Past Musical Directors
Sir David Willcocks CBE MC - Musical Director 1960-1998
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.
Reginald Jacques - Musical Director 1931-1960
Reginald Jacques was born in 1894. Despite suffering severe injuries in the First World War, he recovered and went on to read music at Queen’s College, Oxford. In 1926 he was appointed organist and Director of Music there, and became conductor of the Oxford Orchestral Society a few years later.
Applying for the position of Musical Director of The Bach Choir, Jacques and the two other shortlisted candidates were each required to conduct a private concert at the Royal College of Music. Jacques chose an all-Bach programme including the motet Komm, Jesu, komm. Although many members and trustees favoured Jacques, there were others who wanted to invite Sargent to take on the role, but Jacques was appointed after the Chairman exercised his casing vote.
His first concert with The Bach Choir was a performance of the Brahms Requiem in 1933, and he went on to programme a number of ‘modern’ works such as Holst’s Hymn of Jesus, Delius’s Songs of Farewell, and Vaughan Williams’s Sancta Civitas, as well as organising several Bach festivals. In 1936 he formed his own orchestra, initially to provide instrumental accompaniment to Bach Choir performances, particularly the St Matthew Passion and Mass in B minor, but the orchestra went on to promote its own concerts, regularly appearing at the Edinburgh Festival.
From the mid-1950s Jacques’ health, which had never been robust, became increasingly fragile, and whilst conducting a performance of the St Matthew Passion in 1960, he suffered a slight heart attack. Although he managed to complete the performance, he was advised by his doctors to resign as Musical Director.
Jacques worked with David Willcocks on the first volume of the very popular Carols for Choirs series, published in 1961. He died in 1969.
Adrian Boult - Musical Director 1928-1931
Prompted by the outgoing Musical Director, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst was approached to succeed him and confirmed his acceptance of the position by letter late in 1927. He was due to take up the appointment at the start of the 1928-29 season, but a few months before that was forced to withdraw on medical grounds. Malcolm Sargent was then approached, but the appointment finally went to Adrian Boult, who strongly supported the idea that all rehearsals should be taken by the Musical Director.
Boult was 39 at the time of his appointment, and had been conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra since 1924, and much sought after for appearances elsewhere. His first season with The Bach Choir included Bach’s Magnificat, Kodaly’s Psalmus Hungaricus, and Schubert’s Mass in A flat and he went on to programme new works including The Prison by Ethel Smyth.
Vaughan Williams sent his successor some practical advice on managing the Choir:
“Don’t wait to start practice till everybody is ready – or you will never start at all. I always used to kick off at 5.30 sharp whoever was or wasn’t there and however much row was going off at the bargain counter behind the curtain.”
It was Boult who suggested that for the 1929-30 season, the Choir should mark the 200th anniversary of the St Matthew Passion by performing the work complete, and two performances were given in April 1930. The work was repeated in 1931 and became an annual event thereafter.
In 1931 Boult tendered his resignation, explaining that his many commitments, and particularly his appointment as Director of Music by the BBC in May 1930, made it increasingly difficult for him to conduct weekly rehearsals. He did, however, agree to conduct the St Matthew Passion performances in 1932 and 1933 without a fee, to allow ample time for his replacement to be found.
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Musical Director 1921-1928
Following Hugh Allen’s resignation, the post of Musical Director was first offered to Adrian Boult, who turned it down. It was then offered to Ralph Vaughan Williams, who had been a singing member of the Choir since 1902. Vaughan Williams (pictured here in 1910) was 49 when taking up the appointment; he had established himself as one of the leading composers in the English musical renaissance, and whilst he did not have Boult’s conducting experience, he knew the Choir well, and had conducted regularly at the Leith Hill Festival for some years.
He took over a Choir which was by now one of the leading choruses in London. Like his predecessor, Hugh Allen, he was devoted to the music of Bach, but had very strong views about its performance practice. He was keen to programme the St Matthew Passion, but was concerned about its transfer “from the Thomaskirche to a London concert room”. Four performances of the work were given in 1923, with several cuts made to certain recitatives and arias, and the continuo played on the piano to avoid “giving an ‘antiquarian’ flavour to the music which we want to avoid at all costs.”
To mark the Choir’s 50th anniversary in 1926, a series of four concerts was given, the first two devoted to Bach motets and cantatas, and the last to the Mass in B minor. The third concert featured composers associated with the Choir, and included the first London performance of Vaughan Williams’s Sancta Civitas.
Vaughan Williams resigned from the post of Musical Director in 1928 to devote more time to composition, and to enable a move from London to the country which his first wife, Adeline, preferred.