Masterly choral conductor, composer and organist passes at the ripe old age of 95.
The great British choral conductor, composer, organist and arranger Sir David Willcocks has died peacefully at home at the grand old age of 95 according to a statement issued by King’s College, Cambridge. Known affectionately as “England’s choir master,” Sir David was perhaps best known for his arrangements of Christmas carols, a large number of which were written for the famous Service of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s, and went on to appear in the Carols for Choirs series which he edited along with Reginald Jacques and John Rutter.
A Cornishman, born in Newquay in 1919, Willcocks became a chorister at Westminster Abbey at the age of eight, where he recalled being conducted by Edward Elgar and other great conductors of the Edwardian generation. In 1939 he became an organ scholar at King’s College, but his academic career was interrupted by the outbreak of war. Willcocks won the Military Cross for his actions during the Battle of Normandy before returning to Cambridge and beginning the lifelong relationship with the choir that came to symbolise the ‘English choral sound’ of the 1950s-1970s. He became a fellow in 1947 and became their Director of Music in 1957, a post he held until 1974. The recordings he made during that time of works like the Byrd masses and other Tudor greats helped put the choir firmly on the map as England’s finest.
It was his (at the time) radical approach to choral singing, however, that is his greatest legacy. A dynamic conductor, he helped drag the genre out of the Victorian past and into the future with a focus on brightness of pitch, clarity of diction and a focus on adventurous programming and commissioning. A keen fan of British choral music he championed and recorded the works of Vaughan Williams, Walton and Britten as well as the cathedral repertoire of Stanford, Parry and earlier composers like Purcell, Blow and Weelkes.
From 1960 until 1998, Willcocks also supported the work of amateur singers through his leadership of the Bach Choir, conducting among other premieres the first performance of Britten’s War Requiem at La Scala followed by performances as far afield as Japan. In 1998, he described his was “like the end of an affair,” .
In 1981 Willcocks became the director of the Royal College of Music and was one of musical directors for the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. As a colleague and tutor he helped the careers of organist Simon Preston, conductors Sir Andrew Davis and Philip Ledger, as well as the original King’s Singers. Sir David was made a CBE in 1971 and knighted in 1977.