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Sir David Willcocks, Conductor Who Influenced British Choral Music, Dies at 95

Photo Sir David Willcocks, in 1990. He led the King s College Choir of Cambridge and by invitation worked with the Rolling Stones. Credit Paul Lowe

Sir David Willcocks, long considered Britain s most esteemed choir director, who also led ensembles in the United States and even worked with the Rolling Stones, died on Thursday at his home in Cambridge, England. He was 95.

His death was announced by the King s College Choir of Cambridge University[1], with which he was long affiliated.

A conductor, organist, composer and arranger, Mr. Willcocks was the music director of the King s College Choir, an all-male ensemble, from 1957 to 1974. He was also associated for many years with the Bach Choir[2], a storied amateur group of more than 200 voices, based in London.

His work with both ensembles renowned for the brightness, clarity and impeccable intonation he routinely summoned from his singers was considered exquisitely representative of the modern English choral tradition.

Mr. Willcocks was known worldwide through his highly praised recordings, which encompass not only the work of Baroque liturgical composers like Bach but also that of Romantics, including a Faur Requiem by which all others are judged, The Guardian, the British newspaper, wrote in its obituary last week.

Mr. Willcocks, who was knighted in 1977, was also known for his interpretations of music by contemporary titans like Ralph Vaughan Williams, William Walton, Michael Tippett and Benjamin Britten. He won a Grammy Award[3] for his 1963 recording with the Bach Choir of Britten s War Requiem.

In the United States, he appeared often as a guest conductor, including with the Mostly Mozart festival[4] and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir[5]. His choral compositions and published arrangements of Christmas carols are sung by choirs around the world.

In perhaps his most unorthodox assignment, Mr. Willcocks was conscripted for the recording of the Mick Jagger-Keith Richards song You Can t Always Get What You Want. In that number, which appears on the Rolling Stones 1969 album Let It Bleed, he leads the Bach Choir in the celestial opening strains[6].

David Valentine Willcocks was born on Dec. 30, 1919, in Newquay, in Cornwall. He displayed musical prowess early, and when he was about 8 he auditioned for the distinguished London choirmaster Sir Henry Walford Davies[7].

He recalled the audition in a 1990 interview with The New York Times:

He gave me some ear tests and then played the piano to me for quite a time, Mr. Willcocks said. Suddenly he stopped, played a quiet chord and said, Tell me, can you hear God speaking to you in that chord? I listened hard, but I couldn t. However, I thought of my mother outside the room and didn t want to let her down, so I said, Yes, sir, I think I can.

That was good enough for Mr. Davies, who helped arrange young David s admission to the choir of Westminster Abbey[8].

As a young man, Mr. Willcocks entered King s College on an organ scholarship, but his studies were interrupted by World War II. Serving with the British Army, he took part in the Normandy invasion and was awarded the Armyrats © Military Cross[9]. After the war, he earned his bachelor s degree from King s, where he also studied history and economics.

He served as an organist and choirmaster at Salisbury[10] and Worcester[11] Cathedrals before taking the helm of the King s College Choir. In 1974, he began a decade-long tenure as the director of the Royal College of Music[12] in London, and in 1981 he was a music director for the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer.

Mr. Willcocks s survivors include his wife, the former Rachel Gordon Blyth; two daughters; and a son.

Besides having superlative musicianship on which to draw, Mr. Willcocks was aided throughout his career by diplomacy and inventiveness. In its obituary last week, the British newspaper The Telegraph recounted an incident from his time at Salisbury Cathedral:

On one occasion they were rehearsing on Holy Saturday when the dean interrupted. Mr. Willcocks, did I hear the choir singing hallelujah ?

Willcocks explained that they were preparing for the following day s services. Back came the reply: Our Lord is still in the tomb; I will not have it! We cannot have hallelujah sung in Salisbury Cathedral until the gladsome morn.

Thereafter, the obituary continued, the choir replaced the offending word with fa-la-la-la.

A version of this article appears in print on September 23, 2015, on page A24 of the New York edition with the headline: Sir David Willcocks, 95, British Choirmaster, Dies.

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References

  1. ^ The choir s site. (www.kings.cam.ac.uk)
  2. ^ Website. (www.thebachchoir.org.uk)
  3. ^ More articles about the Grammy Awards. (topics.nytimes.com)
  4. ^ Website. (mostlymozart.org)
  5. ^ Website. (www.mormontabernaclechoir.org)
  6. ^ Listen! (www.youtube.com)
  7. ^ A biography. (www.oswestrygenealogy.org.uk)
  8. ^ The choir s site. (www.westminster-abbey.org)
  9. ^ About the decoration. (www.gov.uk)
  10. ^ The cathedral s site. (www.salisburycathedral.org.uk)
  11. ^ The cathedral s site. (www.worcestercathedral.co.uk)
  12. ^ Website. (www.rcm.ac.uk)

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