Sir David Willcocks
Sir David Willcocks CBE MC (1919-2015)
Musical Director of The Bach Choir for 38 years, and Conductor Laureate from his retirement in 1998 to his death in 2015, Sir David Willcocks was not only responsible for taking the Choir to new levels of excellence during his time at the helm, but was also a very good friend to many of the Choir’s singing and associate members.
David Willcocks became Musical Director of The Bach Choir in 1960, after the then MD, Reginald Jacques, was forced to resign due to ill health. Jacques’ last performance with the Choir was the St Matthew Passion in the Royal Festival Hall, during which he suffered a slight heart attack. Although he was able to finish the concert, it was clear that he would be unable to continue as Musical Director and, on his recommendation, The Bach Choir approached David Willcocks who was, at that time, Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge. He agreed to take the majority of rehearsals, and conduct the summer concert, a performance of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast and the Mozart Requiem. At the same time, the Choir drew up a shortlist of three candidates for the post of Musical Director and, on the strong recommendation of Adrian Boult, a previous Musical Director and at that time a Vice President, the position went to David Willcocks.
The Walton/Mozart concert was very well received by the critics, the Times describing it as ‘exhilarating’ and going on to say that David Willcocks ‘had every reason to be satisfied with his new choir, and the choir with its new conductor’. In his book The Bach Choir: The First Hundred Years the late Dr Basil Keen describes the impact of the new Musical Director:
‘Willcocks was soon pointing the Choir in new directions by programming Honnegger’s King David and Howells’ Hymnus Paradisi in his first season, and Delius’s Sea Drift, Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, Walton’s Coronation Te Deum and Fricker’s Vision of Judgement in his second. A successful innovation was his decision to invite children on to the platform to sing carols with the Choir during the Family Carol Concert. A matter which was to have important repercussions was his disclosure to the committee in April 1961 that Benjamin Britten was writing a Requiem to be performed in Coventry Cathedral in 1962, and that he hoped that The Bach Choir might allowed to give the first London performance.’
This hope was not fulfilled, but The Bach Choir did sing on the first Decca recording, with Britten conducting; this went on to sell 200,000 copies in the first five months after its release and is still the seminal recording today. More recordings followed, including Howells’ Hymnus Paradisi, as well as backing vocals for Marianne Faithful and the Rolling Stones! Under David Willcocks, the Choir was now much busier, responding to invitations which sometimes involved singing under different conductors, undertaking special engagements and taking part in foreign tours, and its profile was considerably heightened as a result. In 1965 David Willcocks conducted the Choir in the premiere of Howells’ Stabat Mater which had been commissioned by Jacques and The Bach Choir nine years earlier, and other premieres at this time included Changes by Gordon Crosse.
More recordings followed, among them a new interpretation of the St Matthew Passion and an acclaimed version of Belshazzar’s Feast. To mark The Bach Choir’s centenary in 1976 David Willcocks conducted the Mass in B minor on April 26, the date of the first performance, and the Choir’s excellence was marked by the Prince of Wales becoming its President.
David Willcocks was also responsible for taking the Choir to new performance venues outside London. The Choir gave concerts in Cambridge – a strong link with King’s College continued even after David Willcocks resigned his post there in 1974 – as well as the West Country, Wales and Yorkshire, and toured abroad to the United States, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand, South Africa, Israel and to many countries in Europe. Some concerts were broadcast and televised, among them the Family Carols and the Mass in B minor.
David Willcocks’ musical contribution to The Bach Choir was immeasurable, but the Choir is also indebted to him for his knowledge of, and concern for, individual members. Many personal letters of kindness and sympathy were received by members experiencing personal problems or distress. It was no surprise that his final concerts, performances of the St Matthew Passion in the spring of 1998, attracted capacity audiences.
He will be greatly missed.