Sir David Willcocks at 90: My Memories of Sir Edward Elgar

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The greatly-loved British musician on his 90th birthday, recalls his early encounters with Elgar and his music.

Although I was naturally aware of Elgar as a boy, my first memorable encounter with one of Elgar's major works came in the early 1 930s, when I was taken to hear a performance of The Dream of Gerontius at the Royal Albert Hall, conducted by (then) Dr Malcolm Sargent. I cannot now recall who the other soloists were, but Heddle Nash sang the part of Gerontius, which made an immediate impression on me. He was one of the finest exponents of Gerontius I ever heard; and at the time, of course, I could not have imagined that over twenty years later I would conduct him in the same work.

This was soon after Sargent had become chief conductor of the Royal Choral Society. I was then a chorister at Westminster Abbey, which I had joined in 1929 after an audition with Dr Ernest Bullock, who was the Abbey's organist at the time, having been appointed a little while before.

In 1932, [June 8, the 21st anniversary of Alexandra Rose Day] the combined choirs of Westminster Abbey, St Paul's, and the Chapels Royal, sang at the unveiling of the memorial to Queen Alexandra, the widow of King Edward VII, who had died over six years before. This took place on the edge of St James's Park just outside Marlborough House, and was marked by the first performance of a new work by Elgar, who was then Master of the King's Musick. The text was by the Poet Laureate, John Masefield, and we were accompanied by the band of the Welsh Guards conducted by Elgar himself. This was the Memorial Ode - So many true Princesses who have gone, and I believe he originally wrote the music to be accompanied by orchestra, but in the event it was a military band.

It was a fine day and the memorial was to be unveiled by the King. We went and sang first of all in the main St James's Park for the rehearsal, and I cannot remember actually moving to the statue, close by St James's Palace on the right, after which Elgar conducted us in the first performance. I was 12 then, and I remember that Elgar looked very dignified, in court dress with white trousers and wearing the sash of the Order of Merit. I think he was wearing a sword, but I'm not sure about that. He had the choir spread out in a semi-circle before him. I was at the end of a row, and I thought that he was watching me the whole time. I discovered later that the other boys in the choir thought the same thing! He had this gift of making everybody feel that they were involved with him and his music.

This was, of course, towards the end of his life [he died twenty months later, in February 1934], and he seemed very relaxed and nice, and afterwards he talked to one or two people, but I cannot remember exactly what he said: something like, 'Well done, boys! …