AW 1958 stok   yankee lake choirschool AW 96
By Jared Armstrong



            During the turmoil of the Second World War, when many thousands of undergraduates found their academic careers abruptly curtailed by War Service, Exeter’s Organ Scholar, Patrick Forbes, was also called up and it was indeed fortunate that there arrived on the scene a young man, invalided out of the Army, who would take his place for the next three years and thus ensure the continuity of College Music in all its forms. Alec Wyton himself was no stranger to disruption. Born in London, he was orphaned at an early age and was brought up by his Aunt in Northampton. Here, his musical promise was nurtured by an enlightened Music Teacher, Ralph Richardson Jones and, by his early teens, Alec was playing the Organ regularly for Church Services in the area and was only 16 years old when he gained his Associate of the Royal College of Organists. This led to study at the Royal Academy of Music with the renowned G.D.Cunningham, but again, disruption. Called up to serve with the Royal Corps of Signals, he was stationed in the south of England in what became known as ‘Bomb Alley’, where the Luftwaffe, on  their way to and from bombing London, frequently jettisoned their loads when being pursued by British fighter planes. Somehow he managed to pursue his musical studies, getting up to London when he could,  doing his practice on the canteen piano and gaining his FRCO. Now at Oxford in 1943, he found that, as well as directing Exeter’s music, he was also acting as Assistant Organist to Thomas Armstrong at Christ Church. During this period, Colleges were forced to share their depleted resources  -  Tutorial, Accommodation, Musical  etc. -  and it comes as no surprise to find Alec organising a joint performance, with Balliol, of part of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. But it was the maintaining of the Chapel Music which he regarded as his priority and a Chapel Choir photograph of 1944 shows just how successful he was in recruiting boys from the City   -  there are 16 in the photograph  - to sing the top line, along with the 9 undergraduates including  one, who would shortly depart to serve in the Navy, already in Able Seaman’s uniform.    At this time, Music was not an Honours School and would be BMus. students had to combine parts I & II of the Music course with two non musical subjects. In Alec’s case, he appears to have chosen Military History and Law and received his BA in 1945 and MA in 1949. Many years later, he would describe to his son, Richard, who is now a musician in  Connecticut, the spartan conditions which obtained during his time at Exeter. With no central heating and just a few smouldering coals in the grate, he would pull up the bed as close as he dared to the fireplace, pile on all the blankets and enjoy the life saving luxury of consuming with a teaspoon, straight out of the tin, Nestlés Sweetened Condensed Milk!

After Oxford he returned to his native Northampton in 1946, there becoming Organist of St. Matthew’s Church, during that exciting period when Walter Hussey, later Dean of Chichester, was the incumbent. In 1943, Benjamin Britten had been commissioned to provide a work, Rejoice in the Lamb, for the Patronal Festival and, naturally, Hussey wanted a good Organist. In 1946 Britten wrote his only work for Organ Solo, Prelude and Fugue on a Theme of Vittoria, again with the yearly patronal Festival in mind and with Alec Wyton as its dedicatee. At this time Alec was also  conductor of the Northampton Bach Choir.

Then came the call in 1950 from Dallas, Texas to form a Boys’ Choir and this proved to be the beginning of  a lifelong committment to the cause of Anglican Church Music in the USA. Of these years, Alec has gone on record as saying ,”…I’ve always said that my body may have happened in England, but my soul entered it in Texas”   (He also confessed  that his first experience of a   Texas sized  beefsteak, contrasting with the meagre 8 ounces per person per week which, as late as the 1950s, was the  ration of animal protein allowed in Britain,  made him feel that he was in the right place!)  He was not, of course, the first English Church musician who found that there was – and still is now -  a warm welcome, on the other side of the Atlantic, for their talents and enthusiasm.  After Dallas, he spent  four happy years as Oganist/Choirmaster at Christ Church Cathedral, in St Louis, Missouri and then moved to New York, where he would spend the next 20 years as Organist and Master of the Choristers at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.                                                   

Now aged 33, and in his prime, he had the full backing of his superior, Dean James Pike, for all the many ‘musical happenings’ he introduced, over and above the Opus Dei of daily Evensong. These included ‘Promenade Organ Recitals’ after the service,  when the congregation was invited to move freely around the building to listen from different locations; “A Sacred Concert”, presented by Duke Ellington and in 1972 a setting of the Communion Service by Galt McDermott,  composer of the musical “Hair”. He continued to introduce new music by Herbert Howells, Peter Racine Fricker, Charles Ives, Panufnik and many other contemporary composers, always insisting, in his own words, “That it be good as Music.” and again “That words in worship should never be used as pegs upon which the composer chooses to hang his pet ideas but rather, at all times, the music should be an adornment and enhancement of these words”. A great deal of his published liturgical music dates from this period and,  during his time in America, he also wrote a great deal of secular choral and organ music.  Widely performed in its homeland, it is of the highest quality, in the tradition of Harris, Howells and Britten and deserves to be far better known  on this side of the Atlantic. As well as directing the music at the Cathedral, he was professor of sacred music at Union Theological Seminary from 1956 to 1973 and, from 1965 to 1973 he also taught at Westminster Choir College at Princeton, New Jersey. His last post as Organist/Choirmaster was in 1974 at St. James’ Church in New York City and for the rest of his life he remained active, as New Grove states:- “…(bringing) together and causing to flourish three separate traditions: English church music, American church music, and music from outside the church”.

The above barely does justice to a much more detailed account of Alec Wyton’s career in America, which can be found on the Web and particularly in the pages of The Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians, 1996, where every account of his  ministry tells not only of his musical excellence, but of just how much he was loved by all who came in contact with him. I am grateful  to Dick Barlow(1943) and to Michael Dryland(1944) for their help in  recreating the atmosphere of College in wartime and, most of all, I must thank  Richard Wyton for being so supportive of my efforts in trying to write a piece, worthy of that truly great Exeter musician.