Obituary: Sir David Willcocks, CBE, MC

Widely respected director of the Choir of King's College, Cambridge. Picture: Contributed
Widely respected director of the Choir of King's College, Cambridge. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 30 December, 1919, in Cornwall. Died: 17 September, 2015, in Cambridge, aged 95.

DAVID Willcocks was a Christmas fixture. He directed the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge and the service of Nine Lessons and Carols was broadcast worldwide from the magnificent chapel on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Willcocks published five anthologies of carols, with Reginald Jacques and John Rutter, while other notable events included directing the music at the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana in 1981.

It was through his choral arrangements that Willcocks was best known in Scotland. His five anthologies for all aspects of Christmas music were widely used in kirks throughout Scotland and the chorus of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra often sang them at their festive concerts. His subtle descants and delicate harmonies were a joy to sing.

Choirs certainly loved performing for Willcocks. One soprano in the Bach Choir told The Scotsman: “Sir David was a treat to sing under. His beat was assured and he encouraged everyone with his sheer enthusiasm in rehearsal – and in performance. Sir David made sure that every concert was special. He was a strict disciplinarian but was a man of much humanity, warmth and wit.”

David Valentine Willcocks was the son of a bank manager but displayed such musical talent that he was sent to join the treble section of the choir at Westminster Abbey. He then attended Clifton College, where he proved to be an outstanding organist, winning the John Stewart of Rannoch organ scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge.

His studies were interrupted by the outbreak of war and he was commissioned into the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. He displayed great courage at the D-Day landings in Normandy and at Operation Market Garden. Willcocks was promoted to the rank of major and awarded the Military Cross. He was always modest about the award – passing it off as “an accident”.

After being demobbed Willcocks became a fellow of King’s in 1947 and combined those duties with being organist at Salisbury Cathedral (1950–57). Other responsibilities included conducting at the Three Choirs Festival and with his deep knowledge of choral music he expanded both the repertoire and the standard of singing. In 1957 he returned to Cambridge as organist at King’s.

The appointment was to be central to Willcocks’s career. Not only was he a fine organist and his knowledge of church music extensive but his generous personality knew exactly how to encourage a young treble. He sensed their worries and anxieties and offered, when required, support and comfort, no more so than for the treble who had to sing the opening verse (unaccompanied) of Once in Royal David’s City. “It is a huge challenge for a young boy,” Willcocks said. “To relieve the pressure I used to organise four boy soloists to be ready: to get that first line correct and on pitch is quite an undertaking for a boy soloist.” His high descant for O, Come All Ye Faithful is masterly.

Willcocks gained an international reputation when he was in charge of the music at St Paul’s for Prince Charles’s wedding. He arranged an introductory fanfare to the national anthem and then conducted Dame Kiri te Kanawa’s heroic singing of Handel’s Let the Bright Seraphim. Her singing and hat (“I only wore it so it wouldn’t wobble”) were both hits.

With the Bach Choir – where he was music director from 1960 to 1998 – Willcocks gave many of the first performances of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem abroad and also championed more contemporary works by Honegger, Walton (notably Belshazzar’s Feast), Fauré’s Requiem and Tippett’s Child Of Our Time. From 1974 to 1984 he was director of the Royal College of Music in London.

He recorded extensively and to all he brought an air of spontaneity and commitment that made his discs memorable. His meticulous preparation of his recording of the Psalms in 1972 was exceptional and one critic referred to Willcocks’s ability to “capture every nuance of mood and colour”. His demonstrated his versatility when conducting the Bach Choir for the backing for Marianne Faithfull’s recording of Lennon and McCartney’s Yesterday.

Willcocks had a huge influence throughout the world of music and was instrumental in the creation of the original ensemble the King’s Singers.

This hugely engaging man was much admired throughout his profession. No greater compliment was paid, perhaps, than when he had handed over the King’s Choir to Stephen Cleobury and the new director was informed by a treble at the first rehearsal for the service of Nine Lessons: “Will you please revert to the proper descants as taught to us by Sir David.”

Sir David, who held many honorary doctorates, was knighted in 1977. He is survived by his wife Rachel, whom he married in 1947, and their two sons and a daughter.