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John Whitworth: Celebrated countertenor


The countertenor John Whitworth was second only to Alfred Deller in prominence during the countertenor revival that took place in the late 1940s and 1950s. Based in London as an alto lay-vicar in the Westminster Abbey choir, he was conveniently on hand for concerts, recitals, broadcasts and recordings, not only as a singer but also as a choir director

John Anthony Whitworth was born in Ely, Cambridgeshire, where his father was a potato merchant. The Second World War intervened between school (Kimbolton) and university and he volunteered for the RAF as a flight mechanic, in Canada from 1941, but returning to Europe in time to celebrate VE Day in Paris.

Following demobilisation in 1946 he became a choral scholar in the choir of King’s College Cambridge under the director of music Boris Ord. Whitworth was a new arrival, but many of his colleagues had been there before the War and were now returning from the Services to finish their courses, older, wiser and more mature, musically as well as personally; as the then organ scholar David Willcocks recalled, “we all got on well together; it was a happy team”. Ord described this time as “the golden age of the choir”.

Whitworth was appointed to Westminster Abbey in 1949 and stayed for 22 years, initially supplementing his income by teaching music at St Mary’s School Reigate. But the vocal demands on a schoolmaster were not conducive to mellifluous daily singing and, after a spell at the Abbey choir school teaching mathematics he worked with other professional choirs and ensembles – such as the Golden Age Singers and the Well-Tempered Singers – and became increasingly in demand as a soloist. Concurrently with his time at Westminster Abbey, he was also organist of Christ Church Chelsea (1964-65) and St Paul’s Covent Garden (1965-70), and from 1965-71 a professor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

In the early 1950s he met Michael Howard, eventually to become organist of Ely Cathedral, who in 1944 founded the Renaissance Singers “to promote a proper liturgical revival of the music of the great masters of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Restoration Schools”. Howard began with contraltos taking the alto line but “try what I might, this was never truly acceptable” and soon he made the momentous decision to use male altos, triumphantly justified by “the sheer virtuosity of John Whitworth’s singing.” When in 1953 Michael Howard did go to Ely, it was to Whitworth that he turned for advice on developing the boys’ voices. One of them, the head boy Howard Thomas, remarked: “We used to sing like girls. Now it is going in the right direction”.

Michael Howard in his memoirs describes Whitworth as “the greatest eminence (not gris but for good) in the progress of my life”, while Whitworth himself acknowledged a particular debt of gratitude to the inspirational Henry Washington, director of music at the Brompton Oratory, from whom he learnt so much. When in 1965 Howard for personal reasons resigned the conductorship of the Renaissance Singers, he was succeeded (until 1971) by Whitworth, who also sang in Howard’s new ensemble, Cantores in Ecclesia – similar to the original group but with a wider remit.

In these various guises – and in addition to his daily duties at Westminster Abbey – there were concerts, over 100 broadcasts and many recordings. In the recordings his artistry lives on, perhaps most famously in Purcell’s ode “Come, ye sons of art”, in the duet “Sound the trumpet!”, with Alfred Deller, where two somewhat different countertenor voices complement and contrast with each other to thrilling effect. Another, less well known perhaps, is Whitworth’s superb singing of This is the record of John, by Orlando Gibbons, on the 1958 LP Music for the Feast of Christmas.

If all of this sounds unremittingly high-falutin, it must be recorded that Whitworth had the most wonderful deadpan sense of humour, not least in two of his party pieces: his imitation of Clara Butt singing “Land of Hope and Glory” and of a cinema organ playing “Love’s Old Sweet Song” (“Just a Song at Twilight”). At a Stratford-upon-Avon Festival production of The Fairy Queen in March 1964 he and Robert Tear gave “a delightfully comic rendering of the travesty love-scene for Corydon and Mopsa”.

He also composed some catches for travellers, whose words, taken from notices then to be found in various forms of public transport, admonished passengers not to spit, or lean out of the window, in various European languages. His brilliant setting of “The Mermaid”, for the King’s Singers, he self-deprecatingly dismissed as “a piece of nautical nonsense”. More seriously, he made many performing editions of music from the Middle Ages onwards, from manuscripts in the British Library, and contributed articles to scholarly journals.

In 1971 he left London to become assistant music adviser to Leicestershire Education Authority, where he “made a crucial contribution to the development of amateur music making in the county” and was still involved in local music as a teacher and performer after his formal retirement, while still finding time to indulge his passion for aircraft and vintage cars.

John Anthony Whitworth, musician; born Ely 27 December 1921; lay-vicar, Westminster Abbey 1949-71; Professor, Guildhall School of Music and Drama 1965-71; assistant music adviser, Leicestershire Education Authority 1971-86; married 1963 Patricia Fitzgerald (three daughters); died Leicester 11 July 2013.