It is with great sadness that Australia awoke this morning to the news that Sir David Willcocks, the legendary conductor, organist and pedagogue, has died aged 95. It is impossible for any chorister not to have been touched by his work, whether through his recordings, arrangements, patronage or through firsthand experience of his conducting.
“Sir David” often conducted Australian choirs visiting the UK and Cambridge and cut a familiar figure on his push-bike, cycling around the university town.
Born in Newquay on 30 Dec 1919, he was a chorister at Westminster Abbey from 1929 to 33 and continued his studies at the Royal College of Music before becoming organ scholar at King’s College, Cambridge in 1939.
Despite his studies being disrupted by war, during which time he served and was awarded the Military Cross, he completed his studies and took up the post as organist of Salisbury Cathedral from 1947 to 1950 and of Worcester Cathedral from 1950 to 1957. During this time he conducted the Three Choirs Festival and is responsible for introducing Duruflé’s Requiem to Britain in 1952.
Sir David returned to Cambridge in 1957 as organist of King’s College Chapel and director of its choir. He guided it through an era of exceptional recordings, tours, broadcasts and expanded repertory turning it into the world-famous institution that it is today. Carols from King’s, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve became an annual fixture broadcast on TV and radio to millions around the world.
He also conducted the Cambridge University Musical Society and the Bach Choir in London, with whom he made the first complete recording of Bach’s St Matthew Passion in English in 1978 and an acclaimed recording of Belshazzar’s Feast in 1990. He was especially renowned for his interpretation of the music of English composers, amongst them Britten, Howells and Vaughan-Williams. Sir David was president of the Royal College of Organists from 1966 to 1968 and director of the Royal College of Music from 1974 to 1884. He was made a CBE in 1971 and was knighted in 1977.