Remembering David Willcocks (1919-2015)

© Maggie Heywood

I had heard of him, of course, long before I met him. David Willcocks was a revered figure in choral circles ever since he took over from the ailing Boris Ord in 1957 as organist of King’s College Cambridge and director of its renowned choir. His career had, in a sense, come full circle: in 1939, as an outstandingly gifted musical teenager at Clifton College, he was awarded an organ scholarship at King’s but was commissioned into the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry after only a year. Following distinguished war service—he was awarded the Military Cross in the Normandy landings—Captain Willcocks returned to King’s in 1945 to complete his three-year term of office. Appointments as organist of Salisbury Cathedral (1947–50) and Worcester Cathedral (1950–7) followed, but it came as no surprise when he was called back to King’s, and by the time I reached my own teens, he had turned an already fine choir into a world-renowned one.

We all listened to the annual Christmas Eve Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on the radio, and marvelled at the unfolding series of Willcocks King’s recordings which began in 1960 with an album of Bach motets. In the following year he co-edited (with the Bach Choir conductor Reginald Jacques) the first of the Carols for Choirs books, an anthology which transformed our musical celebration of Christmas with the first of David’s own magical descant versions of the great Christmas hymns and his refreshing, exquisitely voiced arrangements of traditional carols.

David Willcocks and John Rutter

Aware of his stellar reputation, I was overawed when I was assigned, in my second year at Cambridge, to his weekly harmony and counterpoint class. He generally hastened into the classroom one minute before the appointed time, a wiry, slender figure quivering with energy, who got straight to grips with, say, a canonic Bach chorale prelude that we were expected to complete given only the first two bars. His daily schedule was, I later realised, impossibly crowded during those years, and when the hour was up he generally sped away to his next appointment, but one day he took me aside and said ‘I understand you’ve been composing, Mr Rutter – would you bring some of your work to my rooms in King’s at nine o’clock next Monday morning?’ That was an order, not a suggestion, so I punctually appeared the next Monday with a small bundle of manuscripts (including, I recall, the Shepherd’s Pipe Carol). My palms damp and my mouth dry, I stood in his elegant rooms overlooking King’s meadow awaiting his verdict as he leafed through the pile. He looked up and said ‘would you be interested in these being published by Oxford University Press?’. David was for many years the OUP advisor for church music, and to be offered a place in the same catalogue as Vaughan Williams, Walton, and indeed Willcocks, was an enviable opportunity.

David took my manuscripts away with him—Monday was the day when he spent the afternoon at OUP headquarters in Conduit Street and the evening rehearsing the Bach Choir (by now his choir, following the death of Reginald Jacques)—and two days later I received a letter on OUP’s impressive crested writing paper not only accepting my pieces for publication but offering me an annual retainer of £50 (it later rose slightly) in exchange for first refusal on future work. I hope I thanked him properly, because he was the reason I made the massive leap from aspiring composer to published composer. 

That was in 1966. A little later, as a shamefully unmotivated PhD student but increasingly committed composer, I became David’s unofficial assistant, spending more time helping him with musical chores such as part-copying, orchestrating, and infilling of sketchy Willcocks scores than I ever did on my research. In 1969 he invited me to co-edit the second (orange) volume of Carols for Choirs, and collaboration ripened into lifelong friendship. I learned many lessons from him by example: perfectionism, attention to detail (he was a crackshot proof-reader), leadership, willingness to work exhaustingly long hours without weakening, the psychology and technique of training and conducting choirs, and above all the value of life itself and the crime of wasting any of it. David loved life, probably because he had witnessed so much tragic loss of it in the war, also, perhaps, from the loss of his son James at the age of 33 from cancer. David’s career was long and full, from organ scholar to cathedral organist, King’s choir director, principal of the Royal College of Music, and, in a happy final chapter, freelance conductor equally willing to work with skilled professionals or modest amateurs.

King’s College Chapel, Cambridge

He was unassuming about his composing and arranging, but could undoubtedly have made it his principal focus had he so chosen. Everything he wrote (including the iconic descant to O come, all ye faithful, scribbled on a train journey) met an exacting standard of craftsmanship, and his Christmas music still lights up the sky. Quite a legacy in itself, but we must add to that the new standards he set for choirs everywhere: King’s College Choir under DVW was an exemplar, a yardstick, a benchmark. Quite simply, that choir made choirs everywhere else sing better. Finally, in David’s centenary year, we must remember that he was a great teacher, mentor and inspiration: those who sang under him, worked with him, learned from him, or just met him, have gone out into the world and inspired others, as he inspired them. I am immensely the richer for having been his student, assistant, and friend.


12 Responses to “Remembering David Willcocks (1919-2015)”

  1. Christina de Jong Cleyndert

    David Willcocks was my everlasting inspiration from being in a fabulous Church choir in Sutton Coldfield under the directorship of Harold Gray who was then the associate conductor of the CBSO all through my life. My greatest wish was to be a chorister at King’s but being a girl I had to make do with Chethams in Manchester. I entered the RCM in 1974, the same year as David Willcocks took over there. I will always remember his brilliant musicianship, his friendship and his sexy wiggle whilst conducting the RCM chorus. He is never to be forgotten.

  2. Sandy Behnke

    I had the honor to sing with Sir David in the Bach Choir in London in the last years of his leadership in the 1990’s. Being an American in the choir was such a treat as I so enjoyed his energy, passion and great love for music.

  3. Guy Johnston

    Dear John,
    Thank you for these sharing these memories. I remember meeting David Willcocks in the Chapel towards the end of his life and also helping Stephen Cleobury to piece an orchestra together for his Memorial in Kings some years ago. We performed Fauré’s Requiem, which was a profound experience and even more so thinking about it now that Stephen has passed away.
    Their spirit lives on in so many and we are very fortunate to have known them.

  4. Jay Wilcox

    As I read this, I recalled a similar experience of a request feeling like a command. I was attending a choral conducting workshop led by Sir David, in which the attendees also served as the choir. At one point, Sir David was standing in front of me (I was singing tenor), and he gave me an odd glance and said, “Please see me on the next break,” a request that felt like an order! I went into a private room with him where there was a piano, graciously asked my name, then hit a note and asked me to sing a two octave ascending scale. When I was done, he looked at me and said, “You’re not a tenor.” Well, I knew I wasn’t a bass, but he continued and said, “You’re a countertenor.” He then explained to me the difference, as he saw it, between a countertenor (a natural voice) and a male alto (a developed falsetto). I started singing alto and entered a new world of musical experiences, all thanks to him. He was one of the greats.

  5. Dale Schriemer

    I was baritone soloist in Belshazzars Feast (Walton) in the late 1980s in Michigan where Sir David conducted. Needless to say I was nervous about measuring up to his artistic standards so I had coached it thoroughly with Martin Katz. I also requested private time with Sir David before the orchestra rehearsal. This world famous musician spent time with me in such an unassuming and practical way. There was no ego, just music and how we could effectively deliver it to the audience. It led to a brilliant performance led by an untiring and brilliant man!

  6. Dr. Mark Laverty

    Thank you for posting this touching, eloquent reminiscence. Having been a church musician in America for decades, I have long been familiar with these two towers of church music, Willcocks and Rutter. It is fascinating to read – and imagine – how your two lives became intertwined and developed. What a profound collaboration it obviously was, and what a blessing for the world and the Church you both were/are. Thank you, Mr. Rutter. Thanks be to God for the music of you both.

  7. Mary Douglas

    Coventry Cathedral, Choral Festival, Early 1990’s! Experience of a lifetime! His was the standard to which we all strive as organists, conductors, composers. A consummate musician, scholar, and most importantly an humble man, who shared his many gifts with the world. I am forever grateful!

  8. Kathy Hayevsky

    I was one of those amateurs lucky enough to have worked with Sir David for many years at the choral festival in Green Lake, Wisconsin, and my musical life was so greatly enhanced by that experience. His influence, as well as that of his son Jonathan, is something for which I’m forever grateful. Thank you for this beautiful piece.

  9. Hudson Fair

    I very fondly remember meeting and visiting with Sir David when he was here in Chicago leading the William Ferris Chorale. He was very good natured when I asked to observe him rehearsing the chorale, mentioning that I wanted to see “how he imparted the magic.” Have always loved the recordings from King’s during his tenure and to see his enthusiasm and low key manner in rehearsal was a real treat. Thank you for this well written remembrance.

  10. Hilary Barber

    I grew up in Cambridge and my music teacher at school used to take me to Evensong at Kings on a Saturday followed by tea at the Copper Kettle. I went on to become a Lay Clerk at Coventry, followed by Ordination and Music Adviser to the Diocese of Manchester. Sir David has been as inspiration most of my life: even playing the National Anthem lying underneath the piano!

  11. Tom Smith

    I had the most amazing opportunity of my life to play cello under Sir David, and his son Jonathan for the Green Lake Festival held near Oshkosh Wisconsin from the mid 80’s to 90’s. Starting during my college years in the 70’s I had become an English choral music fanatic. Many, many of the recordings that were a cherished part of my life were conducted by Sir David. Imagine my shock when I got a call one summer day asking if I was available to play for this gig….I asked for more info and when told it was to be conducted by Sir David-well you can imagine I almost fainted! And they were going to pay me??!! Long story short-It was one of the greatest experiences of my life and lasted about 7 summers. He was such a gracious man and so immensely talented. Playing under him, chatting to him backstage-I still can’t believe it happened to me! Jonathan also conducted us in some of his own compositions-and they were really fun pieces-plus world premieres! (one of them is for sale on his website that I played for). A funny story: when one of my violinist friends, also playing, mentioned that she would be in Cambridge that fall he told her to look him up-“I’m in the phonebook”. She took a chance, he answered, they had tea and then went to the chapel. It was just closing time, but Sir David said to the custodian “can we please come in? You see I used to be the organist here, and I wanted to play for my friends”. Not: “Look here my good man- I am Sir David Willcocks let me in”….what a humble man! I shall cherish till the end of my days working under this amazing man. Now when I listen to my recordings I listen with a whole new appreciation! I think there was a divine intervention that made the person from Green Lake call me all those years ago!

  12. David Porter-Thomas

    Your description of Sir David brought back so many happy memories. I was lucky enough to be in the RCM chamber choir while he was the principal and conductor. There was one occasion when one of the chaps in the choir was not watching the beat so Sir David placed a clean hanky on his head. It was not ‘til the last chord of the piece did the singer in question realize! The rest of the choir were weeping with laughter.