Orchestral Personalities: Alec Whittaker, oboist

I doubt whether anyone remembers Alec Whittaker, oboist. Alec was the original first oboe for the BBC Symphony Orchestra when it was founded in 1930.

A controversial figure, he was a member of what was dubbed the Royal Family: the first flute, first clarinet, first oboe and first bassoon, so called because of their haughty attitude to orchestral managers and conductors in particular. Alec was noted for this. Any young conductor was in for a bad time if he as much as demanded a certain way of playing a particular oboe solo. He always addressed Sir Adrian Boult as “Mr. Boult” even after he had been knighted. Sir Adrian, a Quaker, never sought honours or publicity. It was only at the insistence of the BBC’s top management that he accepted it.

When Toscanini came to conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra just before WW. I I he requested Alec to play some passage in a certain way, to which Alec replied, “Bloody old organ-grinder”. I know this for a fact because Eugene Cruft and others who were there verified it. Apparently Toscanini made no reply, perhaps not quite understanding what Alec had said.

I used to see Alec around London where he was prominent as a free-lance musician, then one day I noticed that he wasn’t around anymore. Imagine my surprise when years later I was playing at the Stratford-on-Avon Shakespeare Memorial Theatre; I crossed the road after rehearsal for a pub lunch. I was astounded to see Alec playing Mine Host, and thoroughly enjoying it too. He was a Dionysian and fond of his tipple, the only thing that worried me was that he was consuming all the profits!

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