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Bob Chilcott shares his memories of Sir David Willcocks

I joined King’s College Choir as a boy treble in 1964. This was a time of real energy in the media, recording and concert world, and this possibly brought a different kind of perspective to David’s work with the choir. There were a number of firsts for the choir around this time. In 1965 we made our first stereo recording for EMI Records. The album, Sing Praises, included carols from a new publication entitled The Cambridge Hymnal. David turned up with brown Xeroxed copies of a new arrangement of “Tomorrow shall be my Dancing Day,” and when we sang it through for the first time, he shared in the amusement of us all when we sang, “O my…O my…O my love.” We all thought this was all rather racy.

Image credit: Sir David Willcocks by Maggie Heywood.

In the same year we made what was perhaps the first foreign tour for the choir, to Germany and Sweden. At a reception in Germany, David gave a ‘thank you’ speech in what turned out to be rather good German, but of course to us boys sounded absolutely hilarious. A couple of years later we sang a concert in Holland for Queen Juliana of the Netherlands. David taught us the Dutch National Anthem, which we sang in what was probably extremely average, but enthusiastic Dutch. After the concert, David and the choir were introduced to the Queen. We giggled mercilessly as we witnessed David, desperately attempting to introduce and remember the name of his senior (and extremely familiar) choral scholar. The Queen, true to form, was amused. This was probably in 1966, the year of England’s triumph in the football World Cup. On the day of the final, very annoyingly for many of us, we had to practice and sing evensong in the Chapel. David, being a great sportsman himself, probably sympathised with us. During the rehearsal in the Chapel (which coincided with the game) he would from time to time shout at our senior chorister, Andrew Marriner, and send him out. Each time Andrew would come back he would whisper in David’s ear, what was, we discovered later, the latest score.

Bob Chilcott as a treble. Image credit: provided and used with permission of Bob Chilcott.

David’s energy was boundless, pouring his enthusiasm into everything that he did, and this hugely impacted on the morale, the spirit and the musical aspirations of the choir. It was a great time for recordings. For all the members of the choir it was very inspiring to see the kind of artists that were brought in as collaborators. The Academy of St Martin in the Fields and the English Chamber Orchestra were regular visitors for recordings, as were also singers such as Heather Harper, Janet Baker, Robert Tear, Herman Prey, and John Shirley Quirk. David would prepare the choristers thoroughly for projects and recordings. I can remember when we were preparing to record Handel’s ‘Dixit Dominus,’ for many months we would sing the fiendishly difficult coluratura in the ‘Gloria Patri’ section virtually every day. When we got to the recording we couldn’t wait to do it, because David had prepared us all so completely. Many of David’s great recordings came from this period, including the Masses of Haydn, many recordings of the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams with both the King’s College Choir and the Bach Choir, the Coronation Anthems and Chandos Anthems of Handel and also the Faure Requiem. There was also an ongoing collaboration with the composer Benjamin Britten, and we sang several performances with Britten conducting of “The Spring Symphony” and the “War Requiem,” a work that David would himself champion worldwide. Whenever we sang with Britten, David would try and get us to sing with a much rougher sound than we would for him, because he was aware that perhaps Britten was not a fan of boys who sang with the kind of refined and plummy sound that we made. We were strangely reticent to do this, as we did not want to betray the finely honed sound world that David had so fervently drilled into our musical experience. He inspired great loyalty in his singers.

Several years later, after I left the choir, I can remember going back to King’s as a sixteen year old and hearing the choir sing the Five Mystical Songs of Vaughan Williams. It was, to this day, one of the most startling choral experiences that I have ever had – it was so beautiful, unified and confident. It showed  that everyone involved knew what they were doing, and most importantly, that they loved doing it. For me, this became a template for my aspirations in my life as a musician. And I know, without a doubt, that any friend or colleague who sang with David would have had the same sort of experience and realization as I had had, and would want to do the same. I was lucky enough to return to King’s as a Choral Scholar in 1973, David’s last year at King’s. It was wonderful to be back, and David’s wit, his energy and his drive had not diminished one iota. For all of us who sang in his final “Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols” in the Christmas of that year, we knew that we were not only witnessing the end of an astonishing era of his work with the choir at King’s, but also having the chance to share once more in the musical gifts that David gave to us all with such passion and commitment throughout his life.

Featured image credit: Kings College Cambridge In The Snow via iStock.

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