David Willocks (b.1919) began his musical training as a chorister at Westminster Abbey from 1929 to 1934. From 1934 to 1938, he was a music scholar at Clifton College, Bristol, before his appointment as organ scholar at King’s College, Cambridge.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, he interrupted his studies in music to serve in the British Army. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry on 15 February 1941, and won the Military Cross as a temporary captain for his actions on the night of 10/11 July 1944, when he was serving with 5th Battalion DCLI as battalion intelligence officer. The battalion (part of 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division) was ordered to hold Hill 112 in Normandy, France. He carried out his duties outstandingly overnight, helping inflict severe casualties on the German forces by calling in artillery support to break up counter-attacks. The battalion suffered over 250 casualties during the night, including the commanding officer and one of the company commanders. This left Willcocks in command of the battalion headquarters, which by then was the furthest forward part of the battalion. He rallied the men, enabling the battalion to stand firm and reorganise. The award was gazetted on 21 December 1944. He was again involved some 10 weeks later in Operation Market Garden, when the 5th Battalion DCLI fought in support of the “Garden” armoured column sent to relieve the beleagured “Market” 1st British Airborne Division across the Rhine at Arnhem.
He returned to Cambridge in 1945 to complete his studies, and in 1947 was elected a Fellow of King’s College and appointed Conductor of the Cambridge Philharmonic Society. In the same year, he became the organist at Salisbury Cathedral and the conductor of the Salisbury Musical Society. He moved to Worcester Cathedral in 1950 and remained until 1957, during which time he was organist of the Cathedral, principal conductor of the Three Choirs Festival in 1951, 1954, and 1957, and conductor of the City of Birmingham Choir. From 1956 to 1974 he was also conductor of the Bradford Festival Choral Society, whilst continuing as guest conductor for their carol concerts into the early 1990s.
From 1957 to 1974 he held the post for which he is probably best known, Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge. In addition, he served as the organist of Cambridge University, conductor of the Cambridge University Musical Society, and as University Lecturer. He made numerous recordings with the college choir; the choir toured extensively, giving concerts worldwide, as well as garnering further acclaim internationally through television and radio appearances. Under the baton of Willcocks, CUMS performed Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem in 1963 in (Perugia) Milan, La Scala, and in Venice. The choir subsequently performed the work in Japan, Hong Kong, Portugal, and the Netherlands. In 1960, he also became the musical director of The Bach Choir in London.
He held these positions at Cambridge until the 1970s when he accepted the post of director of the Royal College of Music. In the 1971 Queen’s Birthday Honours, he was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE), and was created a Knight Bachelor in 1977 in the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Honours. He holds 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), Rowan University and Westminster Choir College (New Jersey); and in Canada from the Universities of Trinity College, Toronto, and Victoria B.C. All in all, his honorary degrees number over fifty. He is President of the City of Bath Bach Choir and Exeter Festival Chorus.