On Sept. 17, 2015, Sir David Willcocks one of the great choral directors of King's College, Cambridge died at age 95. Classical host Michael Barone reflects on Willcocks's life and music.
In my "early years" at Minnesota Public Radio, I also was a functional church organist, serving the First United Methodist congregation in the city of St. Cloud, Minn., for 11 years while working out of MPR's original Collegeville, Minn., studios.
Just before Christmas in 1980, the staff of the Classical Department were required to relocate to the then-new MPR headquarters building at 7th Street and Cedar in downtown St. Paul (the News Department and MPR Administration had been working out of other spaces in St. Paul since 1970). This necessitated that I give up my position as church organist, since 150-mile round-trip commutes for Wednesday rehearsals and Sunday services did not make sense. But it was a somewhat traumatic relocation.
Though I had fun playing a wide variety of organ repertoire for preludes and postludes on the church's modest Wicks pipe organ (and a little mechanical-action Rieger positive that I had purchased and installed in the sanctuary), my real joy as a church organist was in leading (and provoking) congregational singing, particularly during the Christmas holidays when I would draw upon the many David Willcocks arrangements in the two volumes of his "Carols for Christmas." I still recall the distinct sense of withdrawal that year as my idle hands itched to be on some organ's keyboards playing Willcocks' resounding alternate harmonizations for "O come, all Ye Faithful," "The First Noel" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," when I otherwise would have roared off into new accompanimental territory as the congregation ramped up its involvement and really raised the roof with celebratory singing. Sadly, I've not had a church job since.
Some years later, though, I was able to attend a Christmas Eve service at King's College in Cambridge (even as my pre-recorded voice was introducing that same event to American radio listeners!). It was 2009, the year of David Willcocks' 90th birthday (b. Dec. 30, 1919). We had met and briefly chatted with Sir David at a pre-service luncheon, where beyond his lively and engaging manner, I especially noticed his sweet smile, which, later in the chapel, was fully in evidence.
By good fortune, we happened to be seated in the choir (the forward part of King's Chapel, on the far side of the organ screen, where the Choir sits … get it?) directly across from Sir David. I watched as he listened with total delight to the young boy choristers and choral scholars, now under the direction of Stephen Cleobury, as they performed Willcocks' various carol settings and arrangements. His face glowed with a sweet and almost angelic innocence, as he absorbed with total pleasure the music sung by a Choir formerly "his" that, under his direction and with these same arrangements, had shared so much of the Christmas season's peace and joy to so many millions around the world. He was in that moment blessed, just as his life and work had blessed so many of us so many times over the years.
RIP, Sir David Willcocks. You will not be forgotten.
On Thursday, Dec. 3, at 1 p.m. Central/2 p.m. Eastern, listen to our Choral Stream to hear the Memorial Concert for Sir David Willcocks, performed at the Chapel of King's College and recorded for broadcast by BBC Radio 3.
The tribute includes notable performances by King's College Choir, Gerald Finley (a former choral scholar and now baritone opera singer) and many others. The orchestra consists of King's alumni and colleagues of Sir David Willcocks. The musicians donated their services to the Willcocks Music Trust.