In the first of our Extended Reads, we take an in-depth look at the Choir of King's College, Cambridge.

It was announced last week that the Director of Music for the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, Stephen Cleobury CBE will be retiring from his post in 2019. Since 1982, Stephen has been at the helm of one of the most accomplished and versatile choirs in the world, and one with a distinguished and colourful history.

For the last three years, Hayllar Music Tours has included a stay in Cambridge on its Opera & Theatre in London & the English Countryside tour. We have had the privilege of enjoying lunch with Stephen in the beautiful Saltmarsh Rooms overlooking the College courtyard. There we have been able to hear firsthand the history of the Choir and its role in College life in the 21st Century.

We have also attended private rehearsals of the Choir to find out more about how they achieve their heavenly sound. The whole experience has been enhanced with our attendance at Evensong in the stunning 15th Century Chapel, with the sun sending shafts of coloured light through the exquisite stained glass across the Adoration of the Magi (by Rubens) which hangs as the Chapel’s altarpiece.

Evensong services have been sung almost without exception by the Choir for over 500 years now. So how did the Choir get to this point, and where did it all begin?

When King Henry VI founded King’s College in 1441, it was his intention that a choir would provide music for the daily Mass. The College Statutes of 1453 stipulated that the Choir would consist of ten secular chaplains, six stipendiary lay clerks (or ‘singing-men’) and sixteen choristers.

Henry VI specified that the choristers were to be poor boys, of strong constitution and of ‘honest conversation’. They had to be under twelve years of age when admitted, and able to read and sing. In addition to their choral duties, singing daily Matins, Mass and Vespers, they were to wait at table in the Great Hall.

In 1506, the grand King’s College Chapel that we know today remained unfinished, with the Choir singing instead in a temporary chapel in the College grounds. That year, Henry VII attended Evensong in the still incomplete Chapel and resolved to allow sufficient funds to complete the work and support the Choir. Even though the Chapel was completed in 1515 under Henry VIII, the Choir continued to sing in a small, temporary chapel, until this collapsed in 1536 and they moved to the current Chapel.

Except for a few years in the 1550s under Edward VI, and during the period in the 1650s, when choral services in the Chapel were suppressed, the Choir has been singing services continuously for over 500 years.

The Choir of King's College, Cambridge, performing in King's College Chapel. Photo © Benjamin Ealovega

The Choir of King's College, Cambridge, performing in King's College Chapel. Photo © Benjamin Ealovega

In 1856, an Act of Parliament enabled the Cambridge colleges to rewrite their statutes. At King’s, the new regulations regarding the Choir stipulated that financial assistance and bursaries were to be provided for former choristers who elected to continue their education. Also the regulations indicated that choristers were to receive instrumental instruction from the Organist, a role that would many years later become ‘Organist and Director of Music’.

The building of a new Choir School in West Road was completed in 1878. As with many schools and colleges of the time, the facilities were quite austere, with no central heating or hot water and only one bathroom, which was shared by the Headmaster, his family and the boys. There were no school uniforms, but choristers were required to wear an Eton suit, top hat and Eton collar going to and coming from Chapel. This remains the custom today.

In the late 19th Century, in order to secure more consistently high musical standards, the College appointed Arthur Henry Mann. His task was to bring the Choir to greater musical ‘efficiency’. Under him, the lay clerks were gradually replaced by undergraduate singers – ‘choral scholars’. Among other notable developments around this time was the creation of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols by Dean Eric Milner-White in 1918. This was based on a Christmas Eve service that had been introduced by Bishop Benson at Truro Cathedral.

In 1928 A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was broadcast on Christmas Eve for the first time. It was broadcast the following year but, for reasons that are not clear, not in 1930. Since 1931, A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols has been broadcast every year, and is now listened to live by tens of millions of people around the world.

During the Second World War, the Chapel was dark and cold: the stained-glass windows were removed and kept in safe storage, replaced by blackout material and grey tar-paper which rattled furiously in the wind. The BBC, however, continued to broadcast the Christmas Eve service, and the Choir even took part in a war propaganda film, ‘Christmas under fire’, which was designed to elicit American support for the war effort.

Many choral scholars as well as the Organist and Organ Scholar (Boris Ord and David Willcocks) joined the armed forces. During this time Harold Darke acted as Organist and the School continued to function, but the lower voices of the Choir were provided by a few choral scholars and a number of local volunteers.

Following the War, the Choir made its first commercial records, and the increase in broadcasting, initially as part of the war-effort, became a habit. In the immediate post-war years, King’s made frequent broadcasts. The first television recording of a shortened version of the Christmas Eve service took place in 1954, and regular TV broadcasts took place from 1963.

In the mid 1950s, when Boris Ord’s health was declining, David Willcocks was appointed Organist while Ord took on the new role of ‘Director of Music’. When Ord died in 1957, Willcocks became ‘Organist and Director of Music’, a title which his successors Philip Ledger and Stephen Cleobury held.

The impact of King’s Choir upon the professional music scene has been extensive in recent decades. Sir Andrew Davis, a former King’s Organ Scholar, succinctly sums up the success of many King’s musical alumni:

“Their success has a lot to do with the music directors they’ve had. After David Willcocks came Sir Philip Ledger, and now it’s Stephen Cleobury. Plenty of other cathedrals have the same routine but not the same results.

Although the Chapel’s acoustic – extremely resonant but with a softness that makes it extraordinary – also influences the Choir’s sound, that halo effect, the King’s sound is quintessentially English, with a purity in the way the boys in particular sing, which could become hooty but never does. The voices are always supremely well blended.”

Stephen Cleobury CBE conducting the Choir. Photo © Benjamin Ealovega

Stephen Cleobury CBE conducting the Choir. Photo © Benjamin Ealovega

During Stephen Cleobury’s time at King’s, he has sought to broaden the daily service repertoire, commissioning new music from leading composers, principally for A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. Newly commissioned works have come in from many of the world’s leading composers, including Thomas Adès's The Fayrfax Carol; Judith Weir's Illuminare, Jerusalem; Sir Peter Maxwell-Davies's One Star, At Last; Mark-Anthony Turnage's Misere' Nobis and Arvo Pärt’s Rejoice, O Virgin Mary, one of the shortest but most popular commissions. However, the new works have not always gone down well with audiences. One letter received after the traditional service read: “Whoever commissioned that carol should be locked in a darkened room and never let out.” The offending carol? Harrison Birtwistle's The Gleam, performed in 2003.

As well as singing at the daily services in the Chapel, the Choir tours and records extensively. Having released 100 albums on mainly EMI and Decca, many of which were made during Stephen Cleobury’s tenure, the college launched its own label in 2012. Its first five years have offered a superb insight into the Choir’s breadth of repertoire, and even included a purely instrumental recording by Cleobury on King’s renowned organ.

The Hayllar Music Tours group preparing for the Choir's rehearsal in King's College Chapel.

The Hayllar Music Tours group preparing for the Choir's rehearsal in King's College Chapel.

What happens next at King’s? One thing is for sure, applications will come in from far and wide for what must undoubtedly be one of the most coveted positions in choral music.

The Provost of King’s College, Professor Michael Proctor, paid tribute to Stephen Cleobury, saying “The College owes a huge debt of gratitude to Stephen Cleobury for his distinguished service and tireless efforts and we shall be celebrating his unique contribution in due course.”

One of the stories told by Stephen to guests of Hayllar Music Tours that often elicits the biggest gasps of surprise is the process he instigated for selecting the choirboy to sing the opening solo of Once in Royal David’s City, the very first sound to be heard in the Christmas Eve broadcast, which in 2017 was listened to by over 30 million people worldwide. In rehearsals, a number of boys will prepare to sing the solo, and only at the start of the broadcast as the red light goes on will Stephen signal to one of those boys that he is the one to begin the service, reaching those exposed, soaring high notes that any listener will know well.

As Stephen informed us: “We've always done it that way, because it would be a terrible trial for a nine-year-old boy to go to bed knowing that he's going to sing that solo. Better for him, and for everyone else, that he only knows at the last moment." And does he know in advance which boy is going to sing it? "Some years I do, but not every year. It's wide open."

If you would like to visit King’s College, Cambridge, enjoy lunch with Stephen Cleobury CBE in the College grounds, and attend a rehearsal and Evensong service in the beautiful King’s College Chapel, contact us today to book one of the four remaining places on our Opera & Theatre in London & the English Countryside tour in June 2018.

The beautiful 'Backs' of the many Colleges in Cambridge.

The beautiful 'Backs' of the many Colleges in Cambridge.

The graceful Bridge of Sighs in Cambridge.

The graceful Bridge of Sighs in Cambridge.