Clement McWilliam

Church organist and composer


Clement Charles McWilliam, church organist, composer, choirmaster and teacher: born London 19 January 1934; married 1969 Jane Stokes (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1974); died Winchester 13 July 2007.

Clement McWilliam was an influential and delightfully unconventional church and cathedral organist, choirmaster, composer and teacher. His greatest distinction as a musician lay in two areas which are hard to track. The first was as a teacher and encourager of the young. McWilliam had a deep and unpatronising insight into the minds of children, at the same time insisting on the highest standards and profession aspirations.

There are many Anglican church musicians today who felt his influence, as well as others who became musicians of a different kind (opera singers, instrumentalists and composers). He also had many students who did not become professional musicians but came to a lifelong love of music through his example. Among his most prominent pupils are the English composer, organist, conductor and psychoanalyst Francis Grier, and the Scottish composer and teacher Rory Boyle.

McWilliam's other elusive achievement was as an improvising organist. While very few of his improvisations were ever recorded, anyone who heard them will remember their ingenious streams of musical invention, often uplifting, sometimes witty and irreverent, occasionally startlingly modern.

Although by its very nature such music is now gone for ever, it was heard by many, whether those thousands who attended services at which McWilliam was playing or those lucky young people who had the chance to stand beside him in the organ loft as he launched into flight. Music of this kind may seem ephemeral, but at its best (as practised by McWilliam and others) it is a high part of the Anglican musical tradition. McWilliam was also fine performer of the standard organ repertoire, especially memorable in Bach and Buxtehude.

McWilliam was a sporadic but significant church composer, contributing fine services, anthems, hymns and psalms whenever (as he put it with a self-mocking twinkle in his eye) "the muse descended". A number of these are currently in the church repertoire, most notably his Responses, which are beautifully inventive within the extreme limitations of that part of the Evensong liturgy. He was fond of pointing out that, when composing the Gloria sections of a Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, he would take special care to allot the liveliest music to the phrase "and the Holy Ghost", as he was irritated by the way other composers would insist on going quiet and meditational at that point. He claimed he did this by imagining that he was also setting the words "the Giver of Life".

Clement McWilliam was born in 1934 in Sydenham, London, the youngest of three brothers. He spoke of his mother, who wrote hymns and poetry, as the source of his own artistic inclinations. Between 1943 and 1947 he attended the Pilgrims' School, Winchester, where he was a chorister in Winchester Cathedral under the organist Harold Rhodes. After Charterhouse, which he attended on a classics scholarship, he entered the Royal College of Music, where his successful career (interrupted by National Service) culminated in 1955 with the Parratt and Haigh Prizes for his organ playing. These honours were followed by a Bachelor of Music from Trinity College, Dublin (1957), an FRCO and the Limpus Prize from the Royal College of Organists, and the Worshipful Company of Musicians' Silver Medal (1958).

He began his career in 1956 as organist of St John the Evangelist in East Dulwich. In 1959 he became Assistant Music Master at Berkhamsted School, at the same time beginning a six-year period assisting Sir William Harris and later the famous Dr Sidney Campbell.

In 1959, for the period of one year, McWilliam played the organ in the Royal Chapel, Windsor Great Park. At the same time he became Director of Music at St George's School, Windsor Castle (later becoming Head of Mathematics as well). He also played the organ at the Chapel Royal in the Tower of London, and on the pioneering ITV series A Date with Music.

In 1967 McWilliam became Director of Music at his Alma Mater, the Pilgrims' School, and Sub-Organist in his beloved Winchester Cathedral. The organist at the time was (the splendidly named) Alwyn Surplice, about whom McWilliam could be extremely funny but whom he much admired. When Surplice retired in 1971, McWilliam had hoped to replace him, but instead the post went to Martin Neary. The two men could not have been more different, and neither made any secret of their frustration with the other. Disappointed, McWilliam moved to teach at Hawtrey's School in Wiltshire. But he intensely missed Winchester and when the time came he moved back there, becoming a Brother at the Hospital of St Cross, and doing stalwart work in the library of Winchester Cathedral Choir.

Clement McWilliam was a surprisingly anarchic man, with a chuckling laugh, an unusual gift for comic disruption and no time for grandeur or pretension. Stories abound of his irrepressibly boyish behaviour, which was hilarious to friends and pupils, but often annoying to musical superiors and functionaries of the Anglican Church. One former colleague from his St George's Chapel days remembers McWilliam introducing him (circa 1961) to the delights of Indian cuisine. Returning merrily to Windsor Castle from the town down below with a supply of uneaten butter chapattis, Clement proceeded to post them through the letterboxes of various priestly and official characters who lived in the Cloisters.

Such behaviour may have contributed to the disappointment of McWilliam's later career, a disappointment which hurt him deeply but which he hid as best he could. At the same time, his fundamental high spirits, vividly reflected in his music, his playing and his teaching, were, as all his friends knew, deeply connected to his old-fashioned and strongly felt religious beliefs. For this musician, music was a way of worship and a way of life.

Gerard McBurney

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