Willcocks junior makes a name for himself

Choral composer Jonathan Willcocks
Choral composer Jonathan Willcocks

JONATHAN Willcocks, whose Lux Perpetua is performed by the Sheffield Oratorio Chorus a week on Saturday (November 12), has a famous surname in the world of English choral music.

His father is Sir David Willcocks, who reaches the age of 92 at the end of December.

“I certainly owe an enormous debt of inspiration and influence to my father – I was a boy chorister under his direction at King’s College, Cambridge, and have been lucky enough to watch him work countless times with choirs and orchestras,” says Willcocks junior, born in Worcester in 1953.

“I wouldn’t say that this ‘apprenticeship’ has directly influenced my work as a composer, other than in my admiration of the craftsmanship that he brought to all the many carol arrangements that he did.

“He has always been very careful not to intrude on my own work as a composer and conductor, only too aware how easy it can be for people to assume that nepotism has been at work!”

The fact is that Jonathan Willcocks has carved out an extremely successful career as a composer, conductor and educator using his own bat.

There are parallels between the two. Both are old boys of King’s College, Cambridge, Jonathan as a choral scholar and David as an organ scholar before later becoming the best-known director of music there between 1957 and 1974, which proved to be golden years for the famous choir.

Willcocks senior was a highly motivating conductor – “now largely retired from active musical activity,” says Willocks junior, who is also reported to be, but similarities diverge there with Jonathan developing a career as a full-blown composer over the last 20 years.

Having taken off over the last decade or so, his output, apart from a handful of instrumental works, consists of large and small-scale choral works, sacred and secular, for adult and children’s choirs. A major part of his life has been music education, which he pursues extensively on five continents.

Many of his compositions have been written to commission and Lux Perpetua is not an exception. It was commissioned by “a group of choirs in Chicago” who wanted “a work on the theme of the futility of conflict and the blessings of peace and unity,” says the composer who conducted the first performance in March 1999.

The 30-minute, six-movement work, subtitled Peace and Unity, draws its “texts from a variety of sources, the Latin Requiem Mass, Bible, prayers of Christianity, Hindu and Buddhist traditions, poetry of war and peace, and three events brought a personal focus to its creation,” says Willcocks. “Whilst writing the work, the 80th anniversary of the Armistice (November 1998) that ended the First World War occurred and I spent several days visiting the incredibly poignant and beautifully maintained Commonwealth War Grave Cemeteries in Flanders.

“No-one can fail to be moved by the endless rows of white gravestones that represent the countless millions who lost their lives in that conflict, the suffering and the futility of a war that was meant to end all wars. Then, the writing of the fifth movement, ‘Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace’, coincided with the birth of my youngest daughter – an infant child, symbolic of the innocence and hope of the world.

“Finally, in stark contrast, on the very evening of the first performance, the Allied forces began the saturation bombing of Kosovo in the Balkan war that again caused so much innocent suffering.”

An ironic symmetry with the First World War being sparked in the Balkan region. Lux Perpetua (Light Perpetual) received three performances over the next two years in the UK following its Chicago premiere, the BBC Music Magazine noting the work’s “profound, emotional impact” and describing it as “an effective and stirring piece.”

It is performed by the Oratorio Chorus at its annual Remembrance Concert at Sheffield Cathedral with Brahms’ German Requiem also programmed on November 12.