Decanting the Descant: In Memoriam David Willcocks

In his novel The Great and Secret Show, Clive Barker writes of a postal worker sifting through “dead” letters, week by week, culling, processing, and moving on. In this process, however, the character begins to find references to a behind-the-scenes magic that is at work, and, by chance, recovers a talisman that is a locus of power for the magical society of which he has read.

This may seem an odd way to begin a memoriam to Sir David Willcocks, the great CTL-Sir-David-Willcocksmusician who passed on September 16. He was a figure who brought “light and life” (to quote from Mendelssohn, one of the many hymn tunes he arranged) to his compositions, recordings, and choirs. A remembrance of any life, though, is not just the mountaintop experiences of well-known works, but also attempts to encompass the passage of days that moves from peak to peak, as any work of mountaintop or talismanic importance is preceded by days of mining the deep in the creative quarries. Briefly, then, I want to meditate on the type of life that led to Willcocks’ body of work, focusing especially on the descant as a metaphor for our own artistic explorations, and such a life affects and can continue to inspire musicians and artists.

Day by Day

Willcocks is remembered foremost as a church musician, having sung as a boy in the Westminster Abbey choir, serving as Organist at King’s College, Cambridge, holding positions at Worcester and Salisbury Cathedrals, the Bach Choir, and (most famously) directing the Choir of Men and Boys at King’s. He was also influential in the general music-making of Britain, directing not only the Three Choirs Festival but also serving as director of the Royal Academy of Music. Few ensembles publicly perform as much music per week as the singers, organists, and directors of choirs in the Cathedral and Collegiate choral tradition that exist throughout Europe, and Great Britain in particular. In the most active parishes and schools, Evening Prayer may be sung almost daily (replete with virtuosic organ voluntaries, introits, hymns, psalm settings, prayer settings, canticles, and an anthem—all just for one service) in addition to performances of morning prayer or Eucharistic services on weekends. This was Willcocks’ world, for decades.

This is not necessarily to extol the virtues of a religious musicality, though that can lend an artist a purposive potency of belief in their writing and performance. What is technically and aesthetically astonishing, however, is to consider the amount of music that passes the hands, minds, and mouths of musicians who engage in this tradition. This is not merely the daily practice of reviewing music in the practice room, but of realizing it in public performance, honing one’s ability to work closely with other musicians in a chamber context, think quickly and expressively, and learn—deeply learn—a wide variety of music at a very rapid rate. This deep and daily interaction with the flow of music from throughout the centuries has a dual effect: on one hand, it scours clean infelicities of sight-reading and the lack of confidence; and, on the other, it creates a build-up of instinctive knowledge—of phrasing, ornamentation, style, harmonization, and general musical interaction.

High and Mighty

It is important to understand this daily interaction with music when we approach what Willcocks is (perhaps) best known for: his arrangements of descants for hymns and carols. Though these certainly were not his sole compositional creations, their proliferation throughout any region of the world touched by British culture is certainly impactful, and his inventive arrangements have now become gold standards.

The fluency that results from daily focused practice or performance allows a musician the type of flexibility akin to a chess master seeing where pieces can and must move to create a desired effect. Rather than playing against someone, though, a composer, arranger, or organist creating a reharmonization or descant must necessarily play with and for multiple people. The only “opponent” (if there is one) is the original material, the melodic line that (whether you’re Bach harmonizing a chorale, Beethoven creating a variation, or Brahms delving into Baroque and Renaissance counterpoint) should be at least somewhat preserved. And, in the case of the descant tradition that arose in the mid-20th century, the crafting of a soaring soprano line above a hymn tune, how to balance the agency of a singing group of amateur of non-musicians with the complexities of chromaticism and counterpoint.

Take Adeste Fidelis, the classic hymn heard at Christmastime as “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” The hymn tune lends itself easily to a diatonic progression, the first phrase ending in an open half-cadence. It would be easy to harmonize a simple descant on top, moving mostly in parallel thirds:

Adeste 1

However, ease does not necessarily result in excitement. This descant, though viable in fulfilling the harmonic progression, noodles around the same high point (D and E), and, lacking the melodic directionality heard in the hymn tune, seems to just be harmonic icing rather than a potent spotlight of sound.

Another option can be created by opening with an arpeggio that creates a more dynamic entrance, followed by a fanfare figure that hearkens back to the opening, and an upward scale with occasional, fleeting pitches that do not fit the chord, then breaking the melodic ceiling before arriving at an inverted fanfare for the half cadence:

Adeste 2

A decent offering, and certainly with a modicum of drama.

But more possibilities open with reharmonization, or the inclusion of stronger, lingering dissonances; possibilities branch off, seemingly without end, and it is up to the arranger to bring these possibilities together to create an experience worthy of the text, occasion, audience and performers—a creative process in which Willcocks excelled, as is shown so resplendently in this now-iconic realization (skip to 2’20” for the descant and following reharmonization):


An artistic life is one of multiplicities, of ever-branching possibilities. Willcocks’ was no exception. A veteran of World War II, a life-long musician, conductor, organist, arranger, composer, administrator, and visionary for what things could be—not just in the harmonic variables and equations of arranging, but in what a choir could sound like, what their role could be in the burgeoning international forum of choral recordings. He pursued a musical future, offering to others the opportunity to engage with the same tradition that sculpted his own powerful musical intellect. May we be so lucky to fully engage with our art, day in and day out, and to pursue our own potentials to re-invent, re-harmonize, and re-arrange our lives to a more artistic end.

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