, was profoundly formative for all of us.”

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