Sir David Willcocks: Charismatic conductor and organist who raised choral standards round the world to new levels of excellence

Thursday 17 September 2015 19:42

In a life rich in diversity and high in excitement, David Willcocks, one of the most remarkable musicians of his generation, rejoiced in being able to share his love of music with the public. As the charismatic Organist of King's College, Cambridge from 1957 until the early 1970s he played a leading role in raising choral standards throughout the world to new and unprecedented levels of excellence.

The youngest son of a bank manager, David Valentine Willcocks was born in 1919 in Newquay, Cornwall. His early promise shone out when, aged six, he was able to tell the tuner that certain notes on the family piano were still flat. His mother, having just heard a radio broadcast by the Master of the King's Musick, Sir Walford Davies, wrote to him asking for advice. He in turn contacted Ernest Bullock, Organist of Westminster Abbey, who invited the precocious talent for a voice trial. So in 1929 Willcocks began his musical journey as a chorister at the Abbey.

In 1934 he moved to Clifton College as a music scholar, four years later becoming a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists and then winning that most prized of all organ scholarships, the Dr Mann Studentship at King's College, Cambridge. He then spent a year with Sir Sydney Nicholson at the embryonic School of English Church Music at Bullers Wood in Chislehurst, Kent. At Cambridge he acquired an Open Foundation and Stewart of Rannoch Scholarship and at the end of his first year passed both parts of his Mus B degree.

His studies were put on hold by the Second World War, his musical activities limited to occasional forays on Naafi pianos. He joined the 5th Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, serving in France and Germany. He was promoted to captain in 1944 while working as an intelligence officer in Normandy; his unit came under exceptionally heavy fire, sustaining many casualties. For his actions in this operation, he was awarded the Military Cross.

Demobilised, he returned to King's College, where he made a new and significant departure by conducting the Cambridge Philharmonic Orchestra, musicians recruited from the town rather than the university. It was while he was directing their choir that he met his future wife, Rachel, daughter of the Senior Tutor at Selwyn College. They were married in 1947, the year he was made a Fellow of King's College and succeeded Sir Walter Alcock as Organist of Salisbury Cathedral.

Three years later he moved to Worcester Cathedral, unable to resist the lure of the Three Choirs Festival and with the opportunity to conduct the larger City of Birmingham Choir. His seven years there were busy and fruitful as he developed his special interest in the choral and orchestral field. Involved in the Three Choirs Festival, he became Artistic Director for the three Worcester Festivals of 1951, 1954 and 1957.

Among much modern music he championed were Bloch's Sacred Service, Honegger's King David and Walton's Belshazzar's Feast, as well as the Requiem by a local composer, Julius Harrison. At Birmingham he gave noted performances of Tippett's Child Of Our Time and Britten's Spring Symphony, together in 1952 with the first English performance of Maurice Duruflé's Requiem.

In 1957 Willcocks succeeded his friend and mentor, Boris Ord, as Organist of King's College. The all-male choir, founded in the 15th century by Henry VI, already had a fine reputation courtesy of their annual Christmas Eve broadcast of A Festival of Nine Lessons And Carols. Over the coming years, this would be enhanced by greater television exposure and the newly emerging stereo LP. As they propitiously merged cloister with concert hall, for the next 17 years the extraordinary breadth and range of the choir's vibrant industry saw them sell more than 2m records worldwide.

Bathing in the radiant glory of his surroundings and ever conscious of the tradition he had inherited, Willcocks soon stamped his own unmistakeable personality on the choir, as it quickly came to personify the quintessential Anglican choral sound. Inspiring respect and devotion in equal measure, Willcocks drove both himself and his charges relentlessly hard, yet they regularly seemed to make the sound seem effortless.

As well as his daily work at King's, Willcocks lectured and taught, and acted as university organist from 1958 until 1974, and was also Musical Director of the Cambridge University Musical Society (1958-73). Further afield he conducted at the Proms, and throughout his tenure at King's retained strong links with the Bradford Festival Chorus. From 1966-68 he was President of the Royal College of Organists, infusing this august body with his creative energy.

In 1974, the opportunity to become Director of the Royal College of Music proved irresistible. Perfectly qualified for the position, Willcocks quickly immersed himself in administration, his aim to improve prospects for his students. Using every opportunity for focusing public attention on the college and its work, he set in motion a series of new initiatives, of which the biggest was the eventual building of the magnificent Britten Theatre.

Acutely aware of his heritage, he oversaw the college through its centenary celebrations, which culminated in a magnificent Service of Thanksgiving in Westminster Abbey in 1983, which, dextrous as always, he both stage-managed and conducted. A year later he retired, his unstinting efforts being recognised with an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Music.

From 1960 until 1998 Willcocks was Conductor of the 250-strong Bach Choir, rather a slumbering giant somewhat redolent of a previous age. But Willcocks replaced the moribund with the modern in a seamless makeover, and regular foreign tours took, among other works, Britten's War Requiem to Italy, Japan and Portugal and Belshazzar's Feast to the Netherlands.

For 25 years the choir also gave an annual carol concert for the prisoners of Wormwood Scrubs; on one occasion they visited Abbey Road studios to act as a backing group for Mick Jagger; they were also the recipients of many Royal invitations. Notable among these was one from their patron, Prince Charles, to participate in his wedding to Lady Diana Spencer in St Paul's Cathedral in July 1981. Willcocks memorably acted as overall musical director of the occasion and contributed a new and stirring arrangement of the national anthem.

This facet of his art has been much in evidence throughout the years. As editor of church music for the OUP he oversaw a remarkable series of publications, particularly four volumes of Christmas vocal arrangements, Carols For Choirs, beginning in 1961, in conjunction with Reginald Jacques, and later with John Rutter. Willcocks was revealed as a consummate craftsman, keenly sensitive to the needs of singers and the beauty of language.

Reminding us of his often overlooked prowess as an organist are some original works for the instrument, most notably Variations On Breslau (1985), commissioned by the Detroit Chapter of the American Guild of Organists.

While the release from academic life allowed him a little more freedom to indulge his love of cryptic crosswords, he still found time to conduct around 100 concerts a year in venues far and wide. At home and abroad he was as much in demand as ever – his 80th birthday celebrations lasted six months – and his powers remained remarkably acute. Whether returning in his eighties to conduct at the Three Choirs Festival, or leading a Baltic cruise of 150 singers of disparate ages and abilities, this slight, wiry man with the seemingly benign manner of a country doctor, was still revelling in the joy of making music. As always each choral group, large or small, became an extension of his own deeply-loved family.

Appointed CBE in 1971 and knighted in the 1977 Silver Jubilee Honours, in his later years he was the recipient of many honours from academic institutions around the world. For one who professed to have no career plan, save merely to share his love of music with others, his was an astonishing success story. However, while his supreme gifts undoubtedly gave his music an unforgettable quality, above all it was his deep humility and innate goodness that shone through to bring added distinction to a most remarkable life. µ KENNETH SHENTON

David Valentine Willcocks, conductor, organist, teacher and composer: born Newquay, Cornwall 30 December 1919; MC 1944; CBE 1971; Kt 1977; married 1947 Rachel Gordon (two daughters, one son, and one son deceased); died 17 September 2015.

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