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I saw eternity…

To mark the publication of Tim Day’s I Saw Eternity the Other Night, his long-awaited history of the King’s College Cambridge choir, I’ve re-posted below part of my reflections on the David Willcocks memorial service in September 2015.  Tim’s book (which has an inordinate number of references to yours truly as well as to far more significant figures) manages to capture something of the essence of the institution and its people, combining a wider history with intimate personal reflections which the author is so good at elucidating.  What’s really striking about the story as it unfolds is the simple humanity that underpins the boys and men just going about the business of singing in a choir, almost oblivious to the magic that emerges.  Here’s what I wrote three years ago:

It took me three goes to get into King’s Cambridge as a treble. At seven I was much too young on my first attempt, but it was presumably useful experience and it was encouraging to be asked to try again. Boris Ord was an intimidating figure, and the semi-pornographic toys on his piano fascinating but beyond our ken.  But eventually he let me in – in a year when so many old choristers had left that not to get in would have been very embarrassing. In the 1954 BBC recording of the Nine Lessons & Carols you could see that his beat bore no relation to what the choir actually sang, and by the time I arrived in 1957 he was seriously unwell.

As a probationer one of my tasks was to keep cavee for Boris’ arrival at the school for morning choir practice. He would appear at the corner of the West Road playing field (the gate’s not there any more) and shuffle along with his stick, and we’d know that we had maybe five more minutes play before he made it to the music room. His speech was slow and he was obviously very frail. Within a year or so David Willcocks appeared on the scene, and for those of us who would become professional singers many years later, the seeds of our future careers were sown. He seemed to us to come in tandem with Simon Preston. We had no idea that one was a ‘man’ and the other a student not actually that much older than the head chorister, but they were a double act that we were completely in awe of. Willie and Perton we called them. Both were strict and wouldn’t stand any nonsense, but we soon got used to this;  I’m sure I can remember a growing collective pride in what we did. We knew we were good. A couple of years in, Willcocks produced some evil-smelling purple scores that were the cyclostyled copies of his original drafts of what would become Carols for Choirs (something the BBC shamefully failed to celebrate or even acknowledge in the 60 Years of Carols from King’s programme broadcast on Boxing Day 2014). We performed new ones each Christmas; they were a joy to sing and were soon taken up by choirs throughout the land.  The Advent Carol Service had Paddy Hadley’s magical I sing of a Maiden (still my favourite Christmas piece) and then in the next three weeks we’d rehearse the Willie arrangements. Later I would have mixed feelings about boarding schools (and as a father I couldn’t send my son away) but this experience was fundamental to my later life as a musician. David Willcocks didn’t just teach discipline (though that was sometimes what it felt like at the time): he imbued in us a deep respect for the relationship between words and music, and in the carols he showed us that music was a dynamic, evolving, joyous thing that would never leave us. He also taught us to sing as an ensemble – to listen to each other, that fundamental skill that underpins so many vocal groups. Oh, and yes – he could play dance music on the piano while sitting underneath it facing backwards (which was how we thought he’d won his Military Cross, befuddling the Nazis).

It wasn’t all inspiration, and he and I didn’t always hit it off. He had a habit of rehearsing a piece to the end and then announcing that we’d just try the start –  whereupon he’d make us sing the whole piece again. Once or twice I took him literally and stopped at the end of the first page. This blew up into a tremendous row just before evensong one day which ended up with me in floods of tears, which continued throughout the service. It was all the more awkward because I was the senior boy on my side, and during the Creed I would have to move from the middle of the trebles to the end of the row, next to where Willie would appear from the organ loft to conduct the anthem. By then I was feeling extremely contrite and continued to snivel away, hardly getting a note out, with Willie conducting away as though nothing had happened. It was somehow a defining moment in our relationship – I learned that there were boundaries I could not cross, and he realised I had a bit of growing up to do and was content to let me find that out for myself. In my last year I got to sing the Once in Royal solo – sort of by mistake.  There was no TV in those days so it wasn’t quite the big deal it is today, and there was certainly no mystery over who would get to sing it. There were two big treble solos in the carol service, the other being Willcocks’ arrangement of Be not Afraid from the Christmas Oratorio. The 2nd best treble got the Bach, though in the schools carol service which was a kind of rehearsal a week or so earlier the roles were usually reversed. So when I got Once in royal in the schools service I knew I wasn’t going to get the real thing. But the boy eventually chosen was overcome with the jitters and asked Willie if we could swap. Willie asked if I’d do it and I suppose it was the first time in my life that I realised there were some opportunities you just can’t say no to, however daunting they might seem. Of course I was terrified, but I somehow learned to park my fear somewhere else during the  walk from the vestry, silently making our way to the West end through the crowded antechapel, the congregation standing steaming in their raincoats smelling of wet gabardine. Then Willie hummed the note, and we were off. Would it be in tune when the organ came in? It was the first of half a lifetime of broadcasts where I’d end up a bit flat…

 

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