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Sir David Willcocks (1919-2015)


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"Let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore, and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom in the Lord Jesus we are one for evermore"

 

Requiem aeternam dona ei Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei. Requiescat in pace.

 

Obviously I have a lot of memories but I won't share hem here. Suffice to say that David Willcocks was an inspirational Director of Music at Kings, the right choice at the right time, and an inspirational teacher within the University. His arrangements have stood the test of time and his understanding of the human voice and its capabilities, together with his fine craftsmanship have left us a legacy that, hopefully, will stand the test of time and inspire future church musicians.

 

Personally I owe him a debt of gratitude and will pray for his soul.

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“Sir David was one of the very greatest of twentieth-century English church musicians.”

 

I would modify this, to read ‘Sir David was one of the greatest English church musicians of all time’.

 

The creator of a large part of our musical heritage has departed, but his influence will last down the next few centuries. He was responsible for many of the finest recordings, performances, compositions and arrangements of so much sacred, and other, music. He presided over and shaped one of the best choirs in the world and guided the development of many of our current church (and other) musicians.

 

"O quam cito transit gloria mundi".

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I wonder how many people of my generation were fired by the compilation recording "The World of Kings". I was riveted, in particular, by Psalm 84 (to that wonderful Parry chant) and by Vaughan Williams' "Let all the world in every corner sing", and I would play those tracks over and over again.

 

A little later (it must have been c.1971), I went to Addington Palace for a day singing carols, mostly from from the newly-published Carols for Choirs 2, with David Willcocks in charge. I learned such a lot that day and still use some of the tricks I remember from then. It was the first time I had encountered anything by John Rutter, too ("Jesus Child" - still my favourite of the Rutter carols in that style).

 

The ease that he instilled in amateur singers was one of his finest skills - a gift that not all great choral conductors possess.

 

The standard that he set at King's was the inspiration for the present thriving cathedral choral tradition.

 

A great man and one of the greatest church musicians of al ltime.

 

RIP

 

There's a very good and sensitive obituary in the Daily Telegraph online.

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I wonder how many people of my generation were fired by the compilation recording "The World of Kings". I was riveted, in particular, by Psalm 84 (to that wonderful Parry chant) and by Vaughan Williams' "Let all the world in every corner sing", and I would play those tracks over and over again.

 

 

Indeed David,

 

That was one of my earliest choral recording purchases. Over the next few years I bought virtually every LP that Sir David had recorded. With absolutely no disrespect to those following him at King's I think that the sound he produced from the choir has not been bettered. To name just a few example recordings that spring to mind; Messiah, (the only recording to which I will listen without protest!) William Byrd and John Taverner - the Masses, but especially the Taverner where the vocal homogeneity is simply amazing, The Psalms and of course Anthems from King's. I do not, as a rule, like descants but his Christmas set make the festival complete for me ( I would find it hard to choose between his for "Hark! The Herald" and that by Andrew Fletcher though...).

 

I think it right to say that he was one of the most important church musicians of all time and we all should be grateful for and humbled by his life-long contribution.

 

As I type this, Radio 3 is appropriately playing his recording of Zadok. It was probably not intentional but what a wonderful and fitting pun to choose this anthem.

 

RIP

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William Byrd and John Taverner - the Masses, but especially the Taverner where the vocal homogeneity is simply amazing, The Psalms and of course Anthems from King's. I do not, as a rule, like descants but his Christmas set make the festival complete for me ( I would find it hard to choose between his for "Hark! The Herald" and that by Andrew Fletcher though...).

 

I think it right to say that he was one of the most important church musicians of all time and we all should be grateful for and humbled by his life-long contribution.

 

I agree wholeheartedly with this. The "Anthems from Kings" recording would most likely be one of my desert island discs. I could die happily listening to his interpretations of the Naylor or Faire is the heaven. Similarly, to my mind no one has caught the pathos at the end of Byrd's four-part mass so deeply and movingly as Willcocks and the same goes for Byrd's Ave verum corpus (even though his interpretation of the latter can hardly be what Byrd had in mind). What so often came over in his performances (and in many by his contemporary Bernard Rose as well) is the sheer sense of holiness and worship. That sort of quiet piety seems to be out of fashion today, but these men knew how to make it tell.

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I concur with all three above posts – and would happily delete ‘English’, from mine.

 

‘Music in the service of God’ is what, I believe, Vox humana implies.

 

There was an additional dimension to Willcocks, in that he was responsible for exporting the ‘King’s sound’ worldwide. When I lived in a continent warmer than ours, ‘his’ broadcast of the Nine Lessons and Carols Service was a highlight of my festive season notable for its absence of snow, holly or mistletoe- except on the incongruous Christmas cards.

 

 

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It is indeed a sad occasion when someone such as he passes away. Apart from the fact he invented many aspects of Christmas sacred music in Britain in the twentieth century, as others have said, was it not the case he was also expert in other fields such as Tudor music? I ask the question genuinely because I have no independent knowledge, having merely picked this up more or less accidentally during my travels as it were.

 

CEP

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Sir David may have lived to a ripe old age, but his contribution to music will live on much longer, and his passing is still met with sadness. My thoughts are with those who he loved and who loved him. For myself, the Service of Nine Carols will never seem quite the same. Another loss in such a short space of time

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I wonder how many people of my generation were fired by the compilation recording "The World of Kings". I was riveted, in particular, by Psalm 84 (to that wonderful Parry chant) and by Vaughan Williams' "Let all the world in every corner sing", and I would play those tracks over and over again.

 

 

"The World Of Kings" was one of the first LPs I ever bought, but strangely does not include the tracks you mention. I have it on my lap as I'm typing this, I've checked in case of memory failure! My record includes movements from Vivaldi's Gloria, Zadock the Priest, the Allegri Miserere with Roy Goodman as treble soloist and This Is The Record Of John with Simon Preston at the organ.

 

Playing the record for the first time was almost a life changing experience. I was unfamiliar with most of the music and had never heard a choir sound that good. In modern parlance it blew me away.

 

A few years later a bought a box set called, I think, The Glory of Kings, which included Vaughan Williams Mass in G Minor (my reason for buying it) and The Western Wind Mass. All wonderful performances.

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I think there may have been more than one "World of Kings", but my memory could be playing tricks as to the title. The LP in question belonged to my school, and even if it had been mine, I gave away all my LPs when I moved here - something had to go! I remember the Zadok recording and, later, the Allegri, and I had a boxed set of Vaughan Williams' choral music which introduced me to the Mass in G minor (for which I'm eternally grateful - singing or directing it makes me feel as if I was walking on air!).

 

When Willcocks inherited King's choir, it was already famous. There was King's, there was Stanley Vann's Peterborough and George Guest was making St. John's what it came to be. Other cathedral choirs were at best good and sometimes pretty poor. Comparing Willcocks with the Ord recordings, one is struck by the crystal clarity of the expression, the pacing of the music and the subtlety of the organ accompaniments, to mention but a few aspects. Ord was an inspiration in his day, but Willcocks brought something more to the whole experience. Today, the Willcocks sound may seem a trifle dated and the diction a bit precious, but it still deserves its place at the absolute apex of perfection. Later directors moulded the choir to their own ideas - some of Philip Ledger's recordings are as fine as they could be and I believe that, under Stephen Cleobury , the music is as good as it ever was - and there is now a freedom about the sound which is different to what was there before.

 

But not the smallest part of Willcocks' legacy is the stunningly high standard of music in other foundations, great and small, which owes much to his inspiration.

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was it not the case he was also expert in other fields such as Tudor music?

 

I could well imagine that his knowledge of Tudor music was vast. Given that he did a Cambridge BMus in one year and got a first, went to war and got decorated, returned to Cambridge and did a history and economics degree for which he also got a first, he clearly had a brilliant mind. That said, he does not have a reputation as a Tudor music scholar. We must all have come across OUP's series of Tudor Church Music sheet music. Originally these were practical editions that sat alongside the mammoth TCM volumes published by OUP for the Carnegie Trust and bore the same editors' names - E. H. Fellowes, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Percy Buck and Alick Ramsbotham. In the 1960s Sir David and Peter le Huray collaborated in revising many of the editions in order to bring them into line with advances in scholarship that had been made. All the editions that they revised bear their names jointly and the extent of their respective inputs is nowhere defined. Maybe Le Huray did some pieces and Willcocks others; maybe Le Huray did all the work and Willcocks acted in some way as a general editor; I have no idea. What I do know is that there is an error or Bowdlerisation in the penultimate bar of the Magnificat of Thomas Causton's so-called Short Service. Someone has doubled the length of the penultimate chord, turning what should be a minim into a semibreve. (A clue here is the "impossible" five-beat note in the alto part.) There is a musical logic to the alteration, but it isn't Causton's and I can't imagine a scrupulous scholar like Le Huray wilfully altering the music like that. However, it is the sort of alteration a performing musician might feel desirable: Bernard Rose, in his recording of the anonymous "Rejoice in the Lord alway", similarly doubled the length of one chord that sounds "wrong" as notated.

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That's interesting - I must pop down the road and look it up! Are you sure it's not just Caustun being eccentric or careless? His music is by no means free of grammatical errors which must be put down either to him or Day, his engraver. There are, as they say over here, some real doozies in the Communion Service!

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That's interesting - I must pop down the road and look it up! Are you sure it's not just Caustun being eccentric or careless? His music is by no means free of grammatical errors which must be put down either to him or Day, his engraver. There are, as they say over here, some real doozies in the Communion Service!

 

100% positive. You can look it up on CPDL. There are two editions of the Mag there. The first one gets it right; the second is just an uninformed copy of the OUP edition (a practice which, I have to say, I deplore) and therefore wrong. Otherwise, you're right though: Caustun's competence as a composer wasn't high and Day's print is riddled with errors. Caustun's Communion Service is indeed dire, but at least two of the movements are actually contrafacts of secular chansons by other composers.

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Also, as I said, the five-beat note in the alto part is a giveaway. Tudor partbooks didn't use ties, so in ordinary imperfect time there was no simple way of notating a single note worth five beats. In such circumstances one always sees two notes of the same pitch but different values as, say, a dotted semibreve followed by a semibreve. In the final section of Richard Alwood's mass, which is effectively in 5/2 time, each note of the cantus firmus is notated as a breve followed by a minim - presumably a single, five-beat note was intended.

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Thank-you - CPDL makes all clear. I will alter our OUP copies accordingly. Caustun's Short is a favourite with the choir here, but was new to me, and it comes over well, despite the oddities. I go back to my stall thinking, "Damn, that was fun!" after the Magnificat and the Dean always breaks out into a broad grin (always a good sign - we're very lucky in our Dean). I'm mulling over the Communion Service with a view to making a performing edition for us. Working from the CPDL version, there are some obvious mistakes, either of grammar or engraving, which I think can be corrected, and I shall have to do something about the non-existent Benedictus and Agnus. I have a copy of the Royle Shore edition, which adapted other parts of the service for these movements (and a Kyrie), but I'm not sure that I want to rely too much on it.

 

Since part of the service consists of contrafacts of secular pieces (I didn't know that), one could have a field day cooking up movements from various sources. A Kyrie adapted from "Now is the month of Maying" is going through my head, but maybe that's taking it a bit far.... :P

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It's decades since I looked at any of Royle Shaw's editions, but from what I remember he was quite capable of "improving" early works to meet the harmonically respectable standards of his day (e.g. no simultaneous false relations). Possibly I'm confusing him with someone else, but I don't think so. The whole of Causton's service is on CPDL and so is the chanson by Pathie which Causton took for his Gloria, so a comparison is possible for that movement.

 

Sorry, I didn't intend to hijack the thread and shall cease forthwith.

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Thank-you - CPDL makes all clear. I will alter our OUP copies accordingly. Caustun's Short is a favourite with the choir here, but was new to me, and it comes over well, despite the oddities. I go back to my stall thinking, "Damn, that was fun!" after the Magnificat and the Dean always breaks out into a broad grin (always a good sign - we're very lucky in our Dean). I'm mulling over the Communion Service with a view to making a performing edition for us. Working from the CPDL version, there are some obvious mistakes, either of grammar or engraving, which I think can be corrected, and I shall have to do something about the non-existent Benedictus and Agnus. I have a copy of the Royle Shore edition, which adapted other parts of the service for these movements (and a Kyrie), but I'm not sure that I want to rely too much on it.

 

Since part of the service consists of contrafacts of secular pieces (I didn't know that), one could have a field day cooking up movements from various sources. A Kyrie adapted from "Now is the month of Maying" is going through my head, but maybe that's taking it a bit far.... :P

Oh dear. I now have an earworm. Thank you David. On the other hand I can see that the "Now is the Month of Maying" Kyrie has many virtues. Concise, excellent music and not too hard. Much worse service settings have been written. Charpentier's mass is no sillier an idea.

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His importance in the musical world have quite rightly been recorded above, but let's not forget his bravery in World War 2, culminating in the award of the MC. All this while still in his 20s, and like so many of his generation, he carried his bravery with modesty. One wonders whether there are sufficient people on their 20s these days who could defend their country in this way.

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...................................... One wonders whether there are sufficient people on their 20s these days who could defend their country in this way.

 

 

What a strange statement to make!

 

The MC is the 3rd level of award after the Victoria Cross and the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross for gallantry in the face of the enemy. From the war in Afghanistan alone, since 2001 and up to 2014 the CGC has been awarded 33 times and the MC 188 times. I don't know how old each of the recipients are but, looking at their ranks, I would guess that most were in their 20's.

 

............... but you are certainly right about one thing, Willcocks was modest about his own efforts in WWII.

 

.

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I take your point SL, but I think the difference is that today our army is made up of volunteers who are trained to to a very high degree, whereas in WW2 many of these brave men, DW included, were plucked from civilian occupations, including talented musicians, who in their youth probably never thought they would be put in the position they found themselves. I was referring to the many young men who now would never dream of having to fight in that way and would have great difficulty adjusting to that way of life. I hope that you agree with that.

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  • 3 weeks later...

 

I agree wholeheartedly with this. The "Anthems from Kings" recording would most likely be one of my desert island discs. I could die happily listening to his interpretations of the Naylor or Faire is the heaven. Similarly, to my mind no one has caught the pathos at the end of Byrd's four-part mass so deeply and movingly as Willcocks and the same goes for Byrd's Ave verum corpus (even though his interpretation of the latter can hardly be what Byrd had in mind). What so often came over in his performances (and in many by his contemporary Bernard Rose as well) is the sheer sense of holiness and worship. That sort of quiet piety seems to be out of fashion today, but these men knew how to make it tell.

I have just bought the "Anthems from Kings" CD. I'd never heard it but it's such beautiful singing. Likewise the Howells Coll Reg. I used to be very sniffy about King's - much preferring St John's. Listening to many King's recordings in the last couple of weeks has reminded me how good they were.

 

I do find much singing these days too loud and too excited. Often seems to be a competition between the front and back rows of cathedral and college choirs.

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