Sad to note today the passing of Sir David Willcocks, former Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge and the Royal College of Music, conductor of the Bach Choir, organist, conductor, composer and best-known as editor, along with John Rutter, of the popular anthology, Carols for Choirs.
It’s no understatement to say that Carols for Choirs has become as much a part of tradition at Christmas as the decorated tree and tinsel; for many, Christmas simply isn’t Christmas without that opening solo verse of Once in Royal David’s City lifting clear into the vaulted roof, the wonderful intimacy of his arrangements of Away in a Manger and Silent Night, or robust settings of The Twelve Days of Christmas or I Saw Three Ships. The first volume in the series was published in the 1960s, and the 100 Carols for Choirs published in 1987 is the go-to carol collection for most choirs. A chorister’s Christmas begins around mid-autumn with that first cracking open of the anthology; the collection ranges from arrangements of popular carols together with lesser-known pieces, and has become the staple of choirs the world over, both amateur and professional. And if you’ve learned a carol descant, chances are it’s one from the book. Arguments about whether, between them, Willcocks and Rutter combined to save the tradition of choral Christmas carol-singing will no doubt continue, but it’s certainly fair to say that they provided an accessible, richly-rewarding and enduringly popular collection that has contributed much to keeping carol-singing alive and in rude health well into the twenty-first century.
Hail and farewell, Sir David, who leaves behind an enduring legacy at the heart of music-making at Christmas.