If you’ve never heard of David Willcocks, chances are you have heard his musical arrangements for Christmas, which have come to define the season for generations around the world.
At 3pm on Christmas Eve, millions of radios around the world will be tuned to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Chapel in Cambridge in time to hear the pure voice of a single boy chorister singing one of the hardest solos of the church calendar, the first verse of “Once in Royal David’s City”. For many, this signals the start of Christmas. Broadcasts of the Christmas Eve service from King’s began in 1928, but arguably it was under the guidance of Sir David Willcocks, who died in September 2015, aged 95, that the service – and the choir – became household names. The many tributes that followed Willcocks’ death all acknowledged that during his tenure from 1957 to 1973, his name became virtually synonymous with the idea of a traditional Christmas Carol service. The Nine Lessons and Carols form became popular in churches and chapels of all sizes and traditions, and is still widely used today. The King’s model and the influence of the Carols for Choirs series – a series of books edited by Willcocks, first with Reginald Jacques and later John Rutter – have together had a huge effect on the way in which millions of people think about Christmas music.
The Guardian has an extensive obit from last September.
Below, one of my favorite hymns of the season—it will be the processional at Midnight Mass—as brought to life at King’s College.