We were shocked and saddened, here at MusiCB3, to hear of the death of Sir Stephen Cleobury, former Director of Music of King’s College, Cambridge, at the weekend. Stephen had been at King’s for 37 years before his retirement in September this year; and was a familiar face worldwide, thanks to the popularity of King’s Nine Lessons and Carols service, broadcast on the BBC on Christmas Eve, which celebrated its centenary last year.
During his time at King’s, Stephen became well known for his commissions of new works especially for the service. A carol by Harrison Birtwistle The Gleam, was received less than enthusiastically, one letter following the service suggested that – “Whoever commissioned that carol should be locked in a darkened room and never let out”. Stephen was completely unabashed by this, and continued to be enthusiastic about the inclusion of new music. Nine lessons and carols was a wonderful opportunity to reach new audiences, with music that they had never previously heard, and to introduce them to composers that otherwise may have been overlooked.
Commissions during the time of his tenure included Lennox Berkeley (the first commission), Thea Musgrave, Judith Weir, Bob Chilcott, Dominic Muldowney, and many other famous names. Commissioned composers drew their inspiration from many sources, from medieval mystical poetry to William Blake, Bertolt Brecht, Dorothy L. Sayers, and the unique acoustics of King’s.
As well as new commissions, compositions by composers with Cambridge links, often popped up at King’s. Peter Tranchell (formerly of Gonville & Caius)’s If ye would hear the angels sing, became popular after its inclusion in the Nine Lessons and Carols service in 2008. It has since been re-recorded by the choir of King’s College.
During his years at King’s, Stephen trained a new generation of organists and choir directors. Daniel Hyde, a former King’s organ scholar, became Director of Music at the college, following Stephen’s retirement in September 2019. Other alumni trained by Stephen include organist David Briggs, associate director of the Hanover Band, Ben Bayl, and conductor, Richard Farnes.
As well as conducting Cambridge University Musical Society (CUMS) for over 25 years, Stephen was Chief Conductor of the BBC Singers for many years, and was latterly their Conductor Laureate.
A book of condolence has been opened in the chapel of King’s College, which will be accessible during normal opening hours until the end of term. An online book of condolence is also available.
A memorial service will take place later in the academic year.