Conductor and organist Sir David Willcocks has died

Martin Cullingford Thu 17th September 2015

A much loved figure who was Director of Music of King's College, Cambridge for 17 years

David Willcocks (photo Maggie Heywood)

David Willcocks (photo Maggie Heywood)

Sir David Willcocks, one of the most respected and loved figures of British 20th century choral life, has died, aged 95.

Born in Newquay, Cornwall, Willcocks was a chorister at Westminster Abbey, music scholar at Clifton College, Bristol, and organ scholar at King's College, Cambridge - the establishment with which he came to be defined. Distinguished war service - including being involved in action at Operation Market Garden - was followed by a return to Cambridge, where he became a Fellow of King's in 1947. In that year he moved to Salisbury Cathedral as organist, followed by Worcester three years later. 

But it is for his time as Organist and Director of Music at King's College, Cambridge, a post he took up in 1957 (succeeding Boris Ord) and held until 1974, for which he will be best known, particularly among record listeners for whom riches from those years will form a part of most choral collections. 

Those decades saw a huge growth in recording, and King's was a key part of that era – the choir's sound and the chapel's unique acoustic became familiar to listeners throughout the world. That, and the extraordinary success of the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, helped ensure King's place as one of, if not the, most famous such ensembles in the world, a legacy continued by Sir Philip Ledger and Stephen Cleobury in subsequent decades. Not that it was just popular carols or choral works - Willcocks used recordings to champion English composers who were perhaps lesser-known back in the '60s, such as John Blow.

But as significant as recordings were, the post of King's College Director of Music is of course not primarily about that - it's about committed service to the daily cycle of liturgy that has been at the heart of the institution for many centuries, and in this Willcocks did the tradition proud. Reviewing a recording of Psalms in August 1972, Gramophone's Stanley Webb recalled: 'The apparent spontaneity of the final result is achieved by meticulous preparation. I have known Willcocks spend half-an-hour of rehearsal time going over the texts with the choir and pencilling in new pointing for individual verses without a note being sung. And at the service itself he adds his own expressive accompaniment at the organ, creating flowing tonal patterns which make their own eloquent commentary on the words being sung.' Writing of the recording itself, Webb nicely caught the King's College sound, describing 'the beauty of the voices, the perfection with which they blend, and the choir's response to every nuance of mood and colour.’

Willcocks was as at home shaping beautiful performances of Tudor polyphony as he was conducting the work of his contemporary Benjamin Britten. He had prepared the Bach Choir (another ensemble with whom his reputation is indelibly linked having led them for 38 years), for the 1963 recording of the War Requiem under the composer, a work whose premieres in several countries he gave.

Indeed, his musical versatility was amusingly demonstrated by a Gramophone profile of him in September 1966, which noted that recent months had seen him both record Tallis's Spem in alium, as well as conduct the Bach Choir in providing a backing for Marianne Faithfull's recording of Lennon and McCartney's Yesterday. (Of the former recording, Gramophone noted it was 'as if the very stones of the chapel had begun to sing'). Following his time at Cambridge – during which he also directed the Cambridge University Music Society – he was appointed Director of the Royal College Of Music, a post he left in 1984.

As befits one whose influence on choral music was so significant, Willcock's legacy will live on both in recordings, but also in choir stalls. His arrangements and descants of carols, from the Sussex Carol to Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, particularly for the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, will for many simply be the way that we now hear and think of those works.    

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