David Willcocks

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Sir David Willcocks

David Willcocks in Belfast, September 2006 with "Melisma"
David Valentine Willcocks

(1919-12-30)30 December 1919
Newquay, Cornwall, England
Died17 September 2015(2015-09-17) (aged 95)
  • Choral conductor
  • Organist
  • Composer
  • College director

Sir David Valentine Willcocks, CBE , MC (30 December 1919 – 17 September 2015) was a British choral conductor, organist, composer and music administrator. He was particularly well known for his association with the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, which he directed from 1957 to 1974, making frequent broadcasts and recordings. Several of the descants and carol arrangements he wrote for the annual service of Nine Lessons and Carols were published in the series of books Carols for Choirs which he edited along with Reginald Jacques and John Rutter. He was also director of the Royal College of Music in London.

Military Cross third-level military decoration of the British Armed Forces, Commonwealth officers

The Military Cross (MC) is the third-level military decoration awarded to officers and other ranks of the British Armed Forces, and formerly awarded to officers of other Commonwealth countries.

Choir Ensemble of singers

A choir is a musical ensemble of singers. Choral music, in turn, is the music written specifically for such an ensemble to perform. Choirs may perform music from the classical music repertoire, which spans from the medieval era to the present, or popular music repertoire. Most choirs are led by a conductor, who leads the performances with arm and face gestures.

Conducting directing a musical performance by way of visible gestures

Conducting is the art of directing a musical performance, such as an orchestral or choral concert. It has been defined as "the art of directing the simultaneous performance of several players or singers by the use of gesture." The primary duties of the conductor are to interpret the score in a way which reflects the specific indications in that score, set the tempo, ensure correct entries by ensemble members, and "shape" the phrasing where appropriate. Conductors communicate with their musicians primarily through hand gestures, usually with the aid of a baton, and may use other gestures or signals such as eye contact. A conductor usually supplements their direction with verbal instructions to their musicians in rehearsal.


During the Second World War (1939–1945) he served as an officer in the British Army, and was decorated with the Military Cross for his actions on Hill 112 during the Battle of Normandy in July 1944. His elder son, Jonathan Willcocks, is also a composer.

World War II 1939–1945 global war

World War II, also known as the Second World War, was a global war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. The vast majority of the world's countries—including all the great powers—eventually formed two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. A state of total war emerged, directly involving more than 100 million people from over 30 countries. The major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, blurring the distinction between civilian and military resources. World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, marked by 50 to 85 million fatalities, most of whom were civilians in the Soviet Union and China. It included massacres, the genocide of the Holocaust, strategic bombing, premeditated death from starvation and disease, and the only use of nuclear weapons in war.

Officer (armed forces) member of an armed force or uniformed service who holds a position of authority

An officer is a member of an armed forces or uniformed service who holds a position of authority.

British Army land warfare branch of the British Armed Forces of the United Kingdom

The British Army is the principal land warfare force of the United Kingdom, a part of British Armed Forces. As of 2018, the British Army comprises just over 81,500 trained regular (full-time) personnel and just over 27,000 trained reserve (part-time) personnel.


Born in Newquay in Cornwall, Willcocks began his musical training as a chorister at Westminster Abbey from 1929 to 1934. From 1934 to 1938, he was a music scholar at Clifton College, Bristol, before his appointment as organ scholar at King's College, Cambridge. [1] There, in 1939, he met David Briggs, a choral scholar (bass). Willcocks and Briggs would later be colleagues at King's, from 1959 to 1974, as Organist and Master of the Choristers and as Headmaster of King's College School, the school attended by the choirboys of King's College. [2]

Newquay town, civil parish, seaside resort and fishing port in Cornwall, England

Newquay is a town in the south west of England, in the United Kingdom. It is a civil parish, seaside resort, regional centre for aerospace industries, future spaceport and a fishing port on the North Atlantic coast of Cornwall, approximately 12 miles (19 km) north of Truro and 20 miles (32 km) west of Bodmin.

Cornwall County of England

Cornwall is a county in South West England, bordered to the north and west by the Celtic Sea, to the south by the English Channel, and to the east by Devon, the River Tamar forming the border between them. Cornwall is the westernmost part of the South West Peninsula of the island of Great Britain. The southwesternmost point is Land's End and the southernmost Lizard Point. Cornwall has a population of 563,600 and an area of 3,563 km2 (1,376 sq mi). It is administered by Cornwall Council, apart from the Isles of Scilly, which are administered separately. The county town is Truro, Cornwall's only city.

Westminster Abbey Church in London

Westminster Abbey, formally titled the Collegiate Church of Saint Peter at Westminster, is a large, mainly Gothic abbey church in the City of Westminster, London, England, just to the west of the Palace of Westminster. It is one of the United Kingdom's most notable religious buildings and the traditional place of coronation and burial site for English and, later, British monarchs. The building itself was a Benedictine monastic church until the monastery was dissolved in 1539. Between 1540 and 1556, the abbey had the status of a cathedral. Since 1560, the building is no longer an abbey or a cathedral, having instead the status of a Church of England "Royal Peculiar"—a church responsible directly to the sovereign.

Military service

With the outbreak of the Second World War, he interrupted his studies in music to serve in the British Army. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry (DCLI) on 15 February 1941, [3] and was awarded the Military Cross as a temporary captain for his actions during the Battle of Normandy on the night of 10/11 July 1944, when he was serving with the 5th Battalion, DCLI as battalion intelligence officer. The battalion, part of the 214th Infantry Brigade of the 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division, was ordered to hold Hill 112 in Normandy, France, as part of Operation Epsom. He carried out his duties outstandingly overnight, helping inflict severe casualties on the German forces by calling in artillery support to break up counter-attacks. The battalion suffered over 250 casualties during the night, including the commanding officer and one of the company commanders. This left Willcocks in command of the battalion headquarters, which by then was the furthest forward part of the battalion. He rallied the men, enabling the battalion to stand firm and reorganise. [4] The award was gazetted on 21 December 1944. [5]

Second lieutenant is a junior commissioned officer military rank in many armed forces, comparable to NATO OF-1a rank.

Duke of Cornwalls Light Infantry

The Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry (DCLI) was a light infantry regiment of the British Army in existence from 1881 to 1959.

Military ranks are a system of hierarchical relationships in armed forces, police, intelligence agencies or other institutions organized along military lines. Military ranks and the military rank system define among others dominance, authority, as well as roles and responsibility in a military hierarchy. The military rank system incorporates the principles of exercising power and authority, and the military chain of command – the succession of commanders superior to subordinates through which command is exercised – constructs an important component for organized collective action.

Musical career

Willcocks returned to Cambridge in 1945 to complete his studies, and in 1947 was elected a Fellow of King's College and appointed Conductor of the Cambridge Philharmonic Society. In the same year, he became the organist at Salisbury Cathedral and the conductor of the Salisbury Musical Society. He moved to Worcester Cathedral in 1950 and remained until 1957, during which time he was organist of the Cathedral, principal conductor of the Three Choirs Festival in 1951, 1954, and 1957, and conductor of the City of Birmingham Choir. From 1956 to 1974 he was also conductor of the Bradford Festival Choral Society, whilst continuing as guest conductor for their carol concerts into the early 1990s. [1] Composers with whom he collaborated included Vaughan Williams, Britten, Howells and Tippett. [6]

The Cambridge Philharmonic Society is one of the leading non-professional music societies in the UK, with orchestra and chorus regularly performing classical music concerts in Cambridge and the surrounding area. Although based in Cambridge, the Society is not specifically linked to the University, and members are traditionally drawn from a wide variety of backgrounds. The Cambridge Philharmonic aims to perform ambitious programmes, and has a long tradition of working with professional soloists. Its annual programme of concerts includes an operatic concert and a children's concert, and it regularly performs in venues such as King's College Chapel, Cambridge and Ely Cathedral. In recent years there have also been visits abroad, including performances at the Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels, the Rudolfinum, Prague and most recently the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam.

Salisbury Cathedral Church in Wiltshire, England

Salisbury Cathedral, formally known as the Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is an Anglican cathedral in Salisbury, England. The cathedral is regarded as one of the leading examples of Early English architecture: its main body was completed in 38 years, from 1220 to 1258.

Worcester Cathedral Church in Worcester , United Kingdom

Worcester Cathedral, is an Anglican cathedral in Worcester, England, situated on a bank overlooking the River Severn. It is the seat of the Bishop of Worcester. Its official name is the Cathedral Church of Christ and the Blessed Mary the Virgin of Worcester. The present cathedral church was built between 1084 and 1504, and represents every style of English architecture from Norman to Perpendicular Gothic. It is famous for its Norman crypt and unique chapter house, its unusual Transitional Gothic bays, its fine woodwork and its "exquisite" central tower, which is of particularly fine proportions.

From 1957 to 1974 he held the post for which he is probably best known, Director of Music at King's College, Cambridge. [7] He made numerous recordings with the college choir. (Among the most notable recordings was one of Thomas Tallis's Spem in alium , made in 1965.) The choir toured extensively, giving concerts worldwide, as well as garnering further acclaim internationally through television and radio appearances. Under the baton of Willcocks, Cambridge University Musical Society performed Benjamin Britten's War Requiem in 1963 in (Perugia) Milan, La Scala, and in Venice. The choir subsequently performed the work in Japan, Hong Kong, Portugal, and the Netherlands. In 1960, he also became the musical director of the Bach Choir in London. [1]

Kings College, Cambridge college of the University of Cambridge

King's College is a constituent college of the University of Cambridge in Cambridge, England. Formally The King's College of Our Lady and Saint Nicholas in Cambridge, the college lies beside the River Cam and faces out onto King's Parade in the centre of the city.

Choir of Kings College, Cambridge choir

The King's College Choir is a British choir. It is considered one of today's most accomplished and renowned representatives of the great English choral tradition. It was created by King Henry VI, who founded King's College, Cambridge, in 1441, to provide daily singing in his Chapel, which remains the main task of the choir to this day.

<i>Spem in alium</i> musical composition

Spem in alium is a 40-part Renaissance motet by Thomas Tallis, composed in c. 1570 for eight choirs of five voices each. It is considered by some critics to be the greatest piece of English early music. H. B. Collins described it in 1929 as Tallis's "crowning achievement", along with his Lamentations.

He held these positions at Cambridge until the 1970s when he accepted the post of Director of the Royal College of Music. [7] In the 1971 Queen's Birthday Honours, he was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE), [8] and was created a Knight Bachelor in 1977 in the Queen's Silver Jubilee Honours. [9] [10] He held honorary degrees in England [1] from the Universities of Bradford, Bristol, Exeter, Leicester, and Sussex, and from the Royal College of Music in London; in the USA from Luther College (Iowa), St. Olaf College (Minnesota), Rowan University and Westminster Choir College (New Jersey); and in Canada from the Universities of Trinity College, Toronto, and Victoria B.C. All in all, his honorary degrees numbered over fifty. He was also President of the City of Bath Bach Choir and Exeter Festival Chorus. For the 1981 wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer, Willcocks served as director of music and conducted a new piece by William Mathias. [11] The event was watched by an estimated global TV audience of 750 million. [12] [13]

After stepping down from the Royal College, Willcocks resumed conducting and editing scores as his primary activities. A 1990 profile in The New York Times noted that he had made nine visits to the United States in the previous year, including conducting Evensong at that city's St. Thomas Episcopal Church and conducting the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. [6] In live performance, he regularly conducted Mozart's Requiem at the Mostly Mozart festival in New York. [14]

On 15 May 2010, a celebration of his contribution to music took place at the Royal Albert Hall in London, where pieces selected by Willcocks were performed by singers who are part of the Really Big Chorus. Special guests included choristers from King's College Choir, Cambridge, who performed three pieces. [15]

His death at home in Cambridge on the morning of 17 September 2015 was announced by King's College later that day. [16] [17]

Recordings and broadcasts

Willcocks made recordings with the (London) Bach Choir, the English Chamber Orchestra, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the Jacques Orchestra, the Philharmonia Orchestra, and the London Symphony Orchestra as well as with the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, with whom he regularly conducted the Nine Lessons and Carols service on Christmas Eve, broadcast by the BBC every year since 1931. [18] With The Bach Choir, in particular he recorded works by Johann Sebastian Bach, especially his motets and, sung in English, his St John Passion and a stately rendition of the St Matthew Passion, a piece he regularly conducted for broadcast Easter performances. [19] [20] He also served as general editor of the Church Music series of the Oxford University Press. During his years at King's, an early and frequently reissued recording of the Allegri Miserere was made in March 1963 by the choir, conducted by David Willcocks, and featuring a 12-year old Roy Goodman, later a distinguished conductor, as the treble soloist. [21] [22] In 1965, he made his famous recording, with the Choir of King's College, of Tallis's Spem in alium.

He is particularly known for his widely used choral arrangements of Christmas carols, many of which were originally written or arranged for the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's and/or the Bach Choir's Christmas concerts. They are published in the five Carols for Choirs anthologies (1961–1987), edited by Willcocks with Reginald Jacques (first volume) or John Rutter. [7] [23] The descant arrangements in particular are among the most famous and well-loved musical components. [24] He was Music Director Emeritus of King's College Choir, and an Honorary Fellow of King's College, Cambridge.[ citation needed ]

Outside the world of classical music, Willcocks conducted his London Bach Choir for the studio recording of "You Can't Always Get What You Want" by the Rolling Stones in 1968. [18]

A notable broadcast took place on BBC Radio 4 on 21 September 2010 in a series called Soul Music, when Willcocks profiled Fauré's Requiem. The programme included his memories of the fighting at Hill 112. The profile also featured Christina, widow of Olaf Schmid. Willcocks questioned the morality of war. [25]

Related Research Articles

Nine Lessons and Carols Traditional Christmas service of Christian worship

The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is a service of Christian worship, traditionally celebrated on Christmas Eve. The story of the fall of humanity, the promise of the Messiah, and the birth of Jesus is told in nine short Bible readings or lessons from Genesis, the prophetic books and the Gospels, interspersed with the singing of Christmas carols, hymns and choir anthems.

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<i>Carols for Choirs</i>

Carols for Choirs is a collection of vocal scores, predominantly of Christmas carols and hymns, first published in 1961 by Oxford University Press. It was edited by Sir David Willcocks and Reginald Jacques, and is a widely used source of carols in the British Anglican tradition and among British choral societies. A second volume was published in 1970, edited by David Willcocks and John Rutter, and the collection is now available in five volumes. A compendium edition was published later. In addition to music for Christmas, the collection also offers works that are suitable for other Christian festivals such as Advent and Epiphany.

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  1. 1 2 3 4 Shenton, Kenneth (18 September 2015). "Sir David Willcocks: Charismatic conductor and organist who raised choral standards round the world to new levels of excellence". The Independent . Retrieved 18 September 2015.
  2. Atkins, Anne (19 December 2009). "My father, the last choirboy from King's College Chapel's historic first Christmas broadcast". Daily Mail. Retrieved 8 December 2015.
  3. "No. 35089". The London Gazette (Supplement). 25 February 1941. pp. 1201–1203.
  4. "Recommendations for Honours and Awards (Army)—Image details—Willcocks, David Valentine" (Fee may be required to view pdf of full original recommendation). Documents Online. The National Archives . Retrieved 15 October 2008.
  5. "No. 36850". The London Gazette (Supplement). 19 December 1944. pp. 5854–5856.
  6. 1 2 Cantrell, Scott. "The Man Who Helped Define Choral Music". The New York Times. Retrieved 19 September 2015.
  7. 1 2 3 Hewett, Ivan (17 September 2015). "Sir David Willcocks: his musicality was impregnable". The Telegraph . Retrieved 18 September 2015.
  8. "No. 45384". The London Gazette (Supplement). 4 June 1971. p. 5965.
  9. "No. 47234". The London Gazette (Supplement). 10 June 1977. pp. 7080–7081.
  10. "No. 47415". The London Gazette . 23 December 1977. p. 16073.
  11. Rothstein, Edward. "Anthem is composed for royal bridal". The New York Times. Retrieved 19 September 2015.
  12. "Charles and Diana marry". BBC News. 29 July 1981. Retrieved 13 October 2008.
  13. "International Special Report: Princess Diana, 1961-1997". The Washington Post. 30 January 1999. Retrieved 13 October 2008.
  14. Kozinn, Allan. "Willcocks Leads Mozart Requiem". The New York Times. Retrieved 19 September 2015.
  15. "The Scratch® Celebration for Sir David Willcocks". BBC. 15 May 2010. Retrieved 8 December 2015.
  16. Fox, Margalit (22 September 2015). "Sir David Willcocks, Conductor Who Influenced British Choral Music, Dies at 95". The New York Times. Retrieved 23 September 2015.
  17. "Sir David Willcocks (1919–2015)". Website of King's College, Cambridge. 17 September 2015. Retrieved 17 September 2015.
  18. 1 2 "Sir David Willcocks, choirmaster: obituary". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 19 September 2015.
  19. Thompson, Damian. "Middle England meets its Saviour: The Bach Choir's magnificent St Matthew Passion". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 19 September 2015.
  20. "David Willcocks & King's College Choir Cambridge / Bach Cantatas & Other Vocal Works". Bach-Cantatas. Retrieved 18 September 2015.
  21. Gramophone Classical Good CD Guide
  22. BBC Radio 3's Breakfast programme (17 October 2011)
  23. Hough, Stephen. "Happy 90th Birthday, Sir David Willcocks!". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 19 September 2015.
  24. Ross, Daniel (19 December 2014). "These are factually the greatest Christmas carol descants of all time". ClassicFM. Retrieved 26 December 2014.
  25. Soul Music (Series 10), "Faure Requiem", BBC Radio 4, 21 September 2010. Retrieved on 22 September 2010.
Cultural offices
Preceded by
Walter Galpin Alcock
Organist and Master of the Choristers of Salisbury Cathedral
Succeeded by
Douglas Albert Guest
Preceded by
Ivor Atkins
Organist and Master of the Choristers of Worcester Cathedral
Succeeded by
Douglas Albert Guest
Preceded by
Boris Ord
Director of Music, King's College, Cambridge
Succeeded by
Sir Philip Ledger
Preceded by
Sir Keith Falkner
Director of the Royal College of Music
Succeeded by
Michael Gough Matthews