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Sir David Willcocks (1919-2015): an inspirational life remembered

Sir David Willcocks sadly passed away in September 2015. He was a highly gifted musician and outstanding choral director whose leadership, decency, and humanity have inspired countless singers and conductors to try to follow his example.

In the early 2000s, William Owen began an oral history project which he ‘intended as a fair and honest testament of David’s life’. We have chosen edited extracts from transcriptions of William Owen’s conversations with Sir David and some by people who knew him. A copy of the final tapes and transcripts reside in the Yale oral history archive. The material is open, by permission, to scholars and students on both sides of the Atlantic.

John Rutter CBE was a student at Clare College, Cambridge during Sir David’s tenure at King’s College, Cambridge, and was co-editor with Sir David of Volumes of Carols for Choirs.

“I first met David through his music and his music-making, and I think the year must have been 1961, which was just after the first volume of the series had been published. I remember the scene vividly. I was in a Presbyterian church in Kensington, where my school friend John Tavener was the organist. He rushed in one evening and he had a green book in his hand. He said, ‘Just listen to this’, and he played the Willcocks descant to ‘O come, all ye faithful’. Then I felt, as I still feel today, that it lights up the sky, just like the best descants should do and, of course, not so many descants really do. I thought this was just an extraordinary piece of writing that transformed a classic hymn into something more splendid and more inspiring than I could have imagined.”

Sir David Wilcocks by Maggie Heywood. Do not use without permission.

Bob Chilcott was a chorister and choral scholar at King’s College, Cambridge with Sir David, and also a student at the Royal College of Music during Sir David’s tenure.

“We all adored David Willcocks. He had a tremendous gift with boys. He was very tough, actually. He wouldn’t let you get away with anything, but he did it in a way that never discouraged. David was a man with a passion for doing it right. He could be so marvellously silly and open. We rehearsed in a classroom—you would have the piano facing out into a horseshoe of tables, and on either side of David was a junior boy, and then a senior boy behind, one each side. The junior boy in front would have to turn the pages, and if he got it wrong David would cajole or scold him, but in an encouraging way. It was a very good way of monitoring what was going on; he let the older boys lead, so he gave them their wings. On the rare occasions he was late, we were absolutely thrilled. We’d be playing football out on the front field, waiting for him. He would come on his bike and he’d put the bike down and join in. That was a spontaneous thing that made us realize he was always on our side. It was marvellous, but the trouble was, as you know, he was a fine sportsman: he could outrun you, he could outskill you, everything . . . We were massively influenced. There was no going back, because he’d shown us a glimpse of something which was new and so exciting. We were shown the beauty of what we could do. I was lucky—I sang the ‘Once in royal David’s city’ for three years running.”

Robert Tear was a choral scholar at King’s College, Cambridge when Sir David returned to King’s in 1957, and continued to sing with Sir David professionally.

“He’s got fantastic charisma with all choirs. He once said to all the women in The Bach Choir, ‘How many of you think I am looking at you individually?’ and about two hundred people put their hands up! King’s was a much more sort of tight professional outfit. If we made a mistake in the rehearsal before service, we would have to raise our hands, and if we made a mistake in the service we would have to queue up under the organ screen to say, ‘Sorry’ personally, even though he may not have heard it. It was a military exercise! But without David my career, should I have had one, would have been totally and utterly different. I learned how to be a musician with him. He was the absolutely seminal influence in my life.”

Roy Goodman has recently retired from an international conducting career.

“David was the conductor of the London Bach Choir and they had been approached by Decca Records in 1969. Much to our amazement and amusement, David told us that the choir had been invited to sing on a recording with the Rolling Stones and Mick Jagger! I expect in those days there were quite a lot of bowler-hatted members of The Bach Choir, carrying their rolled-up umbrellas and briefcases and looking very much like city gents, with their wives or ladies in the choir. In the studio they had learned to sing a backing track for ‘You can’t always get what you want’…. As you can imagine, they sang it very properly and precisely: ‘You can’t always get what you want, but if you try, sometimes you get what you need’…. But the amusing part of all this may seem hard to believe—as David began to embark on an extraordinary impression of Mick Jagger! Obviously Jagger had heard the choir warming up in the studio, singing their opening passage for the backing track, and he was not so impressed by their pronunciation. There was no way he was going to have a posh ‘You can’t always get what you want’—he wanted something more like ‘Yer kannt always git wot yer whannt’. So, there was David clicking his thumb and second finger with both hands and jiving around his room quite like a youngster, giving us his vivid imitation of Mick Jagger! It was a wonderful moment enjoyed by a roomful of sherry-drinking friends and it certainly showed off a very human side of David.”

Kings College Chapel in the snow © Rob_ Ellis, via iStock.
Kings College Chapel in the snow by © Rob_ Ellis, via iStock.

Sir David remembers the first descants, and the birth of Carols for Choirs.

“My first carol service as Director of King’s College was in 1958. Now for that service, I thought how dull it is always to have the hymns just sung in unison. I thought I would like to add one or two new descants and arrangements…. There were no descants that I knew of for ‘O come, all ye faithful’ or ‘Hark! the herald-angels sing’. I also thought we must have something simple for children listening at home, so I also inserted a very simple little setting of ‘Away in a manger’. We thought of the audience at home putting up the holly. The carol service was broadcast as usual, and a lot of people afterwards wrote to say how much they had enjoyed the descants. Well, somebody from Oxford University Press heard these and asked if they could have the three carols. I had never had anything published before, but I thought, ‘Let them have it’. They sold very well, so they then asked me if I would do a book of fifty carols. I said that I couldn’t do fifty on my own, but they wanted fifty, so I said that I would do it if somebody else did twenty-five. They suggested Reginald Jacques, who was the conductor of The Bach Choir.

Oxford felt that he could arrange some that were suitable for big choirs, and I could do some for small choirs. I met him and liked him very much. At that stage I never dreamt I was going to succeed him as Musical Director of The Bach Choir…. The book was eventually called Carols for Choirs. It was so successful that ten years later Oxford University Press said that they would like another fifty. By that time Reginald Jacques had died. I again said that I couldn’t do more than twenty-five. They asked me, ‘Who should we have for the other twenty-five?’ I said, ‘I know an undergraduate here at Cambridge who is the most gifted composer that I’ve seen pass through the university. He is not only very able but quick, neat, and you won’t find any mistakes at all in his manuscripts.’ They said, ‘We don’t know him at all.’ I said, ‘Believe me, you will know him because he is very, very gifted…. That was the beginning of a friendship with John Rutter that I have enjoyed for very many years.”

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