Dr William McVicker is probably better known to the wider public as the performer of one of Classic FM’s most requested pieces oi music - Widor’s Toccata in F, a piece which gained for William the prestige of once reaching No 1 in its ‘Hall
of Fame’. He has been the musical director of St Barnabas Church for the past thirty years and is also a Professor at the Royal Academy of Music where he teaches Organology. He is also Organ Curator to the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre and a freelance organ consultant.
William spent his early years in north Manchester, attending Stand Grammar School for Boys and joining his local church choir at the age of eight.
“I think I must have been interested in music from a very young age; we had a piano in the house and my mother was musical and played the piano well and I evidently taught myself to play it before having lessons. As a chorister at All Saints’ Church, Stand, on the north side of Manchester, I watched our choirmaster, Mr Middelton, playing the organ. I was mesmerised. He was brilliant. The setting was incomparable. The church was one of the Million Pound Grant churches built after the Battle of Waterloo; the architect was Charles Barry: it is an elegant neo-Gothic building with the slenderest of pillars holding up a high vault. The church had a fine organ and excellent acoustics. The choir was huge — 44 boys when I joined! It is the sort of thing which doesn’t exist anymore in the Church of England. I now realise that it was the combination of arts — architecture, music, colour, art (all of which come together in a church) which heightened my interest in the organ.”
Asked what inspired him to take up music as a career he said:
“At school I used to look at the school honours board and see that one JB Jones went to Downing College Cambridge as Organ Scholar in 1962 (I later met him) and noted that in the 1950s the eminent architect and recitalist Gordon Thorne won a Scholarship to Manchester Art College. I thought then that you could be anything you wanted to be. The person who was the greatest influence was my parish priest, Robert Warner; he taught me the organ for free for most of my teenage years. He taught me to listen to what I was doing — and this has had a profound influence on my career for which I’m truly grateful”.
His first professional job in music was as a deputy lay clerk in Manchester Cathedral Choir — between school and university. He also sang in the BBC Radio Chorale, based at the Deansgate studios in Manchester. William says,” I can hardly sing a note now (except in the shower), so I’m not sure how I achieved all this by the age of 18.”
He gained an Organ Scholarship at Durham University where he sang in the Cathedral choir and was again a deputy lay clerk. He won a series of awards which took him to Paris to study the organ, before being appointed Fellow in Music at St Hild & St Bede College, Durham and its Director of Chapel Music. - “ I never had to think about money or work until one day it all stopped — when Mrs Thatcher began to clamp down on universities (and freeloaders like me, I suppose). I had expected to get an academic job — but there were none available; redundancies were the order of the day.”
He landed a post as Director of Music at a girls’ boarding school near Hitchin; “…..I hated it. I had not expected to meet children at a school who did not like music. Although I made some long-term friends, I gave up the job as soon as was honourable and moved to London. I realised I had to be creative.”
William and his wife Sally arrived in London (living in Battersea) and he applied for the job at St Barnabas.
“There wasn’t really a choir when I started - there was a small group of children (maybe three or four) and some adults. But I met Ian Hubbard who was the honorary curate and was suffering from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He was in a very bad way. He told me he wanted to write down some music and needed an amanuensis. Reluctantly, I agreed to help him. What flowed out from his pen was remarkable. Initially I thought I could easily copy and emulate his music style; but I soon realised he was a tunesmith. We gathered some parish children together and expanded the choir — using Ian’s music as the attraction. Some of the children could see Ian was unwell and so, out of sympathy, they sang his music privately (with me) for Ian to hear. We often went to people’s houses to meet and sing. Eventually this trickled into the choir and it started to grow rapidly. Ian recovered and left to become a curate in Battersea”.
(When I celebrated 30 years as Director of Music at St Barnabas’s Church last November, we sang one of Ian’s pieces; it seemed poignant and logical to do so. Ian came to hear the performances at Harvest and he was deeply touched.)
Then in 1992 the fire burned down the church with all the choir’s music and mine going up in smoke. The tragedy gave the choir great solidarity. We knew we had a mission to carry on with business as usual and it gave us great determination. We also knew we had a role to play in the church’s rebuilding. Around the time the church burned down, Gavin Moralee, Head Chorister, won the Choirboy of the Year award. We raised funds for new music, made recordings, broadcasts, sang concerts and had a crack team of about 12 choristers who went round the country with me giving concerts.
For William, whose wife, Sally, was expecting their first child, it also provided a challenge for longer-term plans. Having considered testing a vocation in the church, some of the trauma of the fire and the uncharitable hostility from some of the community to the plans for the new design caused a rethink of any such ideas, redoubling instead his efforts to rebuild the church as part of the parish project team.
He recalls “…Fortunately, the organ was insured as a separate item, for £200,000 and our rebuilding project Director, Keith Jackson, was adamant we should replace what was lost. I thought it would be a good idea to get the organ builder (Ken Tickell), stained glass artist (Caroline Swash), the architects (HOK) and furniture maker (Luke Hughes) together to discuss how the organ project might work; naturally, everyone had different ideas, but we managed to pull together the materiality: the church woodwork is made of waxed oak, the organ of oiled American oak — the finish is quite similar, despite the differences in the timber. The furniture maker included polished steel uprights in the choirstalls and altar; the organ has tin pipework — again, different materials, similar effect; the terra cotta floor and brickwork was reflected in the flamed copper pipework of the largest pipes. The organ’s pipe shades follow the rhythm of Caroline’s windows — and she introduced gold into the windows at about the same point as the organ builder uses gold leaf for the case pipes. Having worked on several large-scale projects since then, I realise now that getting the church fittings 'through designed’ was something of a triumph. It was a very exciting project — even though it raised hackles for some. It taught me a lot and has set me on a path for my career.”
“Since then we have recorded more CD’s and these have financed the choir, paying for the robes and replacement music. We have had several choir tours — two to Italy and one to Germany. A highlight was singing at a service at Bach’s church: the Thomaskirche in Leipzig; we asked if we should sing Bach; they said ‘please don’t; everyone else does’; so we sang some of our wn music and Eric Whitacre’s ‘Sleep' round Bach’s grave. It was genuinely moving”.
Under William’s baton the choir has reached almost a hundred members, today there are nearer seventy, still making it the largest choir in the Diocese of Southwark and one of the largest in the UK. Interestingly, there are no auditions for admission - loyalty is the key. He says -. I love the choir. They work hard and can sing wonderfully.
William, of course has a number of ‘day jobs’. His famous performance of Widor’s Toccata in F was recorded at St Barnabas, soon after the organ was built “… I was told that unless I played Widor’s Toccata in 5 minutes flat, it would not be broadcast (as it wold be too long for Classic FM); so we divided out the number of bars by 5 minutes and set the metronome accordingly. That’s why it is so fast … I’m slightly ashamed of this, but I’m grateful for the royalties and am not complaining. I tell the students at the Royal Academy of Music not to play so fast....”
William is also Organ Curator at three concert halls: the Royal Festival Hall, Reading Town Hall and De Montfort Hall, Leicester. He also oversaw the restoration of the historic organ in Christ’s Chapel:
“The RFH organ was in a poor shape and was unreliable. Southbank Centre had left the role of Organ Curator lapse— but I opened the organ one day to play a concerto, only to discover that someone had poured two pints of beer into the instrument during a pop festival. That prompted my appointment.
The Chapel organ is a very important instrument; it dates from 1760 and is by George England. In the late 1960s it had been treated very badly during a rebuild and modernised almost beyond recognition to conform with the burgeoning fashion of neo-classicism. When the chapel heating system suffered a major problem in December 1999 through to January 2000, the excessive, unregulated heating, almost destroyed the organ, warping the soundboards and wooden pipework — which split. We had a conference with the directors of music at the Foundation schools and agreed a way forward to restore its historic credentials whilst enabling it to play a wide range of music. It is one of the finest instruments anywhere.
We collated all the existing pipework and studied its provenance and what had happened to it between 1760 and 1969. Fortunately, it was clear what had happened. We also studied St George’s Gravesend, also built by George England (the organ is alas, a ruin) and Danson Mansion. These surviving examples showed us how the organ could and should be restored. We were also working on the organ at Christ Church, Spitalfields at a similar time — or planning the restoration at least. That dates from 1735 and is by Richard Bridge. England was his foreman and used many of his techniques to build his own organs in his relatively short-lived career”.
Asked what he does in his spare time he replies that he also composes. “….I have had a work recorded and performed. Its called 'Six Variationen uber uni tema di Vincent Youmans’. Someone cruelly pointed out that my command of languages was poor. I think they missed the fact that it is supposed to be a joke — it is a series of variations on 'Tea for Two’. I’m grateful that Dame Gillian Weir recorded it at Symphony Hall in Birmingham.”
“I’m also writing a book on the history of the British organ, its sound and its music. I think the Royal Academy of Music is to make me a Research Fellow to help me complete the work. When I've finished it, I’ll take up some hobbies again...”
Asked where he felt he had performed his most memorable concerts he says:
“That’s a difficult one but I would mention appearances at the Royal Festival Hall and at the Royal Albert Hall; and to be in the organ loft of King’s College Cambridge is like being half way to heaven - it’s the closest you can get to that divine fan vaulting. I have greatly enjoyed my visits to play in Australia and New Zealand and I can quite see why people emigrate there! “
And William’s Desert Island Discs choice?
“Bach’s Art of Fugue, St Matthew Passion, the complete organ works, Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, Bruckner 6, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphonie, and the works of ABBA for Saturday night entertainment!”