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17 September 2015, 15:29 | Updated: 22 September 2015, 21:14
British choral conductor, organist and composer was long-time Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge.
For 17 years as Director of Music at King's College, Cambridge, Sir David Willcocks established an international reputation for the College choir, touring with them around the world, and winning widespread acclaim for their recordings. It was King's College that announced his death today:
Speaking about his first time conducting in the Chapel, Sir David said, "What pleased me more than anything was the echo in King's, which goes on for three or four seconds at the end of a piece. You hear that ringing sound going round, gradually getting quieter. It was thrilling."
His arrangements of Carols for Choirs - most of which were originally written for the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's or the Bach Choir - became the standard reference versions used all over the world. He was assisted in his task by John Rutter who said, “We were all slightly in dread of David, in a nice way!”
Classic FM presenter and former boy soprano Aled Jones said, "Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without Sir David. From the age of nine, nothing gave me greater pleasure than singing his descants. He was one of the greatest gentlemen I ever worked with in the music world."
Particularly memorable were the King's College Choir’s performances of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem in 1963 at La Scala, Milan and in Venice. They subsequently toured the work in Japan, Hong Kong, Portugal, and the Netherlands.
Tributes to Sir David have been appearing on social media from his former colleagues:
Requiescat in pace, David Willcocks. He has been a huge supporter to me, personally, for over 30 years.— Stephen Cleobury (@SJCleobury) September 17, 2015
Sad news that Sir David Willcocks has died. The original reason for this young Canadian studying in the UK. A great mentor & kind man.— Gerald Finley (@GeraldFinley) September 17, 2015
Born in Newquay, David Willcocks began his musical training as a chorister at Westminster Abbey, where he was directed by Sir Edward Elgar, among others.
Willcocks went on to Clifton College, Bristol, before being appointed as organ scholar at King's. His studies were interrupted by the Second World War, where he saw distinguished active service, winning the Military Cross. After the war, in 1947 he was elected a Fellow of King's and, in the same year, he became the organist at Salisbury Cathedral.
Willcocks moved to Worcester Cathedral in 1950 and remained until 1957, during which time he was organist, and principal conductor of the Three Choirs Festival in 1951, 1954, and 1957, and conductor of the City of Birmingham Choir. From 1956 to 1974 he was also conductor of the Bradford Festival Choral Society, whilst continuing as guest conductor for their carol concerts into the early 1990s.
During this period, he worked closely with Ralph Vaughan Williams, producing some acclaimed and memorable performances.
Additionally during his years in Cambridge, Willcocks served as the organist of Cambridge University, conductor of the Cambridge University Musical Society, and as a lecturer. He left the University in the 1970s to accept the post of Director of the Royal College of Music. One of his major achievements was creating The Britten Theatre, which opened in 1986. He believed it was crucial to the modernisation of the College, particularly the Vocal faculty.
In the 1971 Queen's Birthday Honours he was appointed a CBE, later to be knighted in 1977 in the Queen's Silver Jubilee Honours.
When he retired in 1998, he described it as "like the end of an affair".
Paying tribute to Sir David, Classic FM's resident critic David Mellor said, "What a wonderful life, active for three quarters of a century promoting choral music. The British choral tradition is alive and well today thanks to David Willcocks and others like him."