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David Willcocks

Recollecting the composer's


My children’s choir members call it simply “The Chord”: an unexpected change of harmony in the organ accompaniment in the last verse of “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” corresponding to the line “Word of the Father.” In the language of music theorists, The Chord is a B half-diminished seventh, a close cousin of the languorous Tristan chord from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde; the harmony is just a little bit more pungent than one would expect to encounter in a hymnbook, so playing it has a certain illicit thrill. There are special rituals that surround the playing of The Chord in most choirs: it is taken for granted that The Chord will be played each Christmas, but usually it’s only played once, at the midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, carefully avoiding any repetition that would spoil its effect. Every organist worth his salt knows never to play The Chord before the twenty-fourth of December; if “O Come” is requested at a Christmas concert or sing-along earlier in the month, the last verse should be played using the chaste, simpler harmonies of the hymnal.

Sir David Willcocks would probably not have expected that his most widely recognized contribution to church music would be a half-diminished seventh chord, but his arrangement of Adeste fideles achieved almost universal popularity as soon as it was published, selling innumerable copies of Carol for Choirs for the Oxford University Press. Willcocks’s arrangement also includes an instantly memorable descant for the hymn’s third verse: the trebles give voice to the angelic host (“Sing, choirs of angels”) with an ecstatic chain of Glorias (“Glory to God in the highest”) that soar high above the familiar melody. For those in the know, the tune of the descant can be recognized as a quotation from another well-known carol, “Ding dong, merrily on high,” a clever way of uniting two different portrayals of angelic singing. The resulting arrangement fits so well that it’s hard to imagine the carol without it; no young singer who has sung “O come” in Willcocks’s arrangement is likely to want it sung any other way. Willcocks himself was characteristically self-deprecating about his work, explaining that he couldn’t find another descant for the hymn and “thought it would be nice” to have a new version for his choir’s Christmas carol service. That event, of course, was the famous service of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College Cambridge, where Willcocks was the newly appointed Director of Music in 1958.

Creating a memorable arrangement of a Christmas carol for congregational singing may seem like a fairly routine matter, but any trained musician knows that it is one of the most difficult and thankless tasks that a composer can take on. The goal is to create a sense of excitement and occasion by cleverly varying a familiar melody: the congregation should be inspired to sing with heightened enthusiasm as the organ swells and the sopranos rise above in a magnificent countermelody. If the arranger is anything less than a consummate composer, however, the more likely result is a train wreck: there is no quicker way to inspire your congregation to homicidal rage than to play poorly written arrangements of their favorite Christmas carols, making it impossible for them to sing. Most published hymn arrangements are competently written but unmemorable, failing to leave any distinctive imprint on such familiar musical material. Willcocks’s accomplishment in his numerous carol arrangements—for choir alone or for choir with congregation—was to create a fitting and distinctive musical setting for the tunes he arranged, not just once but over and over again. Although such a record of success indicates a musical intelligence of the highest rank, the art of arranging pre-existing tunes is typically underrated by music critics, and Willcocks is almost never acknowledged for his compositional abilities. The Willcocks centenary celebrations in 2019 were curiously muted, perhaps because the most characteristic work he left behind was in musical genres typically overlooked by critics. King’s College honored their former music director by featuring his carol arrangements extensively in their Lessons and Carols broadcast, but one wouldn’t have noticed that this was intended as a special tribute without reading the service booklet: Willcocks’s arrangements sounded so natural in their intended context that the personality behind them could easily be forgotten.

One of Willcocks’s most moving carols is his setting of the Basque tune “The Infant King.” The melody is a soothing, gently lilting lullaby, the tone of the text seemingly naïve, but in later verses we see the shadow of the cross over the manger:

Sing lullaby,
Lullaby baby, now reclining,
Sing lullaby.
Hush, do not wake the Infant King;
Angels are watching, stars are shining
Over the place where he is lying:
Sing lullaby . . .
Sing lullaby,
Lullaby baby, now a-dozing,
Sing lullaby.
Hush, do not wake the Infant King:
Soon comes the cross, the nails, the piercing,
Then in the grave at last reposing,
Sing lullaby.

In 1954 the choir of King’s College recorded this carol in a turn-of-the-century arrangement by Edgar Pettman; the performance, directed by Boris Ord, is exquisitely blended and perfectly phrased, bringing out the pastoral quality of the carol. Willcocks, however, perceived a bittersweet undertone in the tune that he hoped to bring out, and his arrangement features a series of deft touches that transform its character: new countermelodies in the alto and tenor parts; a more smoothly moving bass line, and a lower key (dark E major instead of bright F major). The result has an almost Schubertian melancholy: where Pettman’s version was merely charming, Willcocks’s is profoundly moving.

Willcocks inherited a tradition of English cathedral music that often fell far below modern performance standards. In his first two major positions as a church musician, at Salisbury and Worcester Cathedrals respectively, he replaced octogenarian organists whose tastes in repertoire ran mostly to Victorian music: the choirs had to be painstakingly retrained in order to introduce new sacred works as well as the freshly edited Renaissance compositions then beginning to re-enter the choral repertoire. At Worcester, it was not unusual for the choir to present a music festival lasting a full week (approximately sixteen hours of music) in a total of six hours’ rehearsal: this meant that Handel’s Messiah had to be dispensed with in five minutes and Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius in half an hour. After becoming accustomed to this rather lax rehearsal schedule, the choir’s singing in the liturgy was often rather slapdash: one former chorister recounted that the morning Office at Worcester was “accompanied by David going around the Cathedral in the nave kicking chairs whenever he heard something wrong, which happened quite often because the choir was a bit ancient.” With the move to Cambridge in 1957, Willcocks had the opportunity to direct an ensemble already singing the Anglican choral Office at a high standard, and to lead them in a series of recordings that made the choir world famous. 

Music critics have conventionally contrasted Willcocks’s recorded performances at King’s with those of George Guest across the river at Saint John’s College: King’s was the quintessential English church choir, technically polished, ethereal, and emotionally restrained, where Saint John’s cultivated a sound that was more “continental,” direct and passionate in its expression. While there is some truth to this framing, it is ultimately misleading: the King’s performances of the Fifties and Sixties are a far cry from the icy perfection of many modern English choirs. Willcocks’s recordings can be more accurately recognized by their insistent attention to the enunciation of the liturgical text, the result of a lifetime spent rehearsing the singing of the psalms in the daily choral Office. In a one-hour rehearsal for a weekday Evensong, Willcocks would often spend as much as forty minutes on refining the choir’s psalm singing, carefully adjusting their interpretation of each verse so that the choir’s singing corresponded as closely as possible to the natural rhythms of speech.

First-time listeners are often bemused by the Anglican chant used to sing the psalms at institutions like King’s: after his first visit to an English choral Evensong, Antonin Dvořák supposedly asked his host, “Why do they sing such a bad tune over and over again?” Even at its best, Anglican chant has a certain artificiality, squeezing the words of each psalm verse into an unvarying seven-measure sequence of chords. Without an alert conductor urging the singers to pronounce the text clearly and follow its natural syllabic stresses, this style of psalm singing quickly degenerates into genteel monotony, as the choir begins to daydream about the flashy motet they’ll sing later in the service. Willcocks’s painstaking attention to these details of text expression can be heard in his recordings of psalms, but it is also there in one of his most famous performances, his version of Allegri’s Miserere from 1963featuring the boy soprano Roy Goodman. Allegri’s piece is a bricolage of elements from different composers; much of the ornamentation traditionally sung as part of the piece, including its iconic soprano high Cs, was added to Allegri’s composition in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But underneath the layers of musical ornament, this quintessentially Roman work is not very different from an Anglican chant; the text of the Miserere psalm is superimposed on a series of chord changes that repeat without variation for the entire length of Psalm LI. (Indeed, it would be more historically accurate to say that Anglican chant is merely an English variant of the Renaissance tradition of falsobordone psalm singing, of which the Allegri Miserere is the most famous example.) When Allegri’s piece is heard not merely as a famous musical work but as an extension of the unglamorous daily task of psalm singing, it becomes easier to understand why Willcocks recorded the Miserere in English rather than in the more singable Latin original: the intent was not simply to make a beautiful sound but to bring across the text with the greatest possible clarity.

Willcocks’s reputation for bloodless, ethereal interpretations may have had something to do with his choice of repertoire on disc, which ran primarily to Renaissance and Baroque music: despite his association with such modern composers as Duruflé, Vaughan Williams, and Kodály, he was more often heard in recordings of more sober music by Orlando Gibbons, William Byrd, or Thomas Tallis. Compared to typical modern recordings, however, the King’s performances of Renaissance works are often extraordinarily powerful, even aggressive, in their directness. Willcocks’s recording of Palestrina’s Stabat mater clocks in at almost thirteen minutes, an incredibly slow timing for this piece (the recent recording by The Sixteen breezes through in less than nine). One would expect such a slow performance to be impossibly dull, but instead it is among the most intensely expressive interpretations of this work ever recorded, a labored procession of pain and bereavement. The cries of “quae moerebat et dolebat et tremebat” (“who mourned and grieved and trembled”) are sung with a ferocious intensity unparalleled in any other rendition of the piece, all the more impressive because of the age of the singers expressing these adult emotions: boy sopranos and undergraduate choral scholars.

Allegri’s Miserere, Palestrina’s Stabat mater, even the Christmas carol “The Infant King” with its intimations of the crucifixion to come: Willcocks excelled at conducting music whose tragic undertones were seemingly at odds with his own upbeat and charismatic personality. Energetic and outgoing, Willcocks made an unforgettable impression on those who sang for him; he particularly excelled at motivating young choristers to perform at their best, telling one twelve-year-old stricken with stage fright to “imagine there are hundreds of people sitting there, and they are all cabbages.” It was only in his musical repertoire that a perceptive listener might discover hints of his traumatic experiences as a young soldier in Normandy, where he had served in the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry during the invasion of France in 1944. On the night of July 10, his battalion was ordered to recapture the strategically important Hill 112, which provided a commanding view of the terrain west of Caen; the battalion sustained hundreds of casualties, including the commanding officer, and Willcocks took command of the forces, persuading the terrified troops to return to the hill and continue the fight until reinforcements arrived. Willcocks received the Military Cross for his actions in the battle, but he rarely spoke of his military service; when his family visited Hill 112 on a family vacation to France, his thirteen-year-old daughter did not know why her father had tears in his eyes.

One historian has described Willcocks as a man who “accepted the conventions into which he was born and the importance of moderation, formality, politeness, and self-restraint.” Even in old age, Willcocks’s reminiscences of his war years were detached and clinical, summing up the death of one close friend by saying “there was no time for emotion.” Willcocks’s stoicism led to a crisis when his son James died unexpectedly in 1990: David played the organ himself for the funeral and travelled to Birmingham to conduct a concert the same day. Unable to speak about his bereavement, he suffered an angina attack and was hospitalized; his doctors described the cause of the attack as “repressed grief.” It may be no accident that, of all contemporary composers, the one he championed most was Herbert Howells, whose music was permanently marked by his lifelong sorrow over the death of his young son Michael. Inspired by Renaissance polyphony, carefully crafted for the acoustics of England’s Gothic chapels, and filled with emotions that are at once deeply felt and somehow distant, the music of Howells was the perfect vehicle for Willcocks as a conductor. The centerpiece of his Howells recording from 1967 is the great elegy “Take him, earth, for cherishing,” with its text translated by Helen Waddell from a long poem by Prudentius:

Not, though ancient time decaying
Wear away these bones to sand,
Ashes that a man might measure
In the hollow of his hand;
Not, though wandering winds and idle
Drifting through the empty sky,
Scatter dust was nerve and sinew,
Is it given to man to die.
Once again the shining road
Leads to ample Paradise;
Open are the woods again
That the Serpent lost for men.

Waddell’s translation captures a distinct mixture of emotions: confident faith in the Resurrection, but also a deep sense of life’s transience and tragedy. When the two are kept in balance, the result is a gentle melancholy: exactly the sort of mood one might indulge on an autumn evening at choral Evensong in Cambridge, listening to Tudor polyphony and watching the lengthening shadows cast by the candles in the choir stalls. The paradox of Willcocks’s career is that, although the music he conducted so often inspired somber emotions, the man himself rarely indulged in lachrymose reflection. He was too busy for that, with a relentless schedule of daily liturgies to maintain, with a choir of boys and undergraduate students who needed to be trained afresh every year. Later life would bring an even more time-consuming round of activities: a successful term as director of the Royal College of Music, a knighthood, invitations to direct the music for royal occasions at Westminster Abbey, and a retirement filled with international appearances as a conductor and clinician. Despite the lasting impact of his war experiences and the sorrow that touched his life from time to time, Willcocks seems to have been genuinely content with his lot in life, his musical activities perhaps allowing him to express emotions that he rarely entertained consciously. There is no reason to believe he was anything but sincere when, in 2008, he summed up his career by saying, “I must say I’ve enjoyed the things I’ve done in my life.”

Willcocks’s career coincided with a golden age of classical music recording, which gave his musical output the kind of international circulation rarely achieved by church musicians: a few months after his death, he became the subject of a twenty-nine-disc retrospective box set, one of those products issued amidst the death throes of the recording industry for the small number of people who still collect classical CDs. But Willcocks will probably remain best known for the unassuming musical arrangements sung by choirs at Christmastime. The Chord has taken on a life of its own apart from the man who wrote it, a fitting memorial to a man who spent so much of his career doing unassuming day-to-day musical tasks as well as he possibly could. It seems likely that Willcocks’s musical influence will increasingly manifest itself in ways that the man himself would not have expected: it turns out that his descant to Adeste fideles works just as well with the Latin text of the carol as it does for the more familiar English. Cantet nunc io, chorus angelorum.

Aaron James is Director of Music for the Toronto Oratory of Saint Philip Neri.

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