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Obituary: Dennis Wickens

18 December 2020

Kenneth Shenton writes:

ALWAYS precise, professional, and practical, Dennis Wickens, who died on 18 November, aged 94, served both choirstalls and classroom with equal devotion throughout the course of his long career. As a com­poser, his ability to speak through a language that was rich in vocabulary and familiar, allowed him to furnish the liturgy in an imaginative and highly practical way. Proving no less successful in his post as an edu­cation­alist, he became a noted and inspirational guide for generations of aspiring young musicians.

Dennis John Wickens was brought up in south London, and was a chorister at his local church. He began his working life as a tele­phone engineer, before following his father into the Civil Service. It was there, when he was a member of the Civil Service Choir, that its con­ductor, Bernard Shore, suggested he think very seriously about a change of career. He won a scholarship to Trinity College of Music, where his teachers included William Lovelock, Arnold Cooke, and Richard Arnell.

After graduation in 1951, he es­­­tab­­lished himself on the London musical scene conducting numerous choral societies, singing alto at the Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy, and regularly deputising at St Paul’s Cathe­­dral. He moved to Worcester in 1959, became a Lay Clark at the cathedral and taught at the Royal Grammar School, as Director of Music from 1961. Five years later, he was appointed Music Adviser to the Isle of Wight, and from there he moved to Hampshire Education Authority.

At the heart of Wickens’s com­positional output remains a richly varied collection of highly practical sacred choral music. Of the anthems, by far his best-known work remains the unaccompanied SATB motet O Vos Omnes. Powerful and evocative, beautifully crafted, it remains a stunn­­ing essay in vocal sonority. Sim­­­ilar well-shaped vocal lines char­­acterise The Revival as well as The Life to Come, and They Lie at Rest. Proving no less popular was the neo-modal charm of And I Saw A New Heaven. Somewhat less typical is the vivid imagery inherent in the setting for choir and organ of the Jubilate.

The directness that characterises so much of Wickens’s choral output remains a prime feature of his organ music. Expertly crafted is a challen­ging and idiomatically intense Toccata on Vulpius, the composer subjecting the hymn tune to all manner of exciting permutations. A typically resourceful tight-knit affair is his Bell Prelude, while, in the Little Suite, each movement is particularly and precisely imagined, their struc­tures handled with great care. More cerebral is the Meditation on “Here­ford”. Subtitled In Times of Pestil­ence, this is viewed by many as a re­­flection on our troubled times.

Compositions on a more expan­s­ive canvas include a challenging Double Concerto for Harmonica and Violin, a Sinfonia for Orchestra, Concertante Music for Brass and Per­­cussion, together with a whole range of instrumental works for in­­di­­vidual performers of more limited abilities. Of his seven com­pleted song cycles, The Hour Oppressed, powerful and intense settings of poetry by Thomas Wyatt, and This Life, poems by W. H. Davies, have been committed to disc. After he spent a sabbatical term studying with John McCabe in 1987, the result remains the splendid Sym­phony for Brass Band.

Twice married, Dennis Wickens is survived by his second wife, and two sons and a daughter from his first marriage.

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