Toby Deller speaks to Daniel Hyde, new director of music at King’s College, Cambridge

You have to be pretty judicious in what you choose to do,’ advises Daniel Hyde, in the first months of his tenure as director of music at King’s College, Cambridge. ‘It’s only a hymn!’

We are talking descants in the office that Hyde remembers well from his days as organ scholar at the college in 2000-1 when it was occupied by his predecessor Stephen Cleobury. Hyde began working in his new post in September, immediately ahead of the most prominent time of year for the choir.

It’s funny, that’s one of the things that comes up every year: people get their knickers in a twist about descants. What I’ve done this year, just for variety, is nod to various of my predecessors. Stephen Cleobury, what I think to be one of his best descants is in there; but there’s also David Willcocks, some of the best known ones; and Philip Ledger who I think gets a little bit forgotten about. But I’ve also thrown one in from my late predecessor at St Thomas in New York. So there’s more variety in the descants than people might be expecting.’

The New York reference suggests that there has perhaps been more variety in his career than expected of someone steeped in the collegiate chapel environment. ‘It is a pretty unusual step to take,’ he says, but took it anyway, reasoning that ‘I was probably only going to be offered the opportunity to go to New York once.’ But before he went there in 2016, he went from King’s to Magdalen College, Oxford after a spell in charge at another Cambridge college (Jesus).

‘They have a very different chapel set-up to King’s but they have a choir of boys drawn from all over town. I was asked if I could stand in for a couple of terms and mind the shop. One thing led to another and I was offered the job and I stayed for five years. I had a completely different experience of working, almost having to drive the bus around town and pick the kids up to get them there – it was like an after-school club.’

He had been organist at Magdalen since 2009 when the New York vacancy arose. Working on Fifth Avenue and living close to Carnegie Hall meant he spent his three years there very much in the centre of New York cultural life, whether performing or not.

‘There were some great opportunities in New York working with Orchestra of St Luke’s and another very fine, very successful group, New York Baroque Incorporated, and in putting on quite a lot of concerts with the choir of St Thomas’s. Musically it was nourishing because there was the liturgical side of things with a concert season as well, similar to here. There’s always something else to be teaching the kids. And you know, kids respond to quality so you pull out the Passions or teach them the Creation, or a piece of Vaughan Williams like Dona Nobis Pacem that otherwise they are not going to see. And they go: “Wow, this is so cool.”’

“People get their knickers in a twist about descants”

Hyde’s own career in music began as a chorister at Durham cathedral; as organist he later studied with one of the instrument’s foremost players. ‘Looking back, I consider myself very fortunate to have had lessons with Gillian Weir. With Gillian it was always about the music and it just happened to be organ music. It really could have been any kind of instrument: she taught music. I picked up so much from her and the way she engaged with what she saw to be my instinctive musical talents and then she nurtured that. That’s kind of what I try and do with my own students: it’s to teach them music.’

The organ, however, plays much less of a part in his day-to-day professional life than the conducting and educational responsibilities, although he considers these two as going hand in glove. Child choristers, after all, are effectively apprentices in that they are learning on the job, in the public eye and in an otherwise professional working environment.

‘I’m kind of keen to teach a healthy technique, a healthy love of singing and through that, with children especially, it’s an amazing opportunity to programme their sense of emotive content and their understanding of words. Because, really, most of what I do is dealing in words. It’s not actually nuts of bolts of music. I mean, I am teaching them to read the music all the time, that’s something they almost don’t realise they are doing. But I’m not spooning the music into them and they are parroting it back. I’m actually teaching them to read: all this stuff for Christmas that is about to get printed up, they need to be able to read it – there’s too much stuff to get through. But’s it’s not just the notes and the rhythms, it’s predominantly the words, because for everything we do in choir, the words came first.’

When it comes to his musical plans, he mentions Spanish Renaissance polyphony and the Lutheran tradition as less familiar repertoires for the choir to explore. But he emphasises that there is a responsibility to introduce music representing the full 500-plus years of liturgical music. He does not, moreover, want to use his appointment to bring in big changes to the way the choir and its administration works.

‘That’s really my philosophy for the whole year really: there’s a structure and a way of things having been done here for ages. I’m quite resistant to a lot of people wanting to change things because I want to see what it’s like, I want to experience what is the normal. I’m sure there will be things that I want to adapt or change completely but I’ve got to know what the thing is before I can change it.’

As he says, you have to be judicious – which brings us back to descants. ‘I remember Stephen Cleobury saying, when I was a student: a few well-chosen chords is all it needs. I remember thinking, hang on a minute! But he was absolutely right of course. I cringe when I hear these square pin/ round hole things where harmonically somebody gets stuck down a cul-de-sac. It comes back to the same thing: less is more.’ And anyway, he leans over and whispers, ‘I just don’t care about descants.’


On working in New York

Working on Fifth Avenue, the busiest shopping street in the world, meant that all sorts of people would come in. You never knew who would come in for a service from one day to the next. So that could be quite fun – you’d see Hillary Clinton there half way down the church and wonder why she’s there. But musically it was wonderful to be in midtown Manhattan because if I wasn’t performing, I was extremely fortunate to be able to soak up the much broader New York cultural life. So that was great, because I never lived in London – I was in Oxford and Cambridge before that – so it was a bit like my London time, New York.

The thing that was most striking for me going there was the children at St Thomas, I think we had five or six mother tongues among the cohort of children: Korean, Mandarin, Spanish, French, English and Japanese, I think. That’s quite a healthy mix and when you’re doing a hell of a lot of music, a lot of it’s in English, a lot of it’s in Latin, for kids for whom this is their second language, that becomes a different set of challenges.

On choir training

Educating sort of goes hand in glove with the conducting. I am a different kind of director at 8am around the piano with the boys: I’m teaching everything from the very basics to pretty advanced stuff. Choir practice is an unusual classroom scenario because you’ve got five years’ worth of kids and you’re trying to teach them all at their current standard and stretch them. That’s a completely different skill from when I stand in the chapel and put an all-Handel programme together with Academy of Ancient Music and the choir like we did this week.