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Obituary: Sir David Willcocks

by
25 September 2015

A. C. Barrington Brown

Beauty of sound: David Willcocks at King’s College, Cambridge

Beauty of sound: David Willcocks at King’s College, Cambridge

Roderic Dunnett writes:

SIR DAVID WILLCOCKS, who died on Thursday of last week, aged 95, was the brightest star in a firmament of post-war music directors who transformed cathedral and college musical life into something like its present shape.

Like an Oxford opposite number, Bernard Rose at Magdalen, he was (though he would not have said so himself) a war hero. He received the MC personally from Field Marshal Montgomery. Like another Oxford opposite number, David Lumsden at New College, he was influential in the reform of British conservatoires. In the 1970s, Willcocks revitalised the Royal College of Music, which had still been somewhat 19th-century in its outlook.

He had a Cambridge background when he went to King’s as Director of Music in 1957, staying in post till 1974. He had been organ scholar there before returning via Salisbury Cathedral, where he succeeded Sir Walter Alcock, and Worcester Cathedral, where he championed Herbert Howells’s Hymnus Paradisi, among other works.

So Willcocks was a key figure in English church music even before he finally settled by the Cam. He and his wife, Rachel, were still in Grange Road, Cambridge at the time of his death. He was appointed CBE in 1971, and knighted in 1977. Their surviving son, Jonathan, is a gifted and popular composer.

David’s main counterpart in terms of achievement was also in Cambridge. George Guest, already ensconced at St John’s when Willcocks succeeded Boris Ord at King’s, opted for a completely different sound: Continental in tone and in voice production. Willcocks, on the other hand, sought and, indeed, insisted on — during the era that he saw as the golden age of King’s, in the 1960s — beauty of sound. This was what gave King’s its unique quality, and was evidenced in stellar recordings on Argo (Decca) and EMI, such as the Fauré Requiem — still, many would argue, the best recorded performance.

If King’s, under Sir Philip Ledger and latterly Stephen Cleobury, moved in some respects away from the Willcocks sound, which some found too saccharine, it preserved the fabulous musical discipline that brought King’s the mystique associated with the annual broadcast Christmas Eve carol service. Many would say that the Willcocks era has never been surpassed. On one occasion, Ledger introduced a new descant. The boys rebelled: “Oh no, sir. We do Dr Willcocks’s descant here at King’s.”

Under Willcocks, it was a chorister or choral scholar’s job to respond emotionally and spiritually to the text as well as the music. But in any service you could hear another of Willcocks’s principles in action: “Let the building do the work,” he told generations of protégés. His wise words yielded wonderful dividends.

He would not tolerate a note out of tune. If choirmen were overhung after a previous night’s binge, there was no censure per se. But if they adopted a casual manner, let their musical guard drop, or failed to notice or acknowledge (by a raised hand in rehearsal) one of their own errors, let alone more than once, he could be tough: certainly with choral scholars, and doubtless with boy choristers, too. Being publicly dressed down would quickly cure any carelessness or laxity. The boys and men simply got it right. From a firm hand came that special and admired professionalism that was the hallmark of King’s.

Willcocks spent time later on in the United States, where he was in demand as conductor, commissioned composer, examiner, and mentor. Having produced with Reginald Jacques that remarkable book Carols For Choirs, and then tapped into John Rutter’s talents to continue the series, he was immensely proficient as an arranger, descant-writer, and composer.

His gift was not just the inspiration of these pieces: he knew what would work. His astonishing gifts as a conductor of choirs of several hundred — he had a gift of knowing how to “eyeball” everyone who was singing, so that they felt personally in touch and motivated — were phenomenal, and are almost as legendary as his stupendous results with up to 16 men and 14 boys at King’s.

“He always let us know when we pleased him — and likewise when we displeased him,” says Brian Kay, who sang at King’s in those days. “He had a gift for mixing hard work with good humour. He was a master of structure — of showing aspiring singers how a piece actually worked, and particularly of showing one how to structure rehearsals. He had a genius for teaching you how to shape a phrase: how to turn mere notes into a genuine, fulfilling musical experience.

“David was always the life and soul of the party. At parties he threw for his choral scholars, he would enter into the spirit, sing some of the pop songs of his youth, before sitting on the floor and playing some serious piece or jazzy medley on the piano, reaching over behind his head, or quoting saucy limericks from a collection he had amassed.

“He had a lovely sense of humour; but if something wasn’t right, he was quick to spot it and call you in to listen, advise, and help you sort it out. He was a very full, a very warm, human being.

“One particularly amusing incident”, Kay recalls, “was when we went to ask him if he thought it would be a good plan to launch the King’s Singers [the first ensemble to employ countertenors on the top line]. ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘an excellent idea. But you realise it won’t last.’

“It’s so sad that David won’t be here to celebrate with us the King’s Singers’ 50th anniversary.”

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