Percy Young

Prolific Elgar scholar, composer and music editor

Percy Young was of one of the musical world's most venerable elder statesmen. Organist, scholar, editor, composer, teacher, adjudicator, conductor, writer and broadcaster, this veritable polymath, throughout his long career, helped influence, inspire and nurture countless generations of aspiring musicians.

Percy Marshall Young, music scholar, editor, organist, composer and teacher: born Northwich, Cheshire 17 May 1912; Director of Music, Stranmillis Teacher Training College, Belfast 1934-37; Musical Adviser, Stoke-on Trent Local Education Authority 1937-44; Director of Music, Wolverhampton College of Technology 1944-66; Honorary Fellow, Selwyn College, Cambridge 1998-2004; married first Netta Carson (deceased; three sons, one daughter), second Renée Morris; died York 9 May 2004.

Percy Young was of one of the musical world's most venerable elder statesmen. Organist, scholar, editor, composer, teacher, adjudicator, conductor, writer and broadcaster, this veritable polymath, throughout his long career, helped influence, inspire and nurture countless generations of aspiring musicians.

Born in Northwich, Cheshire, in 1912, Percy Marshall Young was educated at Christ's Hospital in Horsham, before, in 1930, winning an Organ Scholarship to Selwyn College, Cambridge, reading English, Music and History. It was here, under the particular guidance of the Organist of St John's College, Dr Cyril Rootham, that the seeds of his highly successful career were sown. Revelling in the many new and exciting musical opportunities available, he experienced at first hand the operatic glories of Henry Purcell, George Frederic Handel and Ralph Vaughan Williams, which made a deep and profound impression upon him. Elected Stewart of Rannoch Scholar in Sacred Music in 1934, the same year he became the William Barclay Squire Prizeman.

On leaving Cambridge, he moved to Northern Ireland to become Director of Music at the Stranmillis Teacher Training College in Belfast. Three years later, in 1937, now with a Doctorate from Trinity College, Dublin, he was appointed Musical Adviser to the Stoke-on Trent Local Education Authority before moving to become Director of Music at Wolverhampton College of Technology in 1944. Here, for the next 22 years, the music department achieved a reputation that spread far and wide. Young proved to be a rigorous and demanding teacher, his Socratic approach often allowing him to reveal in others talent and ability they often did not realise they had.

Retirement from everyday academic life in 1966 allowed him freedom to enjoy new challenges and indulge his love of scholarship. Over the next few years he travelled extensively, collecting new music wherever he went, and was now able to expand his expertise as a music editor. He published, among others, new editions of Handel, Zoltán Kodály and Thomas Arne, together with two major anthology series, Music of the Great Churches (1974-88) and The Madrigal in the Romantic Era (1975-79).

With a literary career spanning over 70 years, Young published in total more than 50 books. Beginning while still a schoolboy in 1929 (a published essay on a visit to the Three Choirs Festival at Worcester), his output showed him to be an industrious, perceptive and erudite writer who could both entertain and educate the general reader while incorporating scholarship of the highest order. Individual biographies of musicians include Handel (1947), Vaughan Williams (1953), Elgar, OM (1955), Tragic Muse: the life and works of Robert Schumann (1957), Zoltán Kodály (1964), Sir Arthur Sullivan (1971) and Sir George Grove, 1820-1900 (1980). Briefer volumes on composers such as Handel, Mozart, Beethoven and Britten, specially designed for the younger reader, were also enthusiastically received.

A regular contributor to music magazines, he also wrote books on general musical history. These ranged from The Choral Tradition (1962) to a Concise History of Music (1974). In 1967 came the seminal A History of British Music. His many learned articles also grace the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, as well as the German publication Music in Geschichte.

Such was the interest engendered by Percy Young's initial volume on Sir Edward Elgar that, as the composer's centenary approached, a second volume was mooted. With support from the family, particularly the composer's daughter, Carice Blake, the result was the enigmatic Letters of Edward Elgar, published in 1957.

Further scholarly works followed, including Letters to Nimrod: Edward Elgar to August Jaeger 1897-1908 (1965), and, three years later, A Future For English Music, a compilation of Elgar's lecture notes from his time as Peyton Professor of Music at Birmingham University. Particularly delightful was his 1978 study of the composer's wife entitled Alice Elgar: enigma of a Victorian lady. In contrast, his final major study, published in 1995, examined the composer's deep religious faith under the title, Elgar, Newman and the Dream of Gerontius.

A year earlier, at the Cambridge Elgar Festival, Percy Young fulfilled a long-held ambition by attending a stage performance of his newly-completed edition of Elgar's embryonic opera, The Spanish Lady. Left uncompleted at the time of the composer's death in 1934, this collection of jumbled jottings, some 180 in number, had to be completely reconstructed from the rough sketches available. Young recast the libretto, composed new dialogue and music and attempted as faithfully as possible to keep to the spirit of the original. Criticised by some, lauded by others, here was an Elgarian authority allowing the public a rare and privileged insight into the composer's mind as he approached the end of his life.

Throughout his career Young was equally prolific as a composer, though the demands on his time often relegated it to a secondary activity. Essentially a miniaturist, choral motets, solo songs and chamber music dominate his early period. These include "Virgin's Slumber Song" (1932) and a fine setting of Robert Louis Stevenson's cycle of poems, From A Child's Garden which dates from 1941. Works on a larger canvas range from the 1931 Passacaglia for Violin and Piano through to the Fugal Concerto in G Minor for Two Pianos and String Orchestra some 20 years later. Particularly fine is an Elegy For String Orchestra. Commissioned for the 1960 Zwickau Festival in Germany it was repeated specially at the 2002 event in honour of the composer's 90th birthday.

Young never spared himself in the service of his beloved Midland community. He was a member of his local borough council, a school governor and a co-opted delegate on a number of statutory health bodies. A long-standing supporter of Wolverhampton Wanderers FC, he also served as its historian, meticulous as ever, as he charted the club's somewhat roller-coaster fortunes of recent years.

Awarded an Honorary Fellowship of the Institute for Advanced Research in Humanity at Birmingham University, Young was also a Vice-President of the Elgar Society and a Fellow of the International Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1998, amid great pomp and ceremony and no little pride, he was elected an Honorary Fellow of Selwyn College, Cambridge.

Modest in outlook, substantial in commitment, dynamic and diverse in equal measure, Percy Young enjoyed a worldwide reputation second to none. Yet while his supreme gifts gave his music an unforgettable quality, above all, it was his deep humility and natural goodness that shone through, to bring such added distinction to a rich and fulfilling life.

Kenneth Shenton



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