Stephen Cleobury, Longtime Leader of Fabled Choir, Dies at 70


Stephen Cleobury, who for 37 years was music director at King’s College, Cambridge — which among other things meant he led one of the most beloved holiday musical events on the planet, the Christmas Eve performance by the college’s celebrated choir — died on Nov. 22 in York, England. He was 70.

Robin Tyson, his manager and a former choir member, said the cause was cancer.

Mr. Cleobury, who had stepped down from his post just this past September, was a well-regarded organist when he was named to the King’s College position in 1982. In addition to leading the Choir of King’s College, he oversaw assorted other choral groups and from 1995 to 2007 was chief conductor of the BBC Singers, the noted chamber choir.

But he was most often in the news in connection with the Christmas Eve performance, part of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, a service in the King’s College Chapel broadcast on hundreds of radio stations around the world.

Mr. Cleobury recorded numerous albums with the choir and toured with it regularly, maintaining and enhancing its standing as one of the great guardians of a choral tradition stretching back centuries. “The consistency and excellence of King’s Choir over the years is testimony to the benefits of standards and tradition,” Jeremy Eichler wrote in The New York Times in 2004, reviewing a performance at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola in Manhattan.

The choir is made up of boys from the King’s College School and undergraduates (known as choral scholars) from Cambridge University. The Christmas Eve performance begins with a single boy stepping forward and singing the opening of “Once in Royal David’s City.” Mr. Cleobury, after preparing several boys for the role, would choose the soloist just moments before the performance began.

“What lies behind it is the idea that if you nominate a chorister a week or two weeks beforehand he’s got quite a lot of time to get wound up about it, which we don’t want to happen,” Mr. Cleobury said in “A Year at King’s,” a BBC One film that documented the choir’s 2018, culminating in the Christmas Eve concert. “And moreover, even if you do that, that particular one might wake up on Christmas Eve with a sore throat. It’s really down to who’s in the best voice on Christmas Eve.”

A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was a century old last year, and the choir itself dates to the 1400s, when Henry VI created it. Mr. Cleobury was supremely conscious of the tradition, and at first, as he acknowledged to NPR in 2004, felt weighed down by it.

“But I managed to get over that,” he added. He had his various choirs explore new music.

“I felt that a tradition must be nourished with new material, otherwise it fossilizes,” he told the British newspaper The Telegraph in 2012. “Part of what I’ve had in mind is to try to go to composers who would not normally be thought of as writing for church choirs but who are working in mainstream music — operas, symphonies, chamber — and say, ‘Here’s a choir, would you like to write for us?’”

As part of that exploratory spirit, each year at the festival he would introduce a new carol. Some went over better than others with a certain tradition-steeped segment of the audience.

“Could you tell me who had the idea of commissioning that carol,” someone wrote to him one year when he included a carol by the modernist composer Harrison Birtwistle, “because whoever did should be locked in a dark room and never let out.”

Stephen John Cleobury was born on Dec. 31, 1948, in Bromley, southeast of London. His father, John, was a doctor, and his mother, Brenda (Randall) Cleobury, was a nurse.

As a boy he was part of the choir at Worcester Cathedral. He also began studying the organ. He continued those studies at St. John’s College, Cambridge, and served as organist and head of music at St. Matthew’s Church in Northampton. He also taught at Northampton Grammar School.

He became sub-organist at Westminster Abbey in 1974, a position whose duties included playing for daily services and assisting in conducting the choir. In 1979 he became master of music at Westminster Cathedral.

He continued to perform on the organ after taking the King’s College job and recorded numerous albums of organ music playing the King’s College Chapel instrument. He was knighted this year.

Mr. Cleobury’s first marriage, to Penny Holloway, ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, Emma (Disley) Cleobury, whom he married in 2004; their daughters, Frances and Olivia; two daughters from his first marriage, Susannah and Laura; a brother, Nicholas; and a sister, Julia.

The King’s College Chapel, where many of Mr. Cleobury’s recordings were made, is renowned for its acoustics; it is said that a note can reverberate for five seconds when the chapel empty.

When it’s packed with hundreds of people, as it is for the Christmas Eve festival, the resonance is not so pronounced. But, Mr. Cleobury told The Boston Globe in 1986, it has a different sort of ambience that enhances the music: “the darkness, the candlelight, the large number of people, and the curious sort of silence you get from a large number of people being quiet.”

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