Where You Lead, They Will Follow

An Interview with Sir David Willcocks

Famed conductor Sir David Willcocks speaks about his special love of choral singing and of choral singers through his experience as director of music at King's College, Cambridge and of the Royal College of Music's Bach Choir.

Over the course of his 89 years, Sir David Willcocks has established his place as the leading figure in British choral music. As director of music at the King's College, Cambridge, and later the Royal College of Music and its famous Bach Choir, Willcocks expected nothing short of perfection from his singers, and mostly got it, through charm, good humor, and a light touch.

His musical life story started without much fanfare in the small English town of Newquay, where his father lent his deep bass voice to the local church choir. Though his mother did not play or sing a note, she did notice when David, at the age of six, began playing the hymns he heard in church by ear on the old family piano.

At age nine, Willcocks was invited to join the choir at Westminster Abbey—and his path was set. "I was so aware of the beauty of the place and that choirs had been singing there for six or seven hundred years," he said. "Looking back on it, I think I never, ever would have gotten anywhere if I had not started there."

At this time of year, thousands of singers in the English-speaking world encounter Willcocks through his well-loved arrangements of Christmas carols—there are four volumes of them—and through the many fine recordings and broadcasts of Christmas carol sings from English cathedrals.

We reached Willcocks by phone just as A Life in Music, a new oral history about Willcocks life, was being released by Oxford University Press. Willcocks was eager to talk about his special love of choral works and choral singers:

Many of us choral singers in North America know you through your wonderful arrangements of Christmas carols. In A Life in Music, you tell about how the first carol book came about—literally at the last minute.

"Sometimes people say, 'How do you learn to direct a choir?' I have lots of books on my shelf about how to direct a choir, but I don't really take them seriously. They say do this, do that. I say, you should do exactly what comes naturally to you. If you find that, the choir follows you. You learn from each other." - Sir David Willcocks

Yes, I was at King's College. When I took over from my predecessor Boris Ord I was amazed that the Kings College Christmas carol service had been going on since 1918, and lots of people were listening. They were probably putting up the holly in their homes while they listened. I thought it was dull to just have the hymns sung in unison, so I did a few descants. People wrote afterwards that they loved those descants.

Somebody from Oxford Press heard some of my carol arrangements and asked me to do 50 to publish. I said, "I don't know if I can do 50. I can do a few, but not 50." They said, "Who would you like to do the others?" I knew Reginald Jacques, the conductor of the Bach Choir. They said, "Let's see if you can do 25 and he can do 25." I got the hymns mostly: "Come All Ye Faithful," "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." Reginald got the others.

This was 1959, and the first book did very well. In 1970, they said, "You have got to do another. You choose your man." I think they were hoping I would choose Benjamin Britten or William Walton or Michael Tippett. I said, "No, I've got young Rutter, he's a graduate of Cambridge." They said, "I don't think he'll do." I said, "Well, he will do. He is the one sharing the royalties, I should know." So we did it. Of course, John Rutter now is, to me, the ultimate in carol writing.

You were one of the first to perform Britten's War Requiem. Tell us how that came about...

Britten was determined for the first performance to use Coventry Cathedral and the Birmingham Singers to mark the restoration of the Cathedral after it was destroyed by the bombing during World War Two. He said, "It is their cathedral I am not going to have a professional chorus. I want it done by the people there." It went quite well, but it was very difficult to sing in the cathedral.

After that performance, Britten said, "What I really want now is a really good performance and we will record it. Could I use your Bach Choir?" We shared the conducting on that and then took the Requiem on tour to Italy. Britten did the first performance and I did the other three performances. After that, he told me, "I have 40 or 50 invitations to do the piece, and I can't do it. Will you carry on?" So he passed it off to me. We performed it all over the world—Vienna, Venice, Portugal, Hong Kong, China...

We often hear about this thing called the "British sound" of choral singing. What is that and how is it different from the American choir sound?

Well, most of the American choirs sing louder. The British are very insistent on getting an even sound throughout the choir. Sometimes in big choirs there is too much of what we call "wobble" or vibrato. I love that little bit of vibrato in a solo voice, but in a chorus you cannot have that. I like a pure sound. When you have a chord with a major third in it, there is only one place for that third and you can't go up and down around it. It sounds awful. So in some ways English choirs are better when they are singing choral music in which you don't want any of the parts to vary. With solo singers you can very discretely use a bit of vibrato to emphasize a phrase.

On both sides of the Atlantic the good choirs are quite moving. I am always moved by American choirs because they throw themselves into works. They are uninhibited. The British tend to be on their guard. They don't want to over-sing. They don't want to overdramatize.

There's a wonderful story in the book about some of your students who came to you and said they were going to form a small choral group of just six singers. You discouraged them.

Ah yes, Simon Carrington came and said, "We are going to form this group of men with two altos, two tenors, and two basses." I said, "What will you sing? Look here, if you have two women you could do Bach cantatas." He said, "Oh, we'll get John Rutter to write something for us." I said, "Well, don't come back here in five years time looking for a job."

"The combination of a good amateur choir and a professional orchestra can be breathtaking." - Sir David Willcocks

Of course, they went off and did extremely well. The King Singers sang all over England, then abroad, on the air. They stuck with those same voice parts for 25 years. I never, ever believed they could live on that.

You started your choral music life when you were nine years old. What did you carry with you from those days that you use now in conducting singers?

Well, at Westminster we never had exercises of any sort. And now I rarely use exercises in training choirs.

You mean warm up exercises?

You know, the arpeggios. Rather than doing la, la, la, I reckon you can get all your exercises by singing the music. It's best to just get on with the music. Why not take the B Minor Mass and practice the "Gloria" and do it in different keys? Do actual music rather than la, la, la, la, la.

You have conducted many groups, besides your own professional choirs. What is it that you like about working with amateur choirs?

The combination of a good amateur choir and a professional orchestra can be breathtaking. Both learn from the other. The professional players are incredibly eager to know how you get such a response from ordinary singers who just love it every day, and the amateurs are fascinated with working with professionals who, in one rehearsal, can do something perfectly.

So how do you get that "breathtaking thing" from a group of amateurs?

You've got to be keen and have a good musical ear. And you have to be responsive to their needs. Some may be working in a bank, some are at home, some have no job at all. When they come together, they love the music and love the person they are working for. It is as easy as that.

Sometimes people say, "How do you learn to direct a choir?" I have lots of books on my shelf about how to direct a choir, but I don't really take them seriously. They say do this, do that. I say, you should do exactly what comes naturally to you. If you find that, the choir follows you. You learn from each other.

In the book, you say that you sometimes put a handkerchief on your head during rehearsal. What is that about?

Sometimes if there is big problem with singers not watching the conductor, I will do things like that to get attention. Sometimes I will walk up and get two or three feet from someone who is not watching. Just tiptoe across the stage. That gets quite a big laugh. I think rehearsals should be friendly occasions where you have some laughter.

I always try to involve everybody in the choir, whether it's a big choir or small choir. If there's a mistake, I don't go on about it. If one person is sticking out, you don't come down on that, you all work on it together. Rehearsals should be like a big family party.