Alfred Ernest Whitehead (10 July 1887 - 1 April 1974) was an English composer, organist, choirmaster, and music educator who was primarily active in Canada. He taught music at several Canadian institutions of higher learning during his career and held the post of organist/choirmaster at a number of prominent Canadian churches. He was a noted painter and his works are held in a number of important private collections. He was also an internationally recognized authority in the field of philately and his book on that subject, The Squared-Circle Cancellations of Canada, had its third edition published shortly after his death.
Whitehead's music is written in a traditional idiom and he was particularly prolific in his output of motets and anthems. Of his many works, Whitehead was particularly proud of his anthem Alleluia, Sing to Jesus with organ accompaniment; the anthems Ye Choirs of New Jerusalem, Now God Be with Us, and O Light Beyond Our Utmost Light; and the short motets Bread of the World, Grant Us Grace, and Almighty God, Whose Glory. Leo Sowerby described his Benedicite on the Tonus peregrinus as the "best Benedicite" he knew. Also well known among his works are the eight-part motets Watch Thou, Dear Lord (words by St Augustine) and Love Unknown, the Brahmsian organ Prelude on Irby, and many of his short carols for Christmas.
Early life and education
Born in Peterborough, Whitehead received his earliest musical education from Haydn Keeton and C. C. Francis at the Peterborough Cathedral. He earned an associates degree from the Royal College of Music in 1910 where he was a pupil of A. Eaglefield Hull. In 1912 he emigrated to Canada where he became the first fellow of the Royal Canadian College of Organists (RCCO) in 1913. He then studied at the University of Toronto where he earned a Bachelor of Music in 1916. In 1922 he received a Doctor of Music from McGill University.
From 1913-1915 Whitehead served as the organist-choirmaster at St Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Truro, Nova Scotia. He was a faculty member at Mount Allison University from 1913-1915 where he taught organ and music theory. He was appointed organist-choirmaster at St Peter's Anglican Church in Sherbrooke in 1915 where he remained for six years. While there he also taught piano and organ privately. One of his students in Sherbrooke was composer Allan McIver.
Whitehead moved to Montreal in 1922 to become the organist and choirmaster of the Cathedral Singers at Christ Church Cathedral, a post he held through 1947. During those years he "became the acknowledged leader of Montreal's Protestant church music scene." In 1936 Wilfrid Pelletier asked the Cathedral Singers to perform with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra for the opening of the very first Montreal Festivals. Whitehead prepared the chorus for performances of Johann Sebastian Bach's St Matthew Passion and Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 9. He prepared the choir for performances at the Montreal Festivals in subsequent years, including performances of Bach's Mass in B Minor, Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem, and Beethoven's Missa solemnis.
In 1922 Whitehead joined the music faculty at McGill University where he taught organ, theory, and music composition until 1930. He was president of the RCCO in 1930-1931 and again in 1935-1937. From 1947-1953 he was head of the music department at Mount Allison University. Among his pupils were Alexander Brott, Graham George, Hector Gratton, Frances James, and Ethel Stark. After retiring from teaching, he became organist-choirmaster of Trinity St Stephen's United Church in Amherst, Nova Scotia, a post he held from 1953-1971. He was honorary vice-president of the RCCO from 1971–1973 and the honorary president from 1973-1974.
Whitehead died in Amherst, Nova Scotia in 1974 at the age of 86. The Library and Archives Canada holds many of his papers and original manuscripts as well as a large portion of his private library. He is listed as an associate of the Canadian Music Centre.