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date: 06 February 2023

Parratt, Sir Walterfree


Parratt, Sir Walterfree

  • Rosemary Firman

Sir Walter Parratt (1841–1924)

by Hills & Saunders

Parratt, Sir Walter (1841–1924), organist, was born on 10 February 1841 at 6 South Parade, Huddersfield, the second son and fifth child of Thomas Parratt (1793–1862), organist of Huddersfield parish church from 1812 to his death, and his wife, Sarah Elizabeth (1807–1891), daughter of William Perkins. Parratt was educated principally by his parents, though he spent a brief period at Huddersfield collegiate school. From an early age he showed evidence of a prodigious musical memory and at the age of ten played the whole of J. S. Bach's Das wohltemperirte Clavier by heart in two sittings. In 1852 he was appointed organist at Armitage Bridge, near Huddersfield, at a salary of £10 per annum. Later the same year he attended the choir school of St Peter's Chapel, Charlotte Street (now Palace Street), London, where he acted as organist, at the same time taking lessons from George Cooper at St Sepulchre's, Holborn. In 1854 he succeeded his brother Henry as organist of St Paul's Church, Huddersfield.

At the instigation of Sir Frederick Gore Ouseley, in 1861 Parratt became private organist to the earl of Dudley and organist of Great Witley church, Worcestershire, at a salary of £100 per annum. During his seven years at Great Witley, he spent much time at St Michael's College, Tenbury, in Ouseley's company. On 1 June 1864 he married Emma Gledhill (1842/3–1931), the daughter of Luke Gledhill, a Huddersfield merchant. From 1868 to 1872 Parratt was organist and choirmaster of Wigan parish church, and during this time the first of five children (one son and four daughters) was born to him and his wife. In 1872, aged thirty-one, he succeeded John Stainer as organist of Magdalen College, Oxford, a position he held until 1882. At Oxford, where he lived at 17 St Giles', he conducted the choirs of Jesus and Trinity colleges, the musical societies of Exeter, Jesus, and Pembroke colleges, the Oxford Choral Society, and the Trinity College Glee Club. On 15 May 1873 he graduated as bachelor of music. From this time he became known increasingly as a recitalist: he gave a series of recitals in the Albert Hall, London, in 1873 and took part with S. S. Wesley in the opening of the Victoria Rooms, Bristol, in 1874.

Parratt's first significant composition was his incidental music to Aeschylus' Agamemnon, produced for two performances at Balliol College in 1880. The following year he was organist at the first Huddersfield festival, but declined to accept the post of organist at Salisbury Cathedral. In August 1882 he succeeded Sir George Elvey as organist of St George's Chapel, Windsor, a post which he retained until his death. At Windsor the organ was rebuilt in consultation with Ouseley by the firm of Gray and Davison, and Parratt reformed the scope and quality of the music sung, so that after some years there were more than 450 anthems in regular performance. He also conducted the Windsor and Eton Madrigal Society and founded and conducted the Windsor and Eton Orchestral Society. In 1883 he composed music for a performance of The Tale of Troy at Cromwell House and in 1886 music for The Story of Orestes at Prince's Hall. The additional responsibility of professor of organ at the newly formed Royal College of Music, London, was taken on in 1883, leading to friendships with its director, Sir George Grove, and fellow professors Hubert Parry and Charles Villiers Stanford. In 1892 he was knighted and made private organist to the queen, and in 1893 succeeded Sir William Cusins as master of the queen's music, a position he was to retain under Edward VII and George V. Parratt was awarded an honorary DMus at Oxford in 1894, and received the same degree from Cambridge in 1910 and Durham in 1912. In 1898 he travelled to Russia with W. J. Birkbeck, visiting Moscow and St Petersburg. For the queen's eightieth birthday (1899) he composed the madrigal 'The Triumph of Victoria' ('O happy hour'), published in his compilation of works by distinguished British writers and musicians, Choral Songs in Honour of Her Majesty Queen Victoria (1899). He was created MVO by Edward VII in 1901, and George V created him CVO (1917) and KCVO (1921). For the coronation of Edward VII in 1902 he composed his anthem 'Confortare' ('Be strong and play the man'), which was repeated at the coronation of George V in 1911.

In 1905 Parratt became dean of the faculty of music at London University, and from 1905 to 1909 he held the position of president of the Royal College of Organists. In 1906 he was elected an honorary fellow of Magdalen College, and in 1908 he succeeded Parry as Heather professor of music at Oxford, a post he held until his resignation in 1918. Also in 1908 he received the degrees of MA and DMus. During the First World War, Parratt maintained the choral services at Windsor, despite the absence of lay clerks on service. He was greatly affected by the death of his daughter Amy in 1917. On his eightieth birthday in 1921 he received many tributes, including a celebration at the Royal College of Music.

Parratt was regarded as the greatest exponent and teacher of the organ of his day, seeming to Paul Benecke (Knights, 141) 'to be for the organ what Joseph Joachim was for the violin', with a style founded on technical accuracy, clarity of phrasing, and simple registration. He held a position of great influence in English church music, and succeeded in raising both the standard of organ playing and the status of the organist. He was important in the promotion of the works of Bach and the music of contemporary Britons: out of 211 compositions directed by Parratt at Buckingham Palace during the reign of Edward VII, fifty-three were by British composers. His pupils (listed in Tovey and Parratt, 166) included almost all the notable British organists and composers of church music in the succeeding generation. His compositions include an impressive setting of the Obiit service, several anthems, many hymn tunes and Anglican chants, and some twenty songs and partsongs. He wrote the article on music in Humphry Ward's The Reign of Queen Victoria (1887) and contributed ten articles to the second edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1904–10).

F. G. Shinn's Musical Memory and its Cultivation (1898) was dedicated to Parratt as 'a natural memorizer'. Parratt's chief hobby was chess, a pursuit suited to his innate talent: he performed several documented feats of blindfold chess and was the first captain of the Oxford University Chess Club, founded in 1873. Tall (5 feet 11 inches), with a spare frame and erect carriage, Parratt possessed an energetic personality, and was highly strung but self-controlled in his strict adherence to everyday duties. A charcoal portrait by John Singer Sargent (1914) in the Royal College of Music was said by his son and biographer Geoffrey to show him at his best; another portrait by Gerald Moira (1892) hangs in Magdalen College. He appears with Stainer in William Holman Hunt's painting May Morning on Magdalen Tower (1888–91), in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight.

Parratt suffered a heart attack on 19 October 1923, but recovered to continue his duties as organist, playing for the last time at St George's Chapel on 2 March 1924. He died at his home, 12 The Cloisters, Windsor Castle on 27 March 1924 and, after a brief service at St George's Chapel, was cremated at Woking on 31 March. The following day a memorial service was held in the chapel and his ashes were buried near the organ-loft stairs.


  • D. F. Tovey and G. Parratt, Walter Parratt, master of music (1941)
  • F. G. E. [F. G. Edwards], ‘Sir Walter Parratt, master of the king's musick’, MT, 43 (1902), 441–50
  • F. Hudson and R. Williamson, ‘Parratt, Sir Walter’, New Grove, 2nd edn
  • F. Knights, ‘Three Magdalen organists: Paul Benecke's reminiscences of John Stainer, Walter Parratt and John Varley Roberts’, The Organ, 68 (1989), 137–45
  • British Musician, 7 (1894), 37–8
  • F. G. Shinn, Musical memory and its cultivation (1898), 70
  • H. C. Colles and J. Cruft, The Royal College of Music: a centenary record, 1883–1983 (1982)
  • MT, 65 (1924), 401–2
  • Saturday Review, 137 (1924), 343
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.


  • Elgar Birthplace Museum, Broadheath, near Worcester, letters to Elgar


  • W. H. Hunt, oils, 1888–91, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight
  • E. M. Ellison, pastel drawing, 1890, NPG
  • G. Moira, oils, 1892, Magd. Oxf.
  • J. S. Sargent, charcoal drawing, 1914, Royal College of Music, London
  • W. Rothenstein, sanguine and white drawing, 1921, NPG
  • K. A. Coward, watercolour drawing, Royal College of Music, London
  • Hills & Saunders, photograph, NPG [see illus.]

Wealth at Death

£9472 9s. 7d.: probate, 21 May 1924, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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National Portrait Gallery, London
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Magdalen College, Oxford
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Musical Times
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S. Sadie, ed., , 20 vols. (1980); 2nd edn., 29 vols. (2001)