100th anniversary of the death of Sir Walter Parratt

A black and white portrait photograph of a serious man with a white moustache and beard with his hands on his lapels, looking into the camera. His name is signed in black ink at the bottom right of the photo.
Sir Walter Parratt [SGC PH POR.100].
27 March 2024 marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Sir Walter Parratt, who was Organist and Master of the Choristers at St George’s Chapel for 42 years. He was in post from 1882 to 1924, during which time he witnessed the reigns of three monarchs, the horrors of the First World War and the introduction of electric lighting to parts of St George’s Chapel.

Walter Parratt was born in 1841 in Huddersfield, where his father was organist at the Parish Church. He displayed considerable musical talent from a young age, which developed into a career as a professional organist. He held the post of Organist of Magdalen College, Oxford, from 1872 and during that time formed a friendship with Prince Leopold, the youngest son of Queen Victoria, which in time led to a close association with the Royal Family. He received a knighthood in 1892 and went on to be appointed Master of the Queen’s Musicke and private organist to Her Majesty. However, it is clear that this friendship was not the sole reason for his success: he was clearly an exceptional talent and highly-respected by all his peers and pupils alike.

Minor Canon Edmund Fellowes, who came to Windsor in 1900 and so had more than two decades in which to observe his work, later wrote of Parratt that due to his exceptionally fine ear, “he made the least inaccuracy of intonation in the choir the subject of the sternest rebuke, and indeed the purity of intonation under his choir-mastership was admirable.”

Actor and novelist Russell Thorndike, who served as a chorister in St George’s Chapel from 1895 to 1900, similarly recalled Parratt’s great sensitivity, as well as how closely his musical genius and his appearance seemed to be linked:
“His chief characteristic was his hair… it stood straight up on end, each hair seeming to bristle with excitable music. What Chorister serving under him has not seen him tear at it in rage should any note untunable offend his sensitive ear?”

If the choir lost tone during an unaccompanied passage in a service, “he would stump about the organ-loft, tearing at his hair, and shaking his fists in full view of the congregation.”

Yet Thorndike clearly recalled his old music master with great fondness, remembering many acts of kindness, generosity and good humour. “In whatever mood that great genius happened to be, I can most truthfully say that there was not a St George’s boy who did not love him, and took a crack over the head with an anthem-book in the same spirit of gratitude as the handfuls of fruit, Slade’s toffees, or Nelson gelatines with which he regaled us when in happy mood.”

In addition to his hard work perfecting the choir, Parratt took care to see improvements made to the organ itself. In the years after his arrival at Windsor he persuaded the Dean and Canons to fund a series of modernising works to the instrument by organ makers Gray & Davison, Rothwell and Walker & Sons. This included the first electric apparatus for blowing the organ.

It is, therefore, a terrible shame that in his final years as Organist at St George’s Chapel, Parratt was unable to play the organ proper. In 1921, an enormous programme of restoration of St George’s Chapel was begun which required the shutting up of the quire and the dismantling of the organ. All services were held with temporary furnishings in the nave, including a very small organ, which could not support the great voluntaries that Parratt was accustomed to playing after services.

He died in 1924 and his ashes were buried at the entrance of the organ loft. His chief contributions to music were as a performer and a teacher, but a few compositions of his survive. One among these, The Whirlwind, is regularly performed in St George’s Chapel today at services of remembrance for the Chapel’s benefactors. You can listen to a recorded performance of the piece here.

Kate McQuillian, Archivist & Chapter Librarian

References:
Fellowes, Edmund, Organists and Masters of the Choristers of St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle (Windsor, 1939), pp.79-86.
Thorndike, Russell, Children of the Garter (London, 1937).

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.