Stephen Wilkinson (musician)

Stephen Wilkinson MBE (born 29 April 1919) is an English choral conductor and composer.

Stephen Wilkinson
Stephen Wilkinson MBE
Stephen Wilkinson MBE
Background information
Born (1919-04-29) 29 April 1919 (age 101)
Cambridgeshire, England
Occupation(s)Choral conductor, composer, reader

Early lifeEdit

Born in Eversden Rectory, Cambridgeshire, on 29 April 1919, he was a chorister at Christ Church, Oxford, under Sir William Henry Harris and then went on to St. Edward’s, Oxford, having whilst there a few composition lessons with Sir Thomas Armstrong. He went up to Queens’ College, Cambridge as Organ Scholar in 1937 and was very active as a pianist at the University Music Club, of which he was secretary in his third year. He also refounded the Echo Club for aspiring student composers. His tutors were Edward Dent, Cyril Rootham, Hubert Middleton, Henry Moule, Philip Radcliffe, Boris Ord and Patrick Hadley.

War ServiceEdit

He served in the Royal Navy[1] during the second world war, first on Atlantic convoys, then for two years as mine disposal officer in the Faroe Islands. He was then on the staff of the enemy mining section of HMS Vernon until, following an accident in 1944, he was invalided out and returned to Cambridge to complete his degree in music in 1946. He was mentioned in despatches "for courage and undaunted devotion to duty" in August 1944.[2]


From 1947 to 1953 Wilkinson was director of the Hertfordshire Rural Music School at Hitchin, conducting the Hertford Choir, who celebrated the Festival of Britain by commissioning "Cutty Sark" for voices and strings from the young Antony Hopkins. He has always retained a keen interest in working with amateurs. While in Hitchin he also studied singing with George Parker.

From 1953 to 1979 he was on the music staff of the BBC,[3] first in Leeds, then from 1961 in Manchester. He first worked with the BBC Northern Singers in 1954 and between then and 1993, by which time they had "gone private" as the Britten Singers, he achieved a notable succés d’estime with them. They appeared at the major festivals: frequently at Aldeburgh, Bath, Cheltenham, Edinburgh and five times at The Proms,[4] where Edward Greenfield described them as "a choir to equal, or even outshine, any in this country" (Guardian). They also travelled widely abroad, to Ireland, Belgium, France, Poland, Spain, Turkey, Thailand, Australia and Hong Kong.

Wilkinson has always been a great champion of new music, commissioning many works and giving many "Proms Premières"[4] and other first performances with the BBC Northern Singers. The first of these commissions was a work by Wilfrid Mellers; among his successors are Richard Rodney Bennett,[5] Michael Ball, Judith Bingham, Stephen Dodgson, Geoffrey Burgon, Peter Dickinson, John Gardner, Kenneth Leighton, John McCabe, Elizabeth Maconchy, Nicholas Maw, Alan Bullard, Robin Orr and William Walton (Cantico del Sole[6]). They gave the first concert performance of Gustav Holst's Nunc Dimittis,[7] now a staple of the repertoire. They recorded widely;[8] their disc Spring Song was listed as Critic’s Choice in The Gramophone. Warm reviews followed: "In the field of choral music, Stephen Wilkinson is a genius" (Yorkshire Post); 'Simply a great choral conductor' (South China Times); "No praise could overstate the merits of Stephen Wilkinson’s direction" (The Guardian).

Wilkinson also performed with other professional choirs - the BBC Singers in London, the RTE Singers in Dublin and the Nederlands Kammerkoor. However, he remained active in amateur music as well, directing for many years the choral course of the Ernest Read Music Association, now closed down but happily taken over by Canford; also those of the Benslow Music Trust, Manchester and Bristol Universities, and 'Chorale' in Chester. For ten years he conducted yearly week-long choral courses in Italy, based around the Preggio Music Festival. He also established a series of singing days, workshops and study days in Manchester.

His principal work in this field was undoubtedly as conductor for nearly forty years[9] of the William Byrd Singers of Manchester,[10] becoming a much-admired figure on the Manchester music scene (described by Robert Beale of the Manchester Evening News[11] as "one of the most extraordinary men I have ever met"[12]). Under his direction they also gained a string of commissions, foreign tours and festival appearances to their credit. Wilkinson retired as conductor of the William Byrd Singers in May 2009 at the age of 90.

In 1991, observing that there was no training orchestra in the Manchester area, Wilkinson founded a companion young string ensemble, Capriccio, as a springboard for the National Youth Orchestra. Choir and strings recorded two CDs together. Some of the group's many alumni now leading national/international careers are: Jonathan Cohen, described as "one of Britain's finest young musicians"[13] (Associate Conductor, Les Arts Florissants), Steven Wilkie (adjudicator, Young Musician of the Year[14]), Clare Duckworth (RPO), Jonathan Martindale (Manchester Camerata), David Adams (leader, WNO orchestra).

Continuing his support of new music, Wilkinson ran two Composers' Competitions, and godfathered Earth, Sweet Earth by the Bristol composer Alan Charlton[15] and Three Poems of Edith Sitwell by Graham Redwood.[16]


Stephen Wilkinson MBE during the recording of his English songs, at Wyastone Hall, October 2015. Photo: Andrew Wilkinson Photography.

Since his retirement from conducting, Wilkinson has been increasingly active as a composer. A CD of a selection of his choral music entitled "Dover Beach"[17] was released in 2012 on the label Deux-Elles. A Phoenix Hour, settings of Irish poets, was premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival by the BBC Northern Singers. The Manchester Chamber Choir commissioned two pieces entitled Fanfare and Envoi, now augmented by a setting of Berthold Brecht to create the tripartite set The singing will never be done; Tarira, a Faroese choir, two Tempest settings. Juno's Song and Summer Floods were written for I Fagiolini. Many solo songs of widely varying character have also appeared from the 1930s to the present day. At the Manger and The Garden, for voice and viols, were written for his daughter, mezzo-soprano Clare Wilkinson,[18] and Fretwork, and feature on their disk The Silken Tent.[19] Several volumes of solo songs and choral music are in print: choral collections The Other Carol Book and Grass Roots (folk song arrangements), and two solo song collections The Sunlight on the Garden & Eternal Summer are available from Forsyth of Manchester.[20] Choral works Rorate Coeli (Eboracum Choral Series[21]) and The Singing World, both for SATB, are published as separate scores, available from Banks of York.

Recognition, and Present DayEdit

Manchester University gave him an honorary MA in 1982 and he was awarded an MBE for services to choral music in the 1992 New Year’s Honours.[22]

Wilkinson’s 70th birthday was marked by his appearance as ‘Artist of the Week’ on Radio 3; also, choral compositions were written for him in honour of the occasion by Michael Ball, Alan Bullard, Stephen Dodgson, David Gow, John Joubert, John McCabe and Elizabeth Maconchy. His 80th birthday was celebrated with a pair of concerts in Trinity College, Cambridge.

He lives in Manchester with his wife of forty years, Delyth, a singer and psychotherapist. He has six children, four of whom have followed him into professional music.

He has recently embarked on a new career as Reader for concerts given by his daughter Clare's early music ensemble, Courtiers of Grace,[23] with whom he has appeared at the Trigonale Festival (Austria), Trinity College, Cambridge, the Brighton and York Early Music Festivals and Stour Music.


  1. ^ Unit Histories: Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve
  2. ^ Minewarfare & Clearance Diving Officers' Association Archives
  3. ^ Oxford Dictionary of Music, 2nd revised edition. Oxford University Press. 24 Nov 1994. ISBN 978-0-19-869162-4.
  4. ^ a b Proms Archive
  5. ^ Novello & Co
  6. ^ Cork City Libraries
  7. ^ Hyperion Records
  8. ^ Hyperion Records
  9. ^ Dressler, John Clay (September 2004). Alan Rawsthorne: a bio-bibliography. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 81. ISBN 978-0-313-30589-4. Retrieved 31 August 2010.
  10. ^ William Byrd Singers of Manchester
  11. ^ Manchester Evening News - Authors
  12. ^ Extraordinary Stephen's going out on a high, Robert Beale, Manchester Evening News, 14 May 2009
  13. ^ Askonas Holt
  14. ^ RNCM - Steven Wilkie
  15. ^ Alan Charlton, composer
  16. ^ British Music Collection
  17. ^ Deux-Elles Archived March 5, 2012, at the Wayback Machine
  18. ^ Website of Clare Wilkinson, mezzo-soprano
  19. ^ Fretwork Discography - The Silken Tent
  20. ^ Forsyths Music Shop
  21. ^ Banks Music Room
  22. ^ London Gazette 52767 Supplement 16
  23. ^ Courtiers of Grace Archived July 1, 2016, at the Wayback Machine