Thursday, 25 October 2012

Composer & Conductor Christopher Whelen


Christopher Whelen
I never knew my uncle Kit. This is not surprising, as although he was one of my father’s  two half brothers, none of them knew of each other’s existence.

The two brothers were born two years apart, Christopher in April 1927, and Michael, my father, in April 1929. They were both born in London, one in Earls Court, one in Westminster. They shared a father, but their mothers never knew about each other, and the two boys never met.

The two half brothers, born 2 years apart...... I think if they had bumped into each other they might have thought they could be related !
My grandfather, William Murch Whelen married London Coloseum Orchestra violinist Winifred Westwood in 1926, when she was about 5 months pregnant with Christopher. Then in 1928, he married  my grandmother, Queenie Gilbert, when she was  also about 5 months pregnant with Michael.

( Incidentally, when he married Winifred in 1926, he was already married to Hylda, who was living in Scarborough, with their 14 year old son at the time......Hylda had not seen her husband since 1915). That is yet another story.
As far as I know William  either never lived with Winifred, or at least had abandoned her before the birth of their son. Christopher never met his father. Winifred told her son that his father had been Irish, but that was all he ever knew about him, as Winifred would not have his name mentioned.

Christopher’s father was not Irish. He was born in Plymouth in 1880, the son of Florence Murch and her Liverpudlian sailor husband, also William Whelen. Christopher’s great grandparents had been Irish, as there is evidence that they came to Liverpool during the potato famine in about 1848/9.
Christopher was christened at St Martins in the Fields in London, and spent a happy childhood looked after by his single parent mother and his Godmother, musician Mary Gotch. Christopher proved to be musically gifted and became a chorister at New College Oxford, and later attended Worksop College where he studied piano and cello. He later studied clarinet and composition at the Midland Institute in Birmingham. At the time, his mother was playing the violin with the Midland Light Orchestra, and Mary Gotch funded much of his private education.
Worksop College....education paid for by Mary Gotch
After 2 years RAF National Service, in 1948, Christopher decided he wanted to conduct, and wrote to several orchestras seeking an opening. Rudolf Schwarz, the newly appointed conductor at what became the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra responded to his letter, and he studied under Schwarz and became assistant conductor. During this time, his mother Winifred became a violinist with the BSO and the little family moved from the midlands to the south coast.

 
 
Christopher with his mother Winifred

Christopher became an advocate for the music of Arnold Bax, which was not particularly popular in the period immediately after the war. The young conductor and the aging composer struck up a friendship and several pieces of correspondence between the two survive, providing interesting information about Bax’s life, as well as Christopher’s developing career. Through Bax, Christopher met the famous pianist, Harriet Cohen, ( Bax’s “mistress”) and she became a friend and supporter of Christopher’s musical ambitions.
Christopher Whelen and Arnold Bax



Harriet Cohen
Christopher found that in order to further his career, he really needed to be based in London. In the early50s he was appointed as Musical Director at the Old Vic. He was awarded the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge medal for conducting in 1955.
Christopher wrote the music for the Fu Manch films

He began to compose more than conduct and wrote film scores as well as pieces for radio and television. He wrote a number of musicals, including  “The World of Paul Slickey” (1960) in conjunction with John Osborne.
( It was a dismal flop ! ).
 
Christopher’s many pieces hardly survive today in that often they were played live on radio....and in those days were not recorded to be retained. He became fascinated with the combination of drama, the spoken word, poetry and music, and wrote the very first ever opera for television,
 " Some Place of Darkness"

He died in September 1993, at home, where he lived with his life long partner Dennis Andrews. They had met at a concert in Bournemouth in 1948 and were then together for 45 years.
Christopher ( Kit)on the right and Dennis in their home, near Oxford
When I discovered Christopher’s existence.....long after his death, and a couple of years after my own father’s death..... I was able to make contact with Dennis ( then in his late 80s) We had lunch together in Oxford, and we spent hours talking about this amazingly talented Uncle of mine who I had never met. Dennis and I remain in contact, and he has recently asked me if I would accept a ring that Kit had made from the only thing he ever owned that had belonged to his mysterious father....a fob stone from an old fob watch. Dennis is leaving it to me in his will... Christopher wore the ring always....his only link with the father he never knew.

25 comments:

  1. Janice, this is a truly fantastic post - interesting, informative, touching and, as always, beautifully written and illustrated. I so enjoyed it. What a fascinating family you are discovering in your researches.

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    1. Thanks Perpetua. When I first saw a photo of Christopher, I was so shocked...he could almost have been my father's twin. It confirmed my suspicions that my grandfather really was the person I had discovered in 3 marriage certificates. J.

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  2. Wow! That really is a very powerful story. How wonderful that you have formed a bond with Dennis and that he thinks so highly of you to leave this very special ring to you.

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    1. Dennis has been a delight to get to know, and I know he enjoys talking about Christopher with me. It has been fascinating to unearth this story, but there are still so many unanswered questions about my grandfather. J.

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  3. Gosh Janice this is a wonderful post - totally absorbing all the way through.
    We think that people are promiscuous today, but William Murch Whelen's shenanigans takes some beating. When they do the programme "Who do you think you are"? on the TV, I have noticed time and again, that so many of the males during that period often disappeared leaving the women behind to fend for themselves, and in the meantime have taken up with someone else.
    Christopher's mother did a wonderful job raising him and must have been very proud of his achievements.
    What a shame the two brothers never met, however, it is lovely that you have met Dennis.

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    1. My thoughts exactly Rosemary. At first I was so angry with my grandfather ( who died 9 years before I was born). However, the more I have discovered about him,the more I want to know. He went off to fight in the trenches in 1915, and never went home again. I wish I knew what had happened to him during the war. I feel it may answer some of his 3 families' questions.

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  4. This is utterly absorbing and fascinating, Janice - I have so enjoyed this post. Like you, I don't think there can be any doubting the parentage of your father and Christopher - I initially though both photos were of Christopher! To have discovered so much about your family - the immediate one, I mean - is wonderful, but to have blood ties to so many interesting people is a real boon.
    I'm sure something in your grandfather's war experiences must have influenced his subsequent behaviour - possibly things we can't imagine - but maybe Hylda's descendants might hold some clues....? No rush, I can wait for the next instalment (for a little while at least!)
    Like Rosemary says, I too think it is really lovely - and rather special - that you have forged links with Dennis. Axxx

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    1. You are right... Hylda's descendants do hold more clues.....and of course, I have met them too. Hylda's 2 grandsons.....my cousins, live in Australia and New Zealand. I met my cousin John in Melbourne, 2 years ago, and last year he visited me in Hebden Bridge. Being in touch with Dennis has been wonderful, but meeting my Aussie cousin John was one of the best experiences of my life. Jx

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  5. Fascinating and so beautifully written. I can see why you want to know more.

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    1. Thanks Gaynor. Families are amazing aren't they. I certainly love mine...with all its eccentricities.J.

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  6. God gracious, what a fascinating story, Janice!

    And how super it was that you made contact with Dennis...who sounds a lovely chap and must enjoy bringing Christopher to life for you.

    If his mother's life led Christopher to music....I'm wondering how life turned out for Hylda's son. But, like Annie, I can wait...a bit.

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. Sorry about deleted comment...it didn't make sense when I re read it !
      yes, meeting Dennis was very special, as was meeting up with one of Hylda's sons. I dont suppose we'll ever know exactly what caused our grandfather to behave as he did, but I think most of us that are now his descendants have more or less forgiven him... and I know I am thrilled to have discovered my cousins,and their children, and of course, Dennis.

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  7. How fascinating your grandfather's story is, Janice, and I admire you for persevering in your efforts to find out more about your family ties. My goodness but Christopher could be your father's twin. What a gift it is to be able to talk to Dennis - for both of you, I'm sure, and now to know your cousins. Thank you for sharing this here, Janice. It is poignant and full of the goodness in your heart.

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    1. Thanks Penny. Knowing Dennis, and finding my cousins has helped soften the blow of discovering how much hurt my grandfather caused during his life. I would just love to know how he justified it to himself. J.

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  8. What a poignant story. So bitter-sweet that two men who looked so similar never met and yet you have uncovered the truth.

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    1. It was a bit of a shock when I finally put all the pieces together, and realised what had happened. Luckily, the descendants from marriage 1, and Dennis, as the only person left connected to marriage 2, were pleased to have some of the mysteries in their lives solved.J.

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  9. An amazing post Janice. Really absorbing. You do indeed have a fascinating family, and I can just imagine you wanting to know more. The likeness in those two photos is remarkable...as you say they could have been twins.

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    1. Thanks Ayak. It would have been interesting to see how my dad and my uncle would have reacted if they had just bumped into each other...and at one stage in their lives they did work within about a mile of each other, so it would have been possible ! J.

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  10. What an interesting post so fascinating....handsome brothers and very talented. They also look very alike, like you said could be twins. So exciting that you look into your Family and have all these great photos....and try and solve the mysteries. I can see why you are interested in searchig for more...great post such a good read. Take care.XX

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  11. Thanks Erica (Irene) it has been a tremendous adventure, unearthing all these secrets that my grandfather carefully hid. I suspect he never thought he would have such a nosey grandaughter ! J.

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  12. I missed this when I was looking at your previous posts this evening. Oh my goodness, what a story! You really are a sleuth putting all the pieces of this together. How sad the two brothers didn't get a chance to meet but how wonderful you have completed the story for the people involved. Just fabulous to read this.

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  13. Fantastic family history Janice! I know from experience that amazing information can be found. It feels a little odd that we now know so much more about close relatives than our parents, grandparents etc. ever knew. I found Mr N's grandfather in Australia just from a cap badge in an old photograph - luckily his other grandchildren were tickled pink to find out there were more, in England!

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  15. Janice, I stumbled on your website and was delighted to find a reference to the composer Christopher Whelen. I am in no way musical, but ----. At the age of 13 or so, I was on holiday with my parents near Bournemouth. We were a fairly conservative rural family, but as an unusual holiday treat they bought tickets for what was called "a musical" in Bournemouth, and we went, not knowing a thing about it, least of all that it was written by John Osborne.

    Shock, horror, delight. It was The World of Paul Slickey. You can imagine my reaction (and my parents') when we heard words like 's.e.x.' pronounced aloud on a stage, and a daring song that contained the forbidden word 'b.a.s.t.a.r.d.' The story line involved a sex change and bedroom hopping, and I remember that my parents took away my opera glasses; at the theatre every seat back had 6d-in-the-slot opera glasses.

    On the way home, and ever afterwards, not a word was said about The World of Paul Slickey ---- a town adventure for country mice!

    So good to hear about your composer uncle. By the way, I once lived and worked in Beziers, not so far from Caunes.

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