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Remembering David Willcocks


(updated 23.11.2015)

The Memorial Concert yesterday was a grand event, with every seat in the chapel taken. The choir was in fine form, and the music – Parry, V-W, Britten, Bach, Byrd and Purcell, culminating in the Fauré Requiem, reflected some of DVW’s great musical loves. There was a beautiful programme book on every seat, with vignettes and pictures covering some of the many facets of an extraordinary career. For me the most moving thing was sitting in the chapel gloaming before the concert began,  reading John Rutter’s touching tribute and being aware that hundreds of people around me were reading the same thing. He got it absolutely right. I was a little disappointed not to meet any former choristers (the old choristers association missed an opportunity here, I think). But it was a lovely occasion, and brought to mind the twinkle in the Willcocks eye and not only his musical genius, but his innumerable kindnesses. As John Rutter put it, we shall all miss him.


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 Germans).

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…



Platt, Potter, MacLean, Philipson

It was clear to me by the time I left that I was going to come back to King’s as a choral scholar and then become a professional tenor (with Brian Head, Richard Podger and Robert Tear as models how could I have thought anything else?). It didn’t quite work out like that. The audition went well (I still have Willie’s very flattering report) but I was very surprised to find myself being interviewed by lots of colleges I’d never heard of.  Then I was asked if I would mind changing my application to the following year – it  turned out that DVW had pre-elected a tenor the year before, so there was no vacancy for the year I’d applied for and in the normal run of things I’d go to the next college on the list that would have me. Willie immediately tried to negotiate with Peter Tranchell (who had first choice), but Tranchell was having none of it so after a very long afternoon I was finally awarded an Exhibiton to Caius. Willie was incredibly apologetic, and blamed my house master for filling the form in incorrectly and when we subsequently met when I was an undergrad at Caius he put his arm round me and apologised again. I think he recognised that the foundation he’d put in place when I was a treble would have served him well.  When I came down  down after a traumatic year at Caius he wrote to me and said there was a Lay Clerkship going at Worcester and he’d write to Christopher Robinson on my behalf. By then I was installed at the Guildhall so it was a while before I could follow this up, but I eventually got to spend three very happy years singing in the Worcester choir.

When I moved to London to join the BBC Singers I had one more encounter with the great man. My father was an organist and he’d come across a child so prodigiously gifted that he didn’t know what to do with him. He wrote to Willie for advice, and we were invited to the Royal College of Music so Willie could hear the boy. It was typical of Willcocks: he even remembered my dad (he’d let him loose on the King’s organ on more than one occasion) and he went out of his way to be helpful, despite being by then the hugely important head of the RCM.  Whatever advice was given certainly worked – the boy grew up to become one of Denmark’s great cathedral organists.

Scores of us trebles ended up singing for a living, and I think most of us would agree that we learned more from DVW than from any singing teacher (incidentally, no chapel chorister or choral scholar had singing lessons in those days – what we learned from David Willcocks was enough to equip us for years to come). My last encounter with him was at one of Tim Day’s wonderful Saul Seminars at the British Library, celebrating David Willcocks’ 90th birthday.  Robert Tear was there as a representative choral scholar and I was a representative ex-chorister. Sadly, it was the last time I saw Bob Tear too. He was eloquent, as always, in attributing his early success to the inspirational choral director to whom we all owed so much.


The Memorial Concert will be broadcast on Radio 3 at 7.30 on December 1st.



4 Responses to “Remembering David Willcocks”

  1. Thank you, John, for this article. It has given a very interesting insight into David Willcocks as a man and in terms of the development of CforC. I met him only once, when he played the organ for my sister’s wedding back in 1977, my soon-to-be brother-in-law having studied organ with him for a time.

    The BBC may have failed to celebrate the anniversary of CforC, but Reading Bach Choir did so with an enjoyable afternoon singing through all the first book.

  2. John Potter says:

    Good for Reading Bach Choir! The problem with the BBC programme was obviously the lack of tv footage in the fifties and sixties, which meant giving undue prominence to the one Boris Ord service, and a black hole for the crucial early Willcocks years. There’s nothing wrong with focusing on Stephen Cleobury and Bob Chilcott (both hugely influential musicians), but they didn’t exactly have 60 years’ worth of carols between them. But it was Christmas tv, so maybe historical perspective was a bit too much to hope for.

  3. Roger Marsh says:

    Great photograph! You haven’t changed a bit. Have you still got the hat?

  4. John Potter says:

    Yes of course. It’s the secret of my success…It’s the one bit of kit my parents had to buy new. The rest of the outfit used to belong to Chris Bowers-Broadbent. Luckily, I didn’t grow up to be an organist.

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