By Mark Michael
Sir Stephen Cleobury, the longtime director of the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, arguably Anglicanism’s most famous ensemble, died on November 22, after a long struggle with cancer. He died on the Feast of St. Cecilia, the patron of church music. Cleobury was music director at King’s for 37 years, and was knighted for his services to the nation in the Queen’s Birthday Honors earlier this year.
According to his obituary in The Guardian, Cleobury’s tenure at King’s was marked by a series of important innovations, including the initiation of Kings’ Easter Festival, a mixed voice choir, and a record label. He also nudged the choir’s declamation in chanting the Psalms closer to standard pronunciation.
An important promoter of contemporary church music, his most significant initiative was commissioning a new carol for the Christmas Eve Service of Nine Lessons and Carols, which is broadcast around the world on BBC Radio Three, an annual practice he began in 1982. A remarkable range of contemporary composers, including Arvo Part, John Tavener, and Jonathan Harvey, composed pieces for the service, and no offer Cleobury ever made for this was refused.
In a moving tribute on Facebook, Cleobury’s friend, composer John Rutter, recalled Cleobury’s kindness in 1987, when Rutter fell seriously ill and was unable to complete a large choral work for a London concert for the choir. “He was sensitive enough to understand how terrible I felt about that. And he came back to me with, ‘Well, John don’t worry. But, would you just be able to write a carol for the Christmas Eve service?’ I wrote What Sweeter Music [What Sweeter Music Can We Bring, one of Rutter’s best known and most performed pieces]. They gave a beautiful first performance and Stephen has championed it ever since. That was an act of kindness on his part I will never forget and I suspect that there were many others.”
Cleobury last led the choir for the world-famous service on Christmas Eve, 2018, the hundredth anniversary. Rutter’s What Sweeter Music was among the carols sung.
Rutter assessed Cleobury’s legacy as innovative, but shaped by respect for tradition. “It’s greatly to his credit, that in an expanding choral world when there were so many more fine liturgical choirs coming onto the scene, that he maintained and built up Kings honored place in the choral firmament…It was a reign which saw changes in a changing world that were absolutely in keeping with the dignity and tradition of King’s but which brought it into the twenty-first century.”
“I think it meant a lot to him,” Rutter added, “that people would come to King’s College Chapel, perhaps bringing their troubles with them. And in a choral service, inside that gorgeous chapel, they would find peace and consolation.”
A memorial service for Cleobury will be held at King’s College later in the year.