David Willcocks

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Sir David Willcocks

David Willcocks in Belfast, September 2006 with "Melisma"
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
  • Army Officer

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.

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.


Born in Newquay in Cornwall, Willcocks began his musical training as a chorister at Westminster Abbey from 1929 to 1934, following a recommendation by the then Master of the King's Music, Sir Henry Walford Davies, to Ernest Bullock.[1] From 1934 to 1938, he was a music scholar at Clifton College, Bristol, where his teacher was Douglas Fox, his most important musical influence.[1] He was appointed as organ scholar at King's College, Cambridge in 1939.[2] There, 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.[3]

Military service[edit]

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,[4] 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.[5] The award was gazetted on 21 December 1944.[6]

Musical career[edit]

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.[2] Composers with whom he collaborated included Vaughan Williams, Britten, Howells and Tippett.[7]

From 1957 to 1974 he held the post for which he is probably best known, Director of Music at King's College, Cambridge.[8] 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.[2]

He held these positions at Cambridge until the 1970s when he accepted the post of Director of the Royal College of Music.[8] In the 1971 Queen's Birthday Honours, he was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE),[9] and was created a Knight Bachelor in 1977 in the Queen's Silver Jubilee Honours.[10][11] He held honorary degrees in England[2] 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 (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 guest director of music and conducted the Bach Choir, who sang during the signing of the registers. 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 St. Thomas Church in Manhattan and conducting the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.[7] 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]

He died at home in Cambridge on the morning of 17 September 2015.[16]

Recordings and broadcasts[edit]

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.[17] 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.[18][19] 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.[20][21] 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.[8][22] The descant arrangements in particular are among the most famous and well-loved musical components.[23] He was Music Director Emeritus of King's College Choir, and an Honorary Fellow of King's College, Cambridge.[24]

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.[17]

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]

Selected Compositions[edit]

  • Five Folksongs (1972)[26]
  • Introduction (Fanfare), Variations and Fughetto on the Hymn Tune Jena (Breslau) (1986). Commissioned by the Detroit chapter of the American Guild of Organists, premiered by Marilyn Mason at the 1986 AGO national convention.[27]
  • A Ceremony of Psalms (1989)[26]
  • Tomorrow shall be my dancing day[26]


Commonwealth honours[edit]

Commonwealth honours
Country Date of award Appointment Post-nominal letters
 United Kingdom 1971 Commander of the Order of the British Empire CBE
 United Kingdom 1977 Knight Bachelor Kt
Military decorations
Country Date of award Decoration Post-nominal letters
 United Kingdom 21 December 1944 Military Cross MC
 United Kingdom 1939-45 Star
 United Kingdom France and Germany Star
 United Kingdom Defence Medal
 United Kingdom War Medal


Location Date of award School Position
 England 1938 Royal College of Organists Fellow (FRCO)[24]
 England 1947 King's College, Cambridge Fellow[24]
 England 1965 Royal Academy of Music Honorary Fellow (FRAM)[24]
 England 1965 Royal School of Church Music Fellow (FRSCM)[24]
 Canada 1967 Royal Canadian College of Organists Fellow (FRCCO)[24]
 England 1971 Royal College of Music Fellow (FRCM) [28]
 England 1976 Trinity College London Honorary Fellow (HonFTCL)[24]
 England 1977 Royal Northern College of Music Fellow (FRNCM)[24]
 England 1979 King's College Cambridge Honorary Fellow [24]
 England 1980 Guildhall School of Music Honorary Fellow (FGSM)[24]
 England 1982 Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama Fellow (FRSAMD)[24]
 England 2012 Falmouth University Honorary Fellow [29]
Honorary degrees
Location Date of award School Degree Gave Commencement Address
 England 1976 University of Exeter Doctor of Music (D.Mus.) [30]
 England 1977 University of Leicester Doctor of Music (D.Mus.) [31]
 USA 1980 Westminster Choir College, Princeton Doctor of Music (D.Mus.)[24]
 England 1981 University of Bristol Doctor of Music (D.Mus.)[24]
 England 1982 University of Sussex Doctor of Letters (D.Litt.) [32]
 Canada 1985 Trinity College, Toronto Doctor of Sacred Letters[24]


  1. ^ a b Robinson, Ray (October 1985). "Sir David Willcocks: A Personal View". The Choral Journal. Published by: American Choral Directors Association. 26 (3): 15.
  2. ^ a b c d 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.
  3. ^ Shenton, Kenneth (29 May 2020). "Obituary:David Briggs". The Church Times.
  4. ^ "No. 35089". The London Gazette (Supplement). 25 February 1941. pp. 1201–1203.
  5. ^ "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.
  6. ^ "No. 36850". The London Gazette (Supplement). 19 December 1944. pp. 5854–5856.
  7. ^ a b Cantrell, Scott (29 April 1990). "The Man Who Helped Define Choral Music". The New York Times. Retrieved 19 September 2015.
  8. ^ a b c Hewett, Ivan (17 September 2015). "Sir David Willcocks: his musicality was impregnable". The Telegraph. Retrieved 18 September 2015.
  9. ^ "No. 45384". The London Gazette (Supplement). 4 June 1971. p. 5965.
  10. ^ "No. 47234". The London Gazette (Supplement). 10 June 1977. pp. 7080–7081.
  11. ^ "No. 47415". The London Gazette. 23 December 1977. p. 16073.
  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 (2 August 1988). "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. ^ a b "Sir David Willcocks, choirmaster: obituary". Daily Telegraph. 17 September 2015. Retrieved 19 September 2015.
  18. ^ Thompson, Damian. "Middle England meets its Saviour: The Bach Choir's magnificent St Matthew Passion". Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 9 April 2012. Retrieved 19 September 2015.
  19. ^ "David Willcocks & King's College Choir Cambridge / Bach Cantatas & Other Vocal Works". Bach-Cantatas. Retrieved 18 September 2015.
  20. ^ Gramophone Classical Good CD Guide
  21. ^ BBC Radio 3's Breakfast programme (17 October 2011)
  22. ^ Hough, Stephen. "Happy 90th Birthday, Sir David Willcocks!". Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 5 January 2010. Retrieved 19 September 2015.
  23. ^ Ross, Daniel (19 December 2014). "These are factually the greatest Christmas carol descants of all time". ClassicFM. Retrieved 26 December 2014.
  24. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Kay, Ernest (1988). International Who's Who in Music (Eleventh ed.). Cambridge: Melrose Press Ltd. p. 993. ISBN 0900332964.
  25. ^ Soul Music (Series 10), "Faure Requiem", BBC Radio 4, 21 September 2010. Retrieved on 22 September 2010.
  26. ^ a b c "Choral music of David Willcocks Priory PRCD 1053 [JQ] : Classical Music Reviews - August 2011 MusicWeb-International". www.musicweb-international.com. Retrieved 22 January 2023.
  27. ^ Dance, University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & (1880). School of Music, Theatre & Dance (University of Michigan) Publications. School of Music, University of Michigan.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  28. ^ Fellows list 2019rcm.ac.uk Archived 28 November 2020 at the Wayback Machine
  29. ^ "Fellows & Honorary Fellows | Falmouth University". 7 October 2023.
  30. ^ "Previous honorary graduates | Honorary graduates | University of Exeter".
  31. ^ "Honorary Graduates | Graduation | University of Leicester".
  32. ^ List of honorary graduatessussex.ac.uk Archived 19 January 2016 at the Wayback Machine

External links[edit]

Cultural offices
Preceded by Organist and Master of the Choristers of Salisbury Cathedral
Succeeded by
Preceded by Organist and Master of the Choristers of Worcester Cathedral
Succeeded by
Preceded by Director of Music, King's College, Cambridge
Succeeded by
Preceded by Director of the Royal College of Music
Succeeded by