Sir David Willcocks

Nov 16th, 2011 | By | Category: Adult choirs, Blog, Boy Choir, Children's Choir, Choir Compeition, Choral Conudctor, Conductor, International choirs

By Linda Foster

Born December 30, 1919 in Newquay in Cornwall, Sir David was discovered by a piano tuner to have perfect pitch at the age of six. Sir David’s mother subsequently arranged to have him audition with Sir Walford Davies, a British composer and Master of the King’s Music from 1934 through 1941. Sir Walford referred Sir David to Westminster Abbey where he trained as a chorister from 1929 until 1934, later winning scholarships as a music scholar at Clifton College and an organ scholar at King’s College, Cambridge.

David WillcocksSir David interrupted his music studies at the outbreak of World War II, joining the British Infantry and ultimately won the Military Cross in 1944. After completing his military duty, Sir David returned to King’s College where he was elected a Fellow of King’s College and appointed Conductor of the Cambridge Philharmonic Society. At the same time as his appointment as Conductor of the Cambridge Philharmonic Society, Sir David became conductor of the Salisbury Musical Society and organist at Salisbury Cathedral. In 1950, he took the post of organist at Worcester Cathedral where he was the principal conductor at the Three Choir Festival (1951, 1954, and 1957). He was also conductor of the City of Birmingham Choir, a position he maintained for seven years. It was with the City of Birmingham Choir that he gave his first British Performance of Maurice Durufle’s Requiem in 1952.

From 1957 to 1974, Sir David was Director of Music at King’s College where he maintained the glorious College tradition with distinction. Sir David made numerous records that gained international popularity through radio and television and gave concerts in many European countries, Canada and Africa. At Cambridge, he also served as University Organist, University Lecturer, and Conductor of the Cambridge University Musical Society. While conducting the Cambridge University Philharmonic, Sir David met his wife, Rachel. Married in 1974, the couple had four children: Sarah, a teacher and magistrate, Jonathan, a conductor and composer, Anne, a civil servant, and James, a physician who died from cancer at the age of 33 years.

In 1960, in addition to his duties at King’s, Sir David became Musical Director of the Bach Choir in succession to Dr. David Jacques. Founded in 1876 and numbering some 250 singers, the Bach Choir is a choir with a distinguished history of singers selected through rigorous auditions. Sir David was Musical Director of Bach Choir for 38years conducting early performances in 1963 of Britten’s War Requiem in Italy at Perugia, Milan (La Scala) and Venice (La Fenice) and subsequent performances of that work in Hong Kong, Portugal and the Netherlands. He relinquished his post in 1998. Since 1960, Sir David has also paid many visits to New Zealand and Australia, giving concerts with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Orchestras of the Australia Broadcasting Corporation. Under the more than capable direction of Sir David Willcocks, the King’s College Choir and the Bach Choir have made many recordings with leading orchestras of great choral and orchestral works.

Sir David has made relatively few recordings since the end of the 1950’s, probably less than 150, primarily with the King’s College Choir and the Bach Choir, the English Chamber Orchestra, the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, the Jacques Orchestra, the Philharmonic Orchestra, and the London Symphony Orchestra. His repertory ranges from England’s Tudor era to such twentieth century composers as Ralph Vaughan Williams. IN addition to such works as Haydn’s The Creation and the Nelson Mass, masses by Palestrina and Charpentier, and Taverner’s The Western Wind, he has conducted such modern music as Britten’s War Requiem and Hymn to St. Cecelia, Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G, Hodie, and Sancta Civitas, as well as a relative handful of pure orchestral works such as Williams’ Five Variants on Dives and Lazarus. Willcocks’ 1962 recording of Haydn’s Mass No. 9 almost single-handedly began the restoration of the composer’s choral music before the modern listening public. His crowning achievement, however, could be his recording of Handel’s Messiah, featuring a contingent of all male singers with the King’s College Choir and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, a superbly paced, exquisitely textured recording.

Most recently, Sir David served as the Music Director Emeritus of the King’s College Choir and was also an Honorary Fell of King’s College. Knighted in 1977 in the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Honours List, Sir David has also received many honorary degrees: in England from the Universities of Bradford, Bristol, Exeter, Leicester, and Sussex, and from the Royal College of Music in London; in the US from Luther College, St. Olaf College and Westminster Choir College; and in Canada from the Universities of Trinity, Toronto, and Victoria, B.C.

Sir David maintains a busy schedule of concerts and recordings including recent visits to the USA, Canada, South Africa, and many European countries. In an interview with Alan Wheeler, Editor of “Once a Chorister” (2000), Sir David Willcocks summarizes his philosophy: “A good choirmaster must not only understand how to develop a vocal technique, but must also be a capable all-round musician and the possessor of a keen ear. A love of music and the desire to share with others, can generally elicit a sympathetic response from singers and players, anxious to give of their best.” L.F.

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