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Obituary: Dr Arthur Wills

13 November 2020

Paul Trepte writes:

EVEN if his outstanding contribution to church music was arguably eclipsed to some extent by other long-stay contemporaries in the organ loft, Dr Arthur Wills was a towering figure, literally as well as metaphorically — as any of his boy choristers would testify. In Ely, he is likely to remain a legend.

Born on 19 September 1926, in Warwickshire, Arthur William Wills was educated at St John’s School, Coventry, and the College of St Nicolas (RSCM), Canterbury. He was both assistant organist and tenor lay clerk at Ely Cathedral from 1949 to 1958, progressing to the post of Organist and Choirmaster there from 1958 to 1990, in succession to Michael Howard.

During his tenure, he was also Director of Music at The King’s School (1953 to 1965), and he was a professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London (1964-92). Among his various awards and diplomas, Dr Wills was especially proud to receive an OBE in 1990. He was presented with his doctoral gown as a 60th-birthday gift from the cathedral, when the smallest member of the choir ascended a ladder to put it on him.

The music library at Ely overflows with Arthur’s immense output of choral works, which is well matched by his huge corpus of very effective organ music. Many, though by no means all, of his works have been published. Arthur loved the music of Mahler, but the prevailing influence in his own output is that of the French school: Duruflé, Langlais, and Messiaen, in particular. As a performer, Wills was especially active in encouraging the playing of Messiaen’s music; he toured extensively and made many recordings, both as a soloist and with the Ely choir.

Wills also wrote ensemble works, including an organ concerto for the same forces as the better-known one by Poulenc, a concerto for guitar and organ, and a symphonic suite, The Fenlands, for brass band and organ. In addition, his secular music includes seven song-cycles and an opera based on Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four.

He contributed a book about the organ to the Menuhin Music Guide Series, and his memoirs, Full with Wills, were published by Pen Press in 2006.

Arthur’s choice of repertoire for services was wide-ranging and often bold. Large amounts of Renaissance polyphony appear on the music lists, reflecting the influence of his immediate and very able predecessor. The following weekend, we might well see Stravinsky’s Mass programmed — a piece that he loved to perform, even though a certain canon threatened him with the sack should he ever dare to repeat the work in the context of worship.

He loved the Ely liturgies, ranging from the grandeur of Easter vigils and Christmas Day services to the daily plainsong office hymns — an Ely speciality still preserved to this day, and usually performed with modest, idiomatic accompaniments composed specifically by Wills for opus Dei.

Many of Arthur’s organ and choral works are dramatic and effective. Tongues of Fire, a Pentecost creation known locally (with affection) as “Tons of noise”, is a particularly thrilling example of his organ writing. As for his choral music, many a chorister has put in the hours learning “The spiritual railway”, an inspired but demanding choral setting, with typically stratospheric lines for his boy trebles, verses of which may be spotted by any visitor to Ely on a stone located just outside the Song School.

Perhaps his most frequently performed piece these days is the fine Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis on Plainsong Tones, which often appears on cathedral music lists throughout the UK. This fine setting perfectly captures the special mystery of Ely Cathedral and shows Wills composing at the height of his powers. Furthermore, this work avoids any tendency to be strident — a criticism often levelled both at Arthur’s compositions and at the “Ely sound” that he generated when working with his choir.

Of the latter, a perceptive former lay clerk makes the following observation: “I think there were at least two different elements at play. First of all, Ely Cathedral in the eighties felt like a place that had been forgotten. The cathedral felt unloved and unused. More than that, it was also an intensely cold and dark place. I think that coldness is also represented in Arthur’s music and further reinforced by a referencing to the monastic past of the cathedral.”

Wills was a voracious reader. All his life, he had — to quote his own words — an intense interior life, and his reading and thinking was both broad and deep; not just music, but politics, philosophy, biography, and fiction, as well as the whole gamut of musical subjects. When he stayed in London one night a week in his Academy teaching days, he would go without fail to the opera, a concert, or the theatre — another long interest dating back to the early proximity of Stratford-upon-Avon. He loved Shakespeare, and set the “Dark Lady” sonnets for baritone and piano.

In his dealings with lay clerks, academy students, and, indeed, small choristers, Arthur was a man of his time. Those who worked under his direction typically describe him as inspiring if sometimes intimidating, and yet also warm, generous, and good company. Certainly, he had an excellent sense of humour, and he didn’t really mind being teased, even if he was, in truth, an essentially shy person.

He was wonderfully kind to me when I arrived in Ely: always incredibly supportive and positive, and he never “got in the way” or made negative comments about the new regime. It was a privilege, too, to observe the care and love that Arthur lavished on Mary, his beloved wife, when she became very infirm in her later years. Devotion such as that merits at least as much admiration as his contribution to English cathedral music.

Dr Arthur Wills died on 30 October, aged 94.

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