There have been numerous tributes paid to Sir David Willcocks who died in September. I’ve enjoyed reading these as they often include personal memories and anecdotes from former students who have gone on to lead illustrious careers as professional organists and singers. Many were his students at King’s College Cambridge where he was Director of Music from 1957-1974 or at the Royal College of Music where he was Principal from 1974-1984. And there have been witty reminiscences too especially of choir rehearsals … ‘Tenors –‘flett’ as he was known to say fairly often!
My personal recollection of my first meeting with Sir David was slightly different. It was my interview for Cambridge University and I had applied to Newnham College, eventually being awarded a place at Girton College. I can’t really remember much about the academic interview, though I do recall the written papers which involved prepared as well as unseen analysis of major classical works ranging from Byrd to Stravinsky; I hardly knew any of them. I was then asked to have an interview with Sir David and to play a prepared piece on the oboe, my first instrument. I suppose this must have gone relatively well. Then he gave me the obbligato oboe d’amore part from Bach B minor Mass ‘Qui sedes ad dexteram’. I was fortunate enough to have attended a school with a thriving music department and also I was a Junior Exhibitioner at Trinity College of Music on Saturdays. [little did I know that I would be the Director of Junior Trinity at Trinity Laban over thirty years later]. I had heard the B minor Mass but had never played this obbligato part until that moment. I was playing it on the oboe and Sir David was accompanying me, transposing it from an oboe d’amore part and putting in the alto vocal line… well obviously…!
I remember that moment as if it was yesterday. Why? His playing sent a message, willing me to do well by being sensitive, listening and accompanying yet leading me on with the pulse, the ornamentation and the joy of making music together. It was probably a very rough performance on my part but it was also an ‘aha’ moment when I realised what true musicianship was all about. Sir David had the humility of a great musician to enjoy sharing this Bach aria with me, a prospective 18-year-old university student, and that encouragement pervaded my performance. I can picture the fairly dingy room in the old university music school (I think) and the upright piano.
My career has often involved working with young musicians and I’ve seen many of them experience those ‘aha’ moments, especially when they have been introduced to fine interpretations and musicianship in the service of the composer. I expect, like me, they may forget those experiences along the way but then a particular event or situation takes them right back to that ‘aha’ moment. Sir David’s sad passing certainly did this for me.