Sir David Willcocks (1919-2015)

Legendary King's, Cambridge choirmaster dies aged 95


David Willcocks, the organist, conductor and composer who will be forever remembered for his time as director of music at King’s College, Cambridge, has died aged 95.

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During his 17 years in charge at King’s, from 1957-74, Willcocks turned the choir into the world-renowned outfit that it is today, honing its distinctively pure treble sound and spreading its name through both foreign tours and a wealth of acclaimed discs – famous recordings to have been made under his tenure include the legendary 1963 Allegri Miserere with Roy Goodman as treble soloist and, in 1962, a performance of Haydn’s Nelson Mass of rare passion and power.

Importantly, too, the impact of Willcocks’s work at King’s continues today, and goes well beyond Cambridge itself. Choirs and audiences across the globe have become familiar with the many descants that he wrote for his choristers to sing at the famous annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, broadcast live on radio on Christmas Eve, and, published in the Carols for Choirs series, they have become an essential part of the festive repertoire.

Born and raised in Cornwall, Willcocks sang in the choir of Westminster Abbey as a boy. His first spell at King’s began when he was appointed organ scholar in 1939, quickly securing a double first before being called up when the Second World War broke out – his bravery in battle would see him win the Military Cross.

Willcocks enjoyed his first major appointment in 1947 when, at 27, he became organist at Salisbury Cathedral, followed three years later by the same position at Worcester Cathedral, where he enjoyed seven happy years. When, however, King’s came calling in 1957, there could be no refusing.

Willcocks’s musical life did not solely revolve around the choir stalls and organ loft. While at King’s, he assisted the young John Rutter in editing the Carols for Choirs series, and also conducted the Bach Choir in London. After leaving King’s, he went on to become director of the Royal College of Music and, in 1981, organised the music at the wedding of the Prince of Wales to Lady Diana Spencer.

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Utterly tireless, Willcocks continued to lead an active life long after his retirement, and was a familiar face around Cambridge well into his 90s, often seen on his bicycle. He also continued to guest conduct regularly, and with aplomb. As John Rutter told BBC Music Magazine shortly before Willcocks’s 90th birthday in 2009, ‘David can still transform a room of rather sleepy amateur singers into a vibrant chorus. He really is the father of the English choral renaissance.’