Sir William Neil McKie

Sir William Neil McKie was born on 22 May 1901 at Collingwood, Melbourne, second of six children of Victorian-born parents William McKie, Church of England minister, and his wife Mary Alice Ethel, née Doyle.

Taught Greek and Latin by his mother, the young Will was educated at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, where his music teacher, A. E. H. Nickson, became a mentor to whom he owed ‘more than I can possibly say’. His organ lessons were supplemented by sitting frequently during services in St Paul’s Cathedral beside the organist, Dr A. E. Floyd, who, like Nickson, encouraged perfectionism.

Awarded the (Sir William) Clarke scholarship in 1918, McKie studied at the Royal College of Music, London (associate 1921; fellow 1957 - the first organist to gain this award since fellow Melburnian Arthur E.H. Nickson in 1895). Two years at the RCM, where he was taught by the organist Henry Ley and the composer Gustav Holst, were followed by three as organ scholar at Worcester College, Oxford (BA, B.Mus., 1924; MA, 1930; Hon. D.Mus., 1944). Organist (1920-21) at St Agnes’ Church, Kennington Park, he was given access to the organ loft in Westminster Abbey; vacations from Oxford were sometimes spent as assistant to the organist at Ely Cathedral. McKie began teaching music at Radley College, Abingdon, Oxfordshire, in 1923.

Concern for his father’s health prompted a visit in 1925 to Melbourne, where he gave two organ recitals in St Paul’s Cathedral. Appointed director of music at Clifton College, Bristol, in 1926, he also coached the rowing VIII; his strong personality matched the progressive character of the school.

In 1930 McKie was invited to return to Melbourne as the city organist, taking charge of a newly built Hill, Norman & Beard organ in the town hall. Travelling via North America, he arrived ‘boyish, fresh-faced [and] enthusiastic’ in March 1931. He performed regular midday and evening recitals. ‘I have no "mission" to raise taste’, he declared, but his diverse and sometimes challenging programs, including works by Franck and Widor, along with a more popular repertoire of Bach and Elgar, lifted musical expectations in a city already accustomed to high standards. The demands imposed in 1932 by a Bach festival, and in 1934 by the celebration of Melbourne’s centenary, were met by his meticulous planning.

From 1934 McKie was also director of music at Geelong Church of England Grammar School, where he inspired affection among students. The poet Geoffrey Dutton recalled that, while McKie was ‘a perfectionist’, ‘there was also a lot of fun in him’. Temperamental outbursts at less than perfect performances were readily forgiven, and his contribution to GCEGS endured in the establishment of a well-equipped music school, the design of which resulted from discussions between McKie, the headmaster Sir James Darling and the architects. The building was opened by the visiting English conductor and composer Sir Malcolm Sargent on 14 August 1938. These commitments and residual resentment among some Melbourne councillors who wanted ‘lighter’ music played at recitals, took their toll.

In 1937 McKie was granted leave of absence to regain his health and, in 1938, he accepted the post of instructor in music at Magdalen College, Oxford. His departure was widely regretted; he was the last Melbourne city organist.

McKie’s presence attracted Australians to Magdalen. He trained its choir for the daily services, gave occasional organ recitals, played for university functions and was music critic for the Oxford Magazine. In 1941 he was appointed organist and master of choristers at Westminster Abbey but, before taking up this position, he enlisted in the Royal Air Force, graduating from an officers’ training school and serving as a flying officer (1942) and flight lieutenant (1944) in the Administrative and Special Duties Branch in England and the Bahamas.

Demobilised in November 1945, McKie began rebuilding Westminster Abbey’s musical tradition. His self-discipline and strong features (jutting chin, penetrating gaze and tall, upright bearing) gave him an aura of authority, belying a natural diffidence. He could be fiercely demanding but was sensitive to choristers’ needs. Their routine of daily services was paramount, but was often interrupted by the abbey’s obligations as the parish church of nation and Commonwealth - for example the wedding in 1947 of Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh (the music of which included McKie’s own antiphon ‘We Wait for Thy Loving Kindness’) and her coronation in 1953 as Queen Elizabeth II, for which he was director of music.

Appointed MVO in 1947, he was knighted in 1953. Among many offices, Sir William was organ professor (1946-62) at the Royal Academy of Music, honorary associate director (1946-62) of the Royal School of Church Music, president (1950-52) of the Incorporated Association of Organists, and president (1956-58) and honorary secretary (1963-67) of the Royal College of Organists.

He visited Australia in 1953 to raise money for the restoration of the abbey, giving organ recitals in the Anglican cathedrals of all State capitals. On 5 April 1956 at Westminster Abbey he married Phyllis Birks, née Ross (d.1983), the widow of a Canadian businessman.

On one of several private journeys back to Australia he was made an honorary D.Mus. (1961) by the University of Melbourne; other awards included honorary membership (1958) of the American Guild of Organists and appointment as commander with star of the Royal Norwegian Order of St Olav, bestowed on a visit to Norway in 1964.

While not gregarious, McKie had a gift for friendship. He lived in the abbey precincts until retiring in 1963, moving then to a country house in Kent, and in 1970 to Ottawa. After a period of decline due to Alzheimer’s disease, he died on 1 December 1984 and was cremated. His ashes were interred in Westminster Abbey.

From an article by Michael D. De B. Collins Persee in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au.