Stephen Wilkinson, composer and conductor with a rare poetic vision that made the BBC Northern Singers one of the best choirs – obituary
Although he championed the music of others, commissioning works from Wilfrid Mellers, Richard Rodney Bennett and William Walton, he was also an accomplished composer in his own right. A selection of his songs, written over 80 years, was released in 2017 on a CD titled The Sunlight on the Garden, its title coming from the dark lyricism of his setting to music of a war poem by Louis MacNeice.
Although thorough in his musical preparation, Wilkinson could at times be spectacularly impulsive. He once used the few hours between rehearsal and the concert to climb Helvellyn in the Lake District, while on another occasion, when a family camping vacation coincided with a concert, he came out of his tent ready to go. conduct in full evening dress.
Stephen Austin Wilkinson was born at Old Rectory in Great Eversden, six miles southwest of Cambridge, on April 29, 1919, the second of three sons of Rev. Gordon Wilkinson, MC, TD, and his wife Marion (née Corke) .
He was sent to Christ Church, Oxford, as a chorister under William Harris and educated at St Edward’s School, Oxford. While there, he took some composition lessons with Sir Thomas Armstrong, who succeeded Harris in Christ Church in 1933. Returning to Cambridge in 1937, Wilkinson, then an accomplished pianist, obtained an organ scholarship at Queens’ College.
During the war Wilkinson served in the Royal Navy, first in Atlantic convoys. He then spent two years as a demining officer aboard the requisitioned trawler Northman in the Faroe Islands. In 1943 he was transferred to HMS Vernon, a torpedo school and experimental facility at Roedean School, near Brighton, but was invalidated after an explosion while securing a German mine, one of many captured on a barge in Antwerp.
Surgeons fought for months to restore partial use of his right hand. He has recovered sufficiently that he will resume playing the piano, but not the organ as he might have wished. In August 1944, he was mentioned in dispatches for his “courage and unwavering devotion to duty”.
Returning to university, Wilkinson completed his musical studies and in 1947 was appointed principal of the Hertfordshire Rural Music School in Hitchin. He has also conducted the Hertford Choir, conducting it in many exceptional concerts across the region.
The choir celebrated the Festival of Britain in 1951 by commissioning Cutty Sark, a setting to music of Hart Crane’s poem for voice, strings, piano and percussion by conductor Antony Hopkins, with Wilkinson directing its first performance.