Conductor  Sir  David  Willcocks
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Sir David Willcocks

Born: December 30, 1919 - Newquay, Cornwall, England

The English conductor, organist and music educator, Sir David Willcocks, began his musical training as a chorister at Westminster Abbey from 1929 to 1934. He was a music scholar at Clifton College, Bristol (1934-1938), and then the organ scholar at King’s College, Cambridge (1939-1940). Following a five-year period of war military service, in which he was awarded the Military Cross, he returned to King’s College for two years (1945-1947). He was elected a Fellow of King's College, Cambridge, and appointed Conductor of the Cambridge Philharmonic Society.

From 1947 to 1950 David Willcocks was the organist at Salisbury Cathedral and from 1950 to 1957 at Worcester Cathedral. During his years at Worcester he was principal conductor of the Three Choirs Festival (1951, 1954 and 1957) and conductor of the City of Birmingham Choir (1950-1957), with whom he gave his first British performance of Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem in 1952. From 1956 to 1974 he was also conductor of the Bradford Festival Choral Society. From 1957 to 1974 he was Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge, where he maintained the glorious tradition with distinction. He made numerous recordings that gained international popularity through television and radio. With King's College Choir Cambridge he gave concerts in many European countries, Canada and Africa. At Cambridge he also served as University Organist, University Lecturer and Conductor of the Cambridge University Musical Society. From 1960 to 1998 he was Musical Director of The Bach Choir (London) which, since its foundation in 1875, has given first performances of several important works.

With The Bach Choir, Sir David Willcocks gave the first performances in Italy of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem at Perugia, Milan, La Scala and Venice in 1963 and later introduced the work in Japan, Hong Kong, Portugal and the Netherlands. From 1974 to 1984 he was Director of the Royal College of Music in London. He appears frequently as a conductor in the USA, Canada and European countries. He has also paid many visits to New Zealand and Australia, giving concerts with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Orchestras of the Australia Broadcasting Corporation; to Hong Kong for concerts with the Hong Kong Symphony Orchestra and to South Africa for concerts with the South African Broadcasting Corporation Choirs and Orchestra.

David Willcocks was made Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1971, and was Knighted in 1977 in the Queen's Silver Jubilee Honours List. He is currently Music Director Emeritus of King's College Choir Cambridge. Sir David has received honorary degrees in England from the Universities of Bradford, Bristol, Exeter, Leicester and Sussex, and from the Royal College of Music in London; in the USA from Luther College (Iowa), St. Olaf College (Minnesota) and Westminster Choir College (New Jersey); and in Canada from the Universities of Trinity, Toronto and Victoria B.C. He is an Honorary Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge. He served as general editor of the Church Music series of the Oxford University Press.

Having been in radio since 1975, it is both natural and prudent that my library of recordings be both generally inclusive, and specific to supporting the interviews which I have gathered.  Now that many of these one-on-one discussions are being presented on my website, the recordings serve as partial preparation.  In the case of Sir David Willcocks, I was immediately struck by the variety of repertoire.  Besides the expected sacred choral works from the Baroque era made with his various choirs and orchestras, there is the occasional Romantic work
such as the Fauré Requiemas well as a number of pieces from the Twentieth Century.  This illustrates the forward-looking nature of the conductor, and demonstrates his compass of intrest for himself, his musicians, and his audiences.  In addition to works by Vaughan Williams, Holst, George Dyson, Britten, Walton, and Howard Blake, there is even a disc of film music by Dimitri Tiomkin!

It was while he was on tour in the Chicago area in January of 1989 that I had the privilege of spending an hour with Sir David.  The conversation ranged throughout our favorite topics.  His quiet demeanor belied the vast knowledge and experience he brought to every facet of his life.  He was affable and candid throughout, and here is what was said that afternoon . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:     Thank you for taking time from your busy schedule.

Sir David Willcocks:    I’m very glad to be here.

BD:    You do a lot of traveling, conducting and giving master classes.

Sir David:    Yes, I’ve been very busy in recent years since I retired from the directorship of the Royal College of Music.  I’ve been spending a lot of time coming to the United States.  I’m also going to Australia and New Zealand, and to some continental countries in Europe.

BD:    Okay, then I’m going to ask the fatal question.  How do the choirs and soloists in America compare with the choirs and soloists in London?

Sir David:    I would say in both places there are good choirs and there are bad choirs.  There are good soloists and less good soloists, so I think there’s very little difference, really.  Wherever you go you’ll find people who are committed and anxious to improve.  The standard of education in both countries in general is good, although I’m worried in both countries about music in schools.  Sometimes not all children are getting the opportunity to sing.  I would love to feel that every child throughout the world is exposed to singing because it’s such a healthy occupation and a good discipline.  But many children go through their childhood years without that precious opportunity of learning to sing, either individually or in a choir.

BD:    Should that be with the eye toward a career, or just with an eye toward enriching the self?

Sir David:    Just with an eye to enriching one’s life.  Of course, clearly, the number of people who can take music as a profession must be limited, but I don’t see why every child shouldn’t enjoy singing, and then be a good listener and have a lifelong love of music.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the ideas that are going on in society toward music?

Sir David:    Yes.  I think there are enough people who understand and value music to be optimistic about the future.  A lot lies with our educators.  Music shouldn’t be regarded as something that is additional and optional, but it should be a discipline in its own right.  People talk about academic subjects and music as though music itself isn’t an academic subject.  It’s as academic as Classics.  I don’t see why a person studying Latin and Greek should be placed in a different category from somebody who’s studying Music.

BD:    In your lifetime you’ve watched the tremendous change in the way that we store music and produce music.  It used to be that everyone would have a piano in their home and would sing there, and now we have the record players which do the singing for us.  Is there any way to counteract this kind of influence?

Sir David:    I hope that people will realize that the greatest joy comes from actually making music, rather than listening to others performing.  Then the pleasure from listening to others would be enhanced if one’s actually had a go oneself at it.  Some of the happiest people I’ve known have been people who sing in choirs or play in orchestras because they experience the thrill of making music in company with others and sharing the deep experience.

BD:    We’re not losing this tradition, then?

willcocksSir David:    We have lost a certain amount through these mechanical contrivances with which we’re surrounded, but I hope that that could be something temporary and that people will get back to the idea that they’ve got to make music themselves to get the fullest joy out of music.

BD:    Let me turn it to the other side, the positive side of mechanical contrivances, as you say.  You’ve made quite a number of records.  Are you pleased with the sound and the quality of the records that you’ve made?

Sir David:    I very rarely listen to my own records because life is too short.  I’m always interested at the time in the actual making of the record, but when it’s done it’s too late to do anything about it.  So I don’t spend my time listening to my own records.  If I do get time to listen, I’m normally listening to music I haven’t heard before because there’s so much music that one ought to hear before one dies.  Life just isn’t long enough to hear all the things that I would like to.  So to answer your question, I’m sure that if I were to sit down and listen to all the records I’ve made, I’d be pleased with some and less pleased with others.  In general I don’t think my style during the seventeen years that I was at King’s changed very much.  If somebody said, “Which year did you make that?” I don’t think I would be able to say whether it was 1957 or 1967 or 1974.  To some extent, my views over the sort of sound I like from boys’ voices or from men’s voices has changed.  Everybody who passed through the 1960s and 1970s has been affected to some extent by the movement towards authenticity in the performance of classical music of Bach and Handel.  So performing styles have changed, whereas perhaps one’s approach and tempi, that sort of thing, haven’t changed very much.

BD:    Which side of the fence do you come down on regarding the idea of authentic instruments and authentic style?

Sir David:    I sit firmly on top of the fence.  I’m convinced that we ought to know how Bach performed and be acutely aware of the articulation and of the tuning and the temperament of his instruments, the conditions under which he performed and the ornamentation, but I still feel that if Bach were alive today he would be making use of all the modern facilities that we’ve got.  He’d be using modern instruments, and I don’t think he would have minded hearing his music performed on modern instruments because he, like Handel, was always alive to the changes which were going on around him.  He was one of the most practical of all men.  If he hadn’t got a violin available he would say, “Right.  Let’s use a flute.”  And if he was too busy to compose a new piece, he’d adapt something he’d already written, and change the scoring or use different instruments.  So that, to me, points to the fact that he would probably have been only too willing to accept other timbres for his music.  Certainly he wouldn’t be averse to his music being sung in a concert hall instead of in a church, and I don’t think he would have minded having larger choirs singing his music, provided that the clarity and the balance was still achieved.

BD:    Would he be averse to using a synthesizer rather than a full orchestra?

Sir David:    Well, I can’t answer that one, but I have the feeling that if he heard his music sung by the Swingle Singers or the King’s Singers, he’d have smiled and thought, “My goodness.  They’re marvelous practitioners, but I’d never imagined my music would be sung in that way.”  But I can’t believe that he wouldn’t have been pleased to have heard his music, provided that the part-writing were clear and well balanced.  So that’s my guess.  [Both laugh]  Maybe Bach would have been more conservative than that.

BD:    But you take a more all-encompassing view of music, and I think that’s healthy.

Sir David:    Yes.  I would hate to feel that one could only perform Bach in one way.  I’ve been moved deeply by very, very different sorts of performances.  I’ve even heard Bach on a steel band in the West Indies, and it could be quite moving.

BD:    Bach adapts itself or lends itself well to these kinds of experimentations and changes.  Do other composers do the same?  Do they have the same elasticity?

Sir David:    Less so because Bach depends so much on counterpoint, on the interplay of the voices and the differing strands, whereas some composers, for instance the Impressionists like Debussy and Ravel, thought very, very keenly in terms of tone color, so I don’t think you can transcribe their music into other media.  So some people are transcribe-able.  Others, less satisfactorily so.

BD:    How far do you go, occasionally, in interpreting pieces?  How far do you stretch music away from what is actually there in the printed score?

Sir David:    I hope not too much because I feel that where composers have specified clearly what they want, one ought not to depart from that.  Most modern composers do specify very clearly, first of all, the tempo.  They give a broad indication, through metronome marks and that sort thing, as to what they want.  Clearly one has to adapt to a certain extent, because if you’re performing in a church with a very reverberant acoustic
perhaps an echo period of five secondsyou must perform at a more steady pace than you would if you were in a very dry acoustic.  So I always look at what the composer asked for and then think to what extent one should adapt according to the circumstances.  Where composers specify certain instruments, you ought to think twice before changing those instruments.  You certainly oughtn’t to add notes willfully, although some composers of the Baroque and Classical periods did leave a lot for the composer.  They wanted ornamentation.  They wanted a certain degree of improvisation.  So to that extent, I would depart from the printed score.

BD:    But were they not confident that the style would always be the same that had been handed down for at least the last couple of generations?

Sir David:    I think they were, and I think they’d be horrified sometimes to have heard what successive generations have made of it.  But we are making a genuine effort now to understand what musicians of that period probably would have done.  Now to answer your question more fully over the other things, I would hope that with modern composers one does keep as far as possible to the score as they’ve presented it, although music must be recreated and there must be a subjective element in the performance of music.  Nobody wants to exist for all time on a recording made by a particular person, even if it’s the composer himself.  I think music would become sterile if it weren’t constantly being reinterpreted by others.

BD:    Does the same hold true for new scores?

Sir David:    I think so.  I think it always will hold true.  When I was conducting his music, I remember saying to Vaughan Williams, “Do, please, tell me if I’m not doing it exactly as you want, because my desire is to perform this exactly as the composer imagined it.”  He said, “That’s quite a wrong approach.  I’ve written the music.  It’s for you to interpret it.”  I thought,
“What a modest man, to say that!  Benjamin Britten, on the other hand, felt rather differently.  He felt that the duty of the performer was to recreate, as nearly as he could, the music which had been given to him by the composer.  So it’s two quite opposing philosophies.  I come down somewhere between the two.  If music is going to last, one must give the performer some freedom, even over matters of tempo and dynamics and phrasing.  The pace of life changes, and one’s got to interpret music to a certain extent bearing in mind the conditions under which we live and the pace of life.

BD:    I was going to ask about music that is one hundred fifty, two hundred fifty, even three hundred and fifty years old now.  We are listening to it with ears that have come through chaos and wars, but the music can still speak to us today as it was written.

Sir David:    Well, we think it’s as it was written.  Whether it is near it or not, I just don’t know.

BD:    It’s going to be close.  Obviously, pitch and duration are going to be correct.

Sir David:    Well, pitch may have varied, of course.  We’re not quite certain in many instances of the pitch of the sixteenth century composers.  One can deduce quite a lot from the organs of those times, many of which have come down to us.  But pitch did vary from place to place in the European centers.  Even within England there are examples of pitch being very, very different in different parts of the country at the same time in the same century.

BD:    But the pitches relative to each other in a piece will be the same.

Sir David:    Yes, exactly.  Whether we should, for example, perform all Bach’s music a semitone lower than we do today I’m not quite sure, because if you perform something in B minor, we relate B minor to the mood of other pieces which we’ve heard in B minor.  To me, possessing perfect pitch, it sounds very, very different in B flat minor.  One has associations of Chopin, funeral marches and that sort of thing, so it’s a very, very difficult question to know what to do.

BD:    We’ve grown up with a certain sound in our ears?

Sir David:    In our ears, and it’s very difficult to divorce the sound of B flat minor from all the other pieces of music in that key which one’s heard.  I’m slightly uncomfortable hearing the Bach Mass in B Flat Minor or the St. Matthew Passion starting in E flat minor, but that’s pure prejudice because of all the music I’ve heard in E minor since, which I associate very strongly with certain moods.

BD:    So then it’s all relative?

Sir David:    It’s all relative, yes.  People who don’t suffer from perfect pitch, or absolute pitch as it’s called, don’t experience that problem.

BD:    Is it a chore to suffer with absolute pitch?

Sir David:    On balance I would rather have it than not have it, although it has its big disadvantages.  If you’re a conductor it is a great advantage if you’ve got an orchestra which is playing to 440, or a choir which you’re rehearsing daily, to know immediately if their pitch is adversely affected either by being sharp or by being flat.  You can identify immediately where the problems are occurring.

BD:    And then correct them?

Sir David:    And then correct them... or try to correct them.  [Both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve spent a long time conducting choirs of various sizes and shapes.  What goes into making a fine choral sound?

Sir David:    One can’t answer that in a few sentences.  First of all, in any choir you need a number of people who are really committed, and are keen and who will blend well together.  You can’t just draw people at random and bring them together and form a choir overnight.  If you’re going to have a really good choir, you must audition and insist on the same sort of tone quality.  There’s no good putting a lot of operatic singers together who are very, very good soloists in their own right and expecting suddenly to be able to turn them into a good choir.  Their very individuality will militate against it being a good corporate sound.  The first thing I would aim at is getting a uniform vowel sound, so that when they sing ah or oo or oh or ee they will agree exactly on the sort of sound.  Then the control of vibrato is very, very important, but it should be possible to switch it on or off so that it doesn’t become something which gets in the way of good tuning and good chording and good blend.  Now I’m not one that thinks that the human voice should be devoid of vibrato.  If it were, it would be very lacking in expressive quality.  But I am one that thinks that there should be more vibrato in the part that’s carrying the melody than there is in the part that’s providing the harmonies because I think vibrato can adversely affect the clarity of a chord.  If the major third in a chord is vibrating and wobbling, it can be a very disturbing factor.

BD:    But then if the melody shifts from one part to another, the vibrato has to go elsewhere.

willcocksSir David:    Exactly.  In a string quartet, if the first violin has the melody it will have an expressive character all of its own, then if it shifts suddenly to the viola, the violin should cease not only from the point of view of dynamics, but the whole sound quality should change and the viola should assert itself by expressive vibrato.  Even within a phrase, certain notes need more vibrato than others.  I must say, most of the faults which I’ve encountered with choirs have been through excessive vibrato, and the singers have been unable to control it adequately.

BD:    Is there any hope for singers like this?

Sir David:    They’ve got to learn to be able to control their voices.  It’s basically a control of the emission of breath, and it takes very great care.  Many singing teachers cultivate vibrato, quite rightly, in their singers, but they don’t seem to be able to vary it nor to be able to shut it off completely in those few instances where a straight sound is desirable.  In certain types of music, especially Renaissance music, it’s essentially to have a cleaner sound than perhaps in the Romantic music, where more full-blooded singing would be appropriate.  With choirs there’s a big question as to whether one should have boys singing the top line in Renaissance music.  I’ve been brought up in the tradition in England where all the cathedral choirs are all male, but there have been in the market recently a number of excellent mixed choirs where the women can sing with purity like boys, and it’s been very difficult for somebody listening to the records to be quite certain whether it is an all-male choir or a mixed choir.  In those instances there’s no earthly reason why a choir shouldn’t be mixed, and I’m not one that feels that for authenticity boys are essential.  But I would say that the sort of sound which boys make is important, because that is the sound which the composer had in mind, and is undoubtedly the sound which I personally like in the music of the Renaissance period, and indeed, later.  This includes the music of Henry Purcell as well.

:    What are the joys and sorrow of working with young boys as singers?

Sir David:    There are very few sorrows, but I can think of hundreds of joys.  One joy is the joy of seeing children receiving joy themselves from making music, and feeling that you’re setting young people off on something that’s going to give them pleasure and satisfaction for the rest of their lives.  Children are extremely quick to learn.  I’ve had enormous joy working with children, and sometimes I think they’re quicker than adults to grasp the essential shape of a phrase.  They can be very, very quick, indeed, at learning complex modern music, because they’ve got less inhibitions in a way.  They don’t think things are difficult necessarily, whereas adults sometimes have to relate what they’re doing to what they’ve done before, what their previous experience is.  Sometimes people without experience don’t think a thing’s difficult because they’ve got nothing to compare it against.

BD:    They just go and have a bash.

Sir David:    They have a bash, and they’ve got, of course, very, very retentive memories at that stage.  Boys can very, very quickly learn to read notation and relate what they see to what they hear.  Part of the trouble with adults who have not had the benefit of learning to read music at an early age is that they find it very difficult to learn music except by rote.  The time to learn to read music is at the same time as you learn to read English.  There’s no reason why a child of three or four shouldn’t learn to read music as they learn to read words.

BD:    Do you have some advice to composers who want to write music for choruses?

Sir David:  My advice would be to sing in choruses or to direct them, because I think it’s only when you sing in a chorus that you fully understand what singers find difficult and what they find easy, what is indeed possible in the human voice and which parts of the human voice are most effective.  The most skilled composers of vocal music are people who actually have had choral experience themselves, who understand the importance of line in music, of linear thought.  A voice always has its own independent interest and isn’t only just providing harmonic notes for others on either side.  Some composers think vertically.  They’ve got the sound of a chord they want, and then they more or less at random get voices to sing the various components of that chord.  Others think of each voice as being of equal importance, and those are the ones who, to my mind, are likely to write the best choral music.  Those are the ones who think in a linear fashion.  If they’ve been in a choir, they learn what notes can be sung effectively by each singer in a choir.  Many composers today write either too high or too low for the voice, and they don’t exploit the natural sustaining power of the voice.  Many composers use the voice as a percussion instrument, giving them individual notes to sing for a short time and not relating those notes to anything which goes before or after.  Maybe I’m choosing extreme cases to show what the less-able composers are doing.  Of course they feel they’ve got to reach out for novelty of expression, and sometimes in reaching out for novelty they think they should
give the human voice notes which they’ve never had to sing before either above or below the stave, or perhaps have effects which aren’t natural to the human voice.  So I would say sing in a choir yourself or direct a choir.  That is the best possible foundation for choral composition. 

BD:    What advice do you have for choral conductors?

Sir David:     Get to know the singers in your choir not only as musicians but as people, because it’s a great experience to be a member.  It’s like being a member of a club, and the better you know the people in your choir, the better they will respond to you.  And always, if possible, encourage people rather than discourage.  Some people frighten their singers.  Others get the best out of them merely by encouraging.  By being encouraging, I don’t mean praising people when they shouldn’t be praised, but finding how you can build on the virtues they have got, and gradually eliminate their weaknesses.  Of course, most people who join a choir are trying their best.  They’re not slacking.  So when you blame people for things they’ve done badly, generally it’s not for want to trying.  Many people think they can frighten people, and by storming up and down they’re suddenly going to get a different effect.  Generally it’s counterproductive to either lose your temper or not to have confidence in them.  Therefore, I would say give choirs music which, when they’ve rehearsed it, they can eventually sing really well, and progress from there.  Do not give them music which is too difficult for them.  One should gradually build, and each piece that you perform can be in itself a rehearsal for the next one.  And I would say to every choral conductor to try to have as varied as repertoire as possible.  I’m rather against choirs specializing in any particular period because I think that the wider the experience of the singers, the better they will be with all periods.  At any one time, try to have in your repertoire music which is fast-moving and music which is slow-moving, music which is fast and music which is slow, music which is old and music which is new, music which is familiar and music which is unfamiliar, so that people always have a varied diet.

BD:    So from this vast repertoire, how do you choose which pieces you will conduct and which pieces you will not?

Sir David:    There are very few pieces that I would not wish to have an attempt at.  One looks at the experience the choir has already had, and then in which ways one can enlarge that experience.  If you’re starting with a choir from scratch, clearly you would start with music of a simple nature.  If it’s a church choir, for example, I would want to give them some easy Tudor music and some easy contemporary music, and work from there, gradually enlarging their experience.  I would try to make sure that the music kept everybody occupied as far as possible, because it can be disruptive to a choir to have a piece where only the women are being used
unless you have separate rehearsals when you can do something with the women and then something with the men on another evening.  But in general, choirs prefer to be occupied most of the time at rehearsals.  They don’t like sitting around while other voices are being rehearsed.  There are so many factors, including whether you can afford to employ an orchestra or not.  Clearly it is a widening experience for a choir to work with an orchestra or with organ, or with, perhaps, strings only or with brass only.  I would see how much money there was available for instrumental accompaniment.  There are so many factors, it’s difficult in a brief talk to put all the possibilities.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’re also organist.

Sir David:    I was.  I don’t play much now.

willcocksBD:    But when you were playing, did you conduct and play organ at the same time?

Sir David:    Yes.

BD:    I would think that that would create havoc with balances.

Sir David:    Well, not necessarily.  When I was at King’s, I used to rehearse down with the choir and then I would go up to the organ to play, although sometimes I would allow my organ scholar, if he was sufficiently experienced, to play, and I would direct the choir downstairs.  There were advantages in that, as you say, you hear the whole thing and you’re not hearing the organ in a different balance from that of the singers.

BD:    If you’re accompanying a choir at the organ, does the size and experience of the choir help to dictate registration?

Sir David:    Oh, undoubtedly.  The amount of noise which a choir can make determines the amount of noise you can afford to make on the organ.  You have to be careful always not to drown them.  You can also adjust the type of registration you use, so if there’s a tendency on the sopranos to be a little bit flat, for example, you would tend to use four-foot and two-foot stops to give them something which they can hear clearly above their own part.  That will help to cure flatness.  Similarly, if choirs are singing sharp, you might perhaps have a sixteen-foot stop to help to draw them down.  They can all hear the bass quite clearly.  Sometimes poor tuning arises from insufficient bass being readily audible to the singers.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  You used the word
noise.  Is music noise?

Sir David:    [Smiles broadly]  Yes, it can be.  It can be a joyful noise.  It can be a sweet noise as well.

BD:    Then let me ask the great, big philosophical question.  What is the purpose of music in society?

Sir David:    I think I would have to write a book about that.  I couldn’t answer it in one question.  Any society without music is bereft of one’s most wonderful gifts to mankind.  Many poets have extolled the virtue of music.  I would hope that in any civilization in which I was a member, that music would be a very important part of that civilization.

BD:    Coming back to the recordings just for a moment, did you conduct and sing differently for the microphone than you did in performance?

Sir David:    Perhaps a little bit.  Many of the records which I made were made in King’s College Chapel which had a reverberation period of five seconds.  So in the chapel we had to take things at a more deliberate tempo.  We had to allow time for the sound to clear between changes of harmony very often, whereas when we were recording we could place the microphones more close to the singers, which enabled us to take things at a rather quicker speed.  So to some extent, one had to modify the whole style of singing, and the tempi particularly, under the conditions of recording.  I hope one didn’t change too much, because if you choose to go to record any place like King’s College, Cambridge, you want to capture the essential atmosphere.  I always used to beg the engineers to have at least one microphone fairly distant, which enabled him to give the impression of a large building.  That way one was able to capture the essential qualities of the acoustic.

BD:    You said you had to beg the engineers.  Isn’t the conductor in charge of the sound on that flat piece of plastic?

Sir David:    Unfortunately, the conductor doesn’t get the last word, generally.  But I have been very, very well served by engineers in the past, and I’m the first to acknowledge that until recently, I don’t think they’ve ever been given their due.  Nowadays their names appear on record jackets.  But I always had the greatest admiration for the work of the engineers, particularly when they have to undertake major choral and orchestral pieces, where every strand is important, where a note from the second flute has to be audible against a full symphony orchestra.  How they manage to control all those knobs in their little recording booth, I’ve never understood.  It must be like steering an airplane.  [Both laugh]  But most of them are very, very fine musicians in their own right.  They must have wonderful ears for balance and blend, and they must have also the personality which endears them to the conductor, so that they can go out and say, “No, this is not coming through.  Is it my fault or is it your fault?
  Generally it may well be the conductor’s fault.  So I’ve got great faith in engineers in general.  Clearly some are better than others, but they’ve been very responsible, in the case of many recordings, for the splendid effects that have been achieved.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    What was your position at the Royal College of Music?

Sir David:    I was Director of the Royal College of Music.

BD:    You ran the show?

Sir David:    Well, I was primus inter pares.  I was the seventh Director of the Royal College of Music, which was founded by the Prince of Wales who was later to become King Edward VII.  At that time, the state of education in England, certainly from the point of view of music, was in need of improvement, and the King was no mean musician himself, having inherited a love of music from the Prince Consort, his father.  He was determined that England should be no less able to train musicians than France, which had the Paris Conservatoire and Germany, which had the Leipzig Konservatorium.  So he gathered round him many distinguished people of the day, including the Prime Minister, Mr. Gladstone, and the Lord Mayor of London, and several peers of the realm, and decided that he wanted to found a new Royal College of Music.

BD:    Was there anything else in existence, or was this it?

Sir David:    There was.  There was the Royal Academy of Music, which had been going for fifty years, but had had many, many difficulties, which I can’t go into now.  But the Prince of Wales felt that a fresh start should be made.  So in 1882, he gathered ‘round him all these distinguished people and founded the Royal College of Music.  It was my good fortune to be Director in 1982 when we were able to celebrate the centenary.  I gathered round me Mrs. Thatcher and the Prince of Wales and the Lord Mayor of London, and we re-enacted the ceremony when the Royal College of Music was founded.  We stood in the same room at the same time of day, three p.m. on the 28th of February.  The Prince of Wales stood where his great-great-grandfather had stood, and addressed all the great-great-grandchildren of the people who assembled in St. James’ Palace on that day, the 28th of February, 1882, and determined that the Royal College of Music shall go on for another hundred years.  During its first hundred years, the Royal College of Music had great success.  Its first Director was Sir George Grove, the distinguished musician, who compiled the dictionary which bears his name.  [In a similar vein of this recreated celebration, see my Interview with Stanley Sadie, Editor of the New Grove Dictionary which was in the works in 1982.]  He was, incidentally, a fully qualified engineer and wrote wonderful Biblical studies as well.  So he was a great all-arounder.  He was succeeded by Sir Hubert Parry, the composer.  I was seventh in line, succeeding Sir Keith Faulkner, who was professor of music at Cornell University before being Director of the Royal College of Music.

BD:    Who were the other three?

Sir David:    The other three were Sir Hugh Allen, who was professor of music at Oxford University; Sir George Dyson, who was Director of Music at Winchester College before being Director of the Royal College of Music; and Sir Ernest Bullock, who was organist at Westminster Abbey.  By coincidence, he was my teacher when I was a small chorister in the choir of Westminster Abbey.

willcocksBD:    It is certainly a wonderful tradition!

Sir David:    It was a great tradition, and amongst the students and the teachers were numbered most of the great musicians of the last hundred years.  If I can mention some of them... Parry and Stanford were teachers at the Royal College of Music, and amongst their pupils were Ralph Vaughan Williams and Herbert Howells, and Arthur Bliss, who became Master of the Queen’s Music; also Benjamin Britten, Michael Tippett, Gordon Jacob, and indeed, many, many composers who achieved fame.

BD:    Who is the current holder of the title Master of the Queen’s Music?

Sir David:    Malcolm Williamson who is an Australian by birth, and a composer.  [See my Interview with Malcolm Williamson.]  He has done quite a lot of music, although it hasn’t been as widely performed, perhaps, as his predecessors, who included Sir Arthur Bliss and Sir Edward Elgar, who was one of Britain’s major composers.  I don’t want to appear to be denigrating him, but he’s had difficulties, you know, at various times. 

BD:    Coming back to your tasks at the Royal College of Music, was this as much performing as administrative?

Sir David:    It was mainly administrative, of course, and I felt that my main task was to make sure that we had on the staff really distinguished teachers who would be not only good performers and composers in their own right, but people who could communicate to pupils.  I was very loyally served by a large staff of perhaps 150 for 600 students.  That sounds a very high staff ratio, but music, unlike other subjects, is very much a one-to-one matter from the point of view of tuition.  You can teach twenty or thirty economists or historians at one time, but when it comes to teaching the piano or the violin, it has to be one-to-one at the top level.

BD:    Is the Royal College teaching principally performers who go out and have careers?

Sir David:    Yes.  Almost all of them are aiming at solo career as performers, but I always impressed on them that they mustn’t feel that they’ve failed in any way if they become teachers.  There’s a very real danger of performers thinking that teaching is something that’s second best.  Most young people want to express themselves, so it’s only natural that their aims should be towards performing.  As our places were limited, we generally chose those who seemed to have the greatest gifts as performers, but we hoped that whilst performing they would learn to teach, because I’ve always felt that every performer should be able to teach, and every teacher should be able to perform.

BD:    What are some of the traits that it takes to make a great solo career in the performer?

Sir David:    First of all they’ve got to enjoy very good health, because performing at the top level does make enormous demands both on physique, but more especially, on somebody’s mental stamina, because performing is a nervous business.  You’re always worried about your own standards, whether you’re keeping up, and no performer is going to stay at the top unless they’re deeply self-critical the whole time.  Once they become satisfied with their own playing or their own singing or their own composing, they’re finished.  They’ve got to maintain right throughout their lives the highest possible standards, and that demands close critical self-appraisal.  That demands energy.

BD:    Where do you balance the self-criticism with the self-confidence?

Sir David:    That’s got to be there as well, and it comes through public acclaim.  Most people are encouraged by recognition, and human nature being what it is, if people are pleased with what you’re doing, it should continually be an encouragement.  Every artist gets nourishment through encouragement, but it needs enormous courage to persevere when you’ve had a number of poor notices.  Every artist goes through periods when the critics think not so well of his or her performance.  It’s then that qualities of courage are demanded.  They’ve got to keep to it, and analysis has got to come into it.  Artists also have to keep abreast of times.  They’ve got to be aware of changes in performing styles that are taking place if they’re going to be in the forefront amongst their colleagues.  So I would say that to be a high level artist requires great qualities of dedication, of determination to succeed, and a certain ruthlessness as well... and ambition.  There’s got to be a burning ambition.  There’s no shortcut, really, but to be successful is largely a matter of determination.  Also there’s an element of good luck as well, to be in the right place at the right time, to have the right teacher at the right time, and to have the right backing and encouragement when needed.

BD:    Is there any chance that we’re turning out too many first-rate performers?

Sir David:    I think there is a danger always, but who is to say how many?  Some are inevitably going to be disappointed, but the performing fraternity is like a pyramid.  The broader the base, the higher the apex will be.  We’ve got to turn out more performers than are going to make the top grade, because it’s very difficult with any certainty, to say at the age of seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, which students are going to make the top grades.  You can have a fairly shrewd idea, but some fall by the wayside and don’t fulfill their early promise.  Others surprise you by the strides they make. Some come to a conservatoire perhaps at the age of seventeen not having had the benefit of top-rate teaching, but they may be innately musical with quite wonderful natural gifts which have never had the right direction.  There may be others who have had the benefit of wonderful tuition, but who are less naturally gifted or have less motivation.  So to that extent you’ve got to train more people than are going to find the top jobs, but there’s no reason why those who don’t get to the top shouldn’t get enormous job satisfaction at a lower level.  Again, I say that those who have to resort to teaching rather than performing shouldn’t feel that they’ve been failures in any way.  They may be doing work which is every bit as valuable by infusing their enthusiasm with others.

BD:    You’re now in your seventieth year...

Sir David:    [With a slight look of surprise]  Yes, I am in my seventieth year.  You’re quite right.  I’m only sixty-nine, but I’ll tell you a story about that.  I was in New York last summer, and in the program it said that I was sixty-eight.  The next morning I picked up The New York Times, I think it was, and a very kind critic said, “To see the lithe and agile David Willcocks on the rostrum, it was quite difficult to believe that he was eighty-six years old.”

BD:    [Laughs]  A little dyslexia there...

Sir David:    Yes, but the words that annoyed me were “quite difficult.”  [Both laugh]

BD:    What is, perhaps, the most interesting or surprising thing that you’ve noticed in your long and distinguished career?

Sir David:    I think I’ve been surprised that I still love it at the age of sixty-nine as much as I did when I was first introduced to it, perhaps at the age of six.  With most things in life you probably lose the first flush of excitement that you experienced when you first came on something, but with music, for me it’s been all the way a gradual climbing experience.  I think I love what I’m doing now as much as I ever did.

BD:    That’s marvelous!  I wish you lots of continued success.

Sir David:    Thank you very much.  Another thirty or forty years, maybe?

BD:    Fine!  [Laughs]

Sir David:    Thank you.

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© 1989 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded at his hotel in Evanston, IL, on January 22, 1989.  Segments were used (with recordings) on WNIB the following week and again later that year, and also in 1994 and 1999.  A copy of the unedited audio was placed in the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern UniversityThe transcription was made and posted on this website in 2013.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.