Stephen Wilkinson

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Stephen Wilkinson

Stephen Wilkinson conducting.jpg
Born(1919-04-29)29 April 1919
Died10 August 2021(2021-08-10) (aged 102)
OccupationChoral conductor, composer
SpouseDelyth Wilkinson
Children6, including Clare Wilkinson

Stephen Austin Wilkinson MBE (29 April 1919 – 10 August 2021[1]) was a British choral conductor and composer.

Early life[edit]

Born in Eversden Rectory, Cambridgeshire, on 29 April 1919, he was a chorister at Christ Church, Oxford, under Sir William Henry Harris and then went on to St. Edward's, Oxford, having whilst there a few composition lessons with Sir Thomas Armstrong. He went up to Queens' College, Cambridge as Organ Scholar in 1937 and was active as a pianist at the University Music Club, of which he was secretary in his third year. He also refounded the Echo Club for aspiring student composers. His tutors were Edward Dent, Cyril Rootham, Hubert Middleton, Henry Moule, Philip Radcliffe, Boris Ord, and Patrick Hadley.

War service[edit]

He served in the Royal Navy[2] during the Second World War, first on Atlantic convoys, then for two years as mine disposal officer in the Faroe Islands. He was then on the staff of the enemy mining section of HMS Vernon until, following an accident in 1944, he was invalided out and returned to Cambridge to complete his degree in music in 1946. He was mentioned in dispatches "for courage and undaunted devotion to duty" in August 1944.[3]


From 1947 to 1953, Wilkinson was director of the Hertfordshire Rural Music School at Hitchin, conducting the Hertford Choir, who celebrated the Festival of Britain by commissioning "Cutty Sark" for voices and strings from the young Antony Hopkins. He had always retained a keen interest in working with amateurs. While in Hitchin he also studied singing with George Parker.

From 1953 to 1979, he was on the music staff of the BBC,[4] first in Leeds, then from 1961 in Manchester. He first worked with the BBC Northern Singers in 1954 and between then and 1993, by which time they had "gone private" as the Britten Singers, he achieved a notable succès d'estime with them. They appeared at the major festivals: frequently at Aldeburgh, Bath, Cheltenham, Edinburgh and several times at The Proms,[1] where Edward Greenfield described them as "a choir to equal, or even outshine, any in this country" (The Guardian).[This quote needs a citation] They also travelled widely abroad, to Ireland, Belgium, France, Poland, Spain, Turkey, Thailand, Australia and Hong Kong.

Wilkinson had always been a great champion of new music, commissioning many works and giving many "Proms Premières"[5] and other first performances with the BBC Northern Singers. The first of these commissions was a work by Wilfrid Mellers; among his successors are Richard Rodney Bennett,[6] Michael Ball, Judith Bingham, Stephen Dodgson, Geoffrey Burgon, Peter Dickinson, John Gardner, Kenneth Leighton, John McCabe, Elizabeth Maconchy, Nicholas Maw, Alan Bullard, Robin Orr and William Walton (Cantico del Sole[7]). They gave the first concert performance of Gustav Holst's Nunc Dimittis,[8] now a staple of the repertoire. They recorded widely;[9] their disc Spring Song was listed as Critic's Choice in The Gramophone. Warm reviews followed: "In the field of choral music, Stephen Wilkinson is a genius" (The Yorkshire Post);[This quote needs a citation] "Simply a great choral conductor" (South China Morning Post);[This quote needs a citation] "No praise could overstate the merits of Stephen Wilkinson's direction" (The Guardian).[This quote needs a citation]

Wilkinson also performed with other professional choirs – the BBC Singers in London, the RTE Singers in Dublin and the Nederlands Kamerkoor. However, he remained active in amateur music as well, directing for many years the choral course of the Ernest Read Music Association, now closed down but happily taken over by Canford; also those of the Benslow Music Trust, Manchester and Bristol Universities, and 'Chorale' in Chester. For ten years he conducted yearly week-long choral courses in Italy, based around the Preggio Music Festival. He also established a series of singing days, workshops and study days in Manchester.

His principal work in this field was undoubtedly as conductor for nearly forty years[10][11] of the William Byrd Singers of Manchester,[12] becoming a much-admired figure on the Manchester music scene (described by Robert Beale of the Manchester Evening News[13] as "one of the most extraordinary men I have ever met"[14]). Under his direction they also gained a string of commissions, foreign tours and festival appearances to their credit. Wilkinson retired as conductor of the William Byrd Singers in May 2009 at the age of 90.

In 1991, observing that there was no training orchestra in the Manchester area, Wilkinson founded a companion young string ensemble, Capriccio, as a springboard for the National Youth Orchestra. Choir and strings recorded two CDs together. Some of the group's many alumni now leading national/international careers are: Jonathan Cohen, described as "one of Britain's finest young musicians"[15] (Associate Conductor, Les Arts Florissants), Steven Wilkie (adjudicator, Young Musician of the Year[16]), Clare Duckworth (RPO), Jonathan Martindale (Manchester Camerata), David Adams (leader, WNO orchestra).

Continuing his support of new music, Wilkinson ran two composers' competitions, and godfathered[clarification needed] Earth, Sweet Earth by the Bristol composer Alan Charlton[17] and Three Poems of Edith Sitwell by Graham Redwood.[18]


Stephen Wilkinson MBE during the recording of his English songs, at Wyastone Hall, October 2015

Following his retirement from conducting, Wilkinson was increasingly active as a composer. A CD of a selection of his choral music entitled Dover Beach[19] was released in 2012 on the label Deux-Elles. A Phoenix Hour, settings of Irish poets, was premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival by the BBC Northern Singers. The Manchester Chamber Choir commissioned two pieces entitled Fanfare and Envoi, now augmented by a setting of Bertolt Brecht to create the tripartite set The singing will never be done; Tarira, a Faroese choir, two Tempest settings. Juno's Song and Summer Floods were written for I Fagiolini. Many solo songs of widely varying character have also appeared from the 1930s to the present day. At the Manger and The Garden, for voice and viols, were written for his daughter, mezzo-soprano Clare Wilkinson,[20][failed verification] and Fretwork, and feature on their disk The Silken Tent.[21] Several volumes of solo songs and choral music are in print: choral collections The Other Carol Book and Grass Roots (folk song arrangements), and two solo song collections The Sunlight on the Garden and Eternal Summer are available from Forsyth of Manchester.[22] Choral works Rorate Coeli (Eboracum Choral Series[23]) and The Singing World, both for SATB, are published as separate scores, available from Banks of York.

Recognition and last years[edit]

Manchester University gave him an honorary MA in 1982 and he was awarded an MBE for services to choral music in the 1992 New Year Honours.[24]

Wilkinson's 70th birthday was marked by his appearance as "Artist of the Week" on BBC Radio 3; also, choral compositions were written for him in honour of the occasion by Michael Ball, Alan Bullard, Stephen Dodgson, David Gow, John Joubert, John McCabe and Elizabeth Maconchy. His 80th birthday was celebrated with a pair of concerts in Trinity College, Cambridge.

He lived in Manchester with his wife of forty years, Delyth, a singer and psychotherapist. He had six children, four of whom have followed him into professional music.

During his final years he embarked on a new career as reader for concerts given by his daughter Clare's early music ensemble, Courtiers of Grace, with whom he has appeared at the Trigonale Festival (Austria), Trinity College, Cambridge, the Brighton and York Early Music Festivals and Stour Music.[25]

He died on 10 August 2021, aged 102.[26]


  1. ^ a b "Stephen Wilkinson, composer and conductor with a rare poetic vision who turned the BBC Northern Singers into one of the finest choirs – obituary", The Daily Telegraph, London, 11 August 2021 (subscription required)
  2. ^ "Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) Officers 1939-1945". Retrieved 11 August 2020.
  3. ^ "News Archive 30". Retrieved 11 August 2020.
  4. ^ Oxford Dictionary of Music (2nd, revised ed.). Oxford University Press. 24 November 1994. ISBN 978-0-19-869162-4.
  5. ^ "Proms Archive". BBC. Archived from the original on 20 April 2014. Retrieved 11 August 2020.
  6. ^ "Calico Pie | Richard Rodney Bennett". Retrieved 11 August 2020.
  7. ^ "Cork City Libraries" (PDF). Retrieved 11 August 2020.
  8. ^ "Nunc dimittis, H127 (Holst) – from CDH55170 – MP3 and Lossless downloads". Hyperion Records. Retrieved 11 August 2020.
  9. ^ "BBC Northern Singers on Hyperion Records". Retrieved 11 August 2020.
  10. ^ Flinn, Mark (10 May 2020). Sing Joyfully: The William Byrd Singers at Fifty. Independently published. p. 11. ISBN 979-8638626747. Retrieved 8 August 2022.
  11. ^ "Stephen Wilkinson MBE". William Byrd Singers: Stephen Wilkinson. Retrieved 8 August 2022. ... Stephen Wilkinson MBE (Music Director 1970-2009)[...]the Byrds, whom he conducted from the choir's foundation until 2009 ...'
  12. ^ "William Byrd Singers: Stephen Wilkinson". Retrieved 8 August 2022.
  13. ^ "Robert Beale – MEN Online". Manchester Evening News. Retrieved 11 August 2020.[not specific enough to verify]
  14. ^ "What's on in Manchester and Greater Manchester including Bolton, Bury, Heywood, Middleton, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford, Stockport, Tameside, Trafford and Wigan". Manchester Evening News. Archived from the original on 29 July 2012. Retrieved 11 August 2020.
  15. ^ "Jonathan Cohen". Retrieved 11 August 2020.
  16. ^ "Steven Wilkie". Royal Northern College of Music. Retrieved 11 August 2020.
  17. ^ "Alan Charlton, Composer – Biography". Retrieved 11 August 2020.
  18. ^ "Three Poems of Edith Sitwell – SAM: The Collection". Archived from the original on 22 April 2014. Retrieved 22 April 2014.
  19. ^ "Deux-Elles". Archived from the original on 5 March 2012. Retrieved 11 August 2020.
  20. ^ "News | Clare Wilkinson". Retrieved 11 August 2020.
  21. ^ "Fretwork Discography – The Silken Tent". Retrieved 11 August 2020.
  22. ^ "Search – Forsyths Music Shop". Retrieved 11 August 2020.
  23. ^ "Stephen Wilkinson: Rorate Coeli: SATB". Retrieved 11 August 2020.
  24. ^ "London Gazette 52767 Supplement 16". Archived from the original on 15 March 2014. Retrieved 11 August 2020.
  25. ^ "Stephen Wilkinson", Clare Wilkinson's website
  26. ^ Millington, Barry (16 August 2021). "Stephen Wilkinson obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 23 August 2021.

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