ALLAN WICKS

Musician, Mentor, & Friend

 

A

llan Wicks, some time Organist & Master of the Choristers at Canterbury Cathedral, died on 4th February 2010 at the age of 86. EDWARD ALLAN WICKS was born in Yorkshire in 1923 and educated at St John’s School, Leatherhead and Christ Church Oxford where he was Organ scholar. His studies at Oxford were interrupted by the war when he served in Burma. After completing his degree in Oxford he returned to Yorkshire as Assistant Organist of York Minster (1947-54); from there he moved to Manchester Cathedral as Organist & Master of the Choristers (1954-61). In 1961 he was appointed Organist & Master of the Choristers at Canterbury Cathedral, a post he held with distinction until his retirement in 1988. He was appointed a Lambeth Doctor of Music and was awarded CBE on his retirement.

 

An inspirational and spontaneous musician, Allan’s music making was always of the highest order, whether he was playing the organ or directing his choir. Under Allan’s direction, the Canterbury Cathedral Choir was a sumptuous musical machine, psalm singing (spurred by Allan’s love of the English language) being a particular speciality; his organ playing was always electrifying, not least because of his innovative repertoire – Allan was an indefatigable exponent of contemporary music, commissioning and premiering more music than many organists have in their entire contemporary repertoire. In this area Allan’s friendship with the composer Alan Ridout was particularly fruitful, a whole string of works appearing for the Canterbury choir and for Allan as organist. Less well known now is that Allan was one of the first musicians in the UK to promote the music of Olivier Messiaen, giving an early broadcast of L’Ascension and recording La Nativité du Seigneur from St Paul’s Cathedral in 1965. He was the first player to perform Ligeti’s Volumina at the Royal Festival Hall – Xavier Darasse’s earlier attempt being aborted when, famously, it fused the organ with the opening cluster. Allan persuaded Ralph Downes to enter the organ towards the end of the piece so that he could hold down the pallets and prevent the electric action automatically closing them when the blower was switched off; thus the tone was able to fade and the pitch sink, according to the composer’s wishes. Another memorable performance in the Royal Festival Hall was of Reger’s mighty Prelude & Fugue on BACH, a performance so exciting that when, at the false ending a couple of bars before its close, Allan, with one sweeping movement of his left hand, in a split second added reeds on both sides of the console, there was a collective gasp from the audience, which, unable to believe its luck, roared its approval at this charismatic performer. Many musicians, both professional and amateur owe Allan a great debt: organists, singers, conductors and composers all over the world (he directed several choral courses in USA) will be grateful for their contact with this remarkable man.

 

When I arrived in Canterbury as a thirteen year old boy, Allan’s music making was a revelation. Never before had I heard singing of such commitment that I heard from the Cathedral Choir; vibrato in a boy’s voice was a new experience, as was Allan’s colourful use of language and metaphor when rehearsing his choir – always metaphor chosen to fire the imagination of his young choristers. His organ playing was also a new experience; he had a knack of turning the organ into a percussion instrument, which gave an arresting quality to his playing; another facet of his playing which lives in the memory is his use of colour – his playing of J S Bach’s Sei Gegrüsset Variations was the most compelling I have ever heard, not only for its imaginative, almost Stravinsky like use of colour, but also for the sense of inevitability which carried the listener forward.

 

Allan had a love/hate relationship with the Willis at Canterbury. Sadly, it was not a reliable instrument, and this gave rise to unprintable threats as to which parts of Henry Willis iv’s anatomy Allan would have on toast for breakfast if he didn’t put it right; also, being in the triforium on the south side of the quire, the organ bore the full force of the sun, so was rarely in tune. Another threat was to climb the stairs to the organ chamber and remove the tierce rank from the Willis Mixtures. The instrument did, however, have some quite ravishing stops. Having grown up in the Hill tradition at Lichfield, some sounds were quite new to me, and they were sounds in which it seemed Allan revelled: the Swell Oboe, for instance, blended with the Diapason and a 4’ stop was one such sound, used, I remember, to great effect in a performance of Brahms’s German Requiem which Allan accompanied on the organ with enormous skill and musicianship, and with a stream of comments such as “Tommy Beecham had the right idea about this movement” and after the penultimate movement “Get on with it, go on, what is he waiting for? go straight on”; the Willis Corno-di-Basetto, particularly in the tenor register (especially when accompanying psalms) was another favourite, as was the Tierce on the Choir manual – the only Tierce rank at Lichfield had been in the bottom octave of a Swell Mixture so this was another new sound. I can still hear Allan using some sort of Cornet in various Bach chorale preludes and cantata movements – his repertoire was always adventurous – and the sound has fascinated me ever since.

 

But most of all what struck me was the sheer drama of his playing; this wasn’t just somebody playing the organ; it was a personality proclaiming “listen to me!” On one occasion when playing Messiaen’s Transports de Joie he played the opening dissonant manual figure and shouted “That to the Chapter”, then he thundered the next phrase on the full Pedal and (it must have been a frustrating day) shouted “and that to the men in the Choir”, followed by the thrilling F sharp major chord, at which he shouted triumphantly “Wicks!”

 

Perhaps the single episode which best sums up his sense of fun – there was an impish streak to his nature – was when he played at the Royal Albert Hall in 1966 in a now legendary evening called “Organ in Sanity & Madness”, an extravaganza in aid of the Royal College of Organists centenary appeal. Allan appeared with the percussionist James Blades, both sporting dressing gowns. Having taken their bows both divested to reveal boxing shorts; they then settled down to a musical boxing match especially composed for percussion and the Albert Hall organ by Alan Ridout. This was typical of the Wicks lack of inhibition.

 

Allan had a particular gift when dealing with school children and adolescents; he treated them as individuals and took a genuine interest in their lives. For young people away from home at boarding school his friendship and concern for their welfare were particularly valuable. As a music teacher he was interested in their all round education. Many amusing stories are too indelicate to record here, but the writer remembers two revealing episodes: the first was when he arrived at Canterbury Cathedral as a shy teenager for his first organ lesson. While walking into the cathedral Allan opened the door and stood aside letting his young pupil go through first. In 1966 it would have been more usual for a 13 year old boy to open the door for his teacher. When, later in life, I remarked on this, Allan replied that he was resident at the cathedral and I was the visitor so of course he should open the door for me. The other episode was a couple of years later; I had been learning the Choral iii of César Franck and Allan gave me an hour for the lesson rather than the usual 30 minutes. At the end of the lesson Allan came running down the loft stairs after me and asked “Didn’t you enjoy your extra long lesson?” “O yes”, I replied. “You didn’t thank me for it,” he admonished.

 

Allan will be much missed by all who knew him. He was possessed of a magnetic personality which caused friends to seek him out like bees round a honey pot. He was unfailingly generous with help, advice, and musical opportunities for composers and performers alike. Many will have fond memories of the generous and convivial hospitality offered by Allan and Elizabeth at their homes in St Stephen’s and at Lower Hardres during their time at Canterbury. He leaves a widow, Elizabeth and two daughters, Lalu and Joanna.

PK

 

Copyright Peter King 2007

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