Sir Stephen Cleobury obituary10:17, 25th November 2019
By Martin Cullingford
Stephen Cleobury, former music director of King’s College Cambridge, has died aged 70 – just two months after his retirement from the post he had held for 37 years.
Few institutions enjoy the prominence and influence in the musical world – let alone in the choral world – of the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. Familiar worldwide through its annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, its fame was already as solid as the iconic vast vaulted chapel in which it daily sings when Cleobury took over in 1982, its distinctive choral sound having been spread internationally under his immediate predecessors David Willcocks and Philip Ledger, whose tenures had coincided with the huge expansion of the recording industry.
But not content with resting on the choir’s hard-earned laurels, Cleobury was to add an impressive recorded legacy of his own across a wide breadth of repertoire, from the early music of Byrd and Purcell through to the core works of the 20th century Anglican tradition and the composers of our own day – even recording solo recitals on King’s magnificent organ. Many of those contemporary composers had themselves been commissioned by Cleobury as part of one of his most significant innovations at King’s – the annual commissioning of a new work for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols which, since 1983, had offered an unprecedented showcase for a new piece of contemporary choral music through the service’s immense broadcast audience. To interview Cleobury about such projects was to encounter an unfailingly courteous figure who always seemed delighted and grateful to have the opportunity to be able to share his considered insights about, and act as committed advocate for, the music and the musicians involved.
But while celebrating these high-profile achievements, it’s also important to note two other things: the personal impact his teaching would have had on the musical development of the many hundreds of choristers, choral scholars and organists he taught over those nearly four decades, and the spiritual impact on all those who attended daily worship at King’s, the singing of which is, first and foremost, the chapel choir’s raison d’être.
Aside from the work at King’s for which he was understandably most famous, many will have encountered his music-making through other ensembles with which he was associated, including the BBC Singers (of which he was chief conductor from 1995 to 2007) the Cambridge University Musical Society (which he conducted from 1983 to 2009), or Westminster Cathedral where he had been appointed Master of Music in 1979.
Cleobury’s final Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, last year, had been the event’s 100th – marking a century in which its poignant pattern of liturgy and music has become woven indelibly into the fabric of Christmas celebrations throughout the world. Six months later his lifelong service to music was recognised with a Knighthood. He died in the evening of November 22, the feast day of St Cecilia, Patron Saint of music.