Conductor Sir David
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
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
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 Requiem — as
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 . . . . . . .
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.
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.
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.
that be with the eye toward a career, or just with an eye toward
enriching the self?
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?
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
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?
Sir 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
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
BD: Would he
be averse to using a synthesizer rather than a full orchestra?
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.
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.
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?
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 seconds — you 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
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.
Well, we think it’s as it was written. Whether it is near it or
not, I just don’t know.
going to be close. Obviously, pitch and duration are going to be
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.
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.
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
BD: So then
it’s all relative?
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
And then correct them... or try to correct them. [Both laugh]
spent a long time conducting choirs of various sizes and shapes.
What goes into making a fine choral sound?
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
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
BD: Is there
any hope for singers like this?
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?
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
BD: They just
go and have a bash.
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
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
advice do you have for choral conductors?
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
BD: So from
this vast repertoire, how do you choose which pieces you will conduct
and which pieces you will not?
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.
Sir David: I
was. I don’t play much now.
BD: But when you
were playing, did you conduct and play organ at the same time?
BD: I would
think that that would create havoc with balances.
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?
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?
[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
back to the recordings just for a moment, did you conduct and sing
differently for the microphone than you did in performance?
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?
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
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?
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?
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.
BD: 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?
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
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
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
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?
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.
now in your seventieth year...
[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.”
[Laughs] A little dyslexia there...
Yes, but the words that annoyed me were “quite difficult.” [Both
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.
marvelous! I wish you lots of continued success.
Thank you very much. Another thirty or forty years, maybe?
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© 1989 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded at his hotel in Evanston, IL, on
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 University. The
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.
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
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.