Sir Stephen Cleobury, who directed the famous choir at King’s College in Cambridge, dies at 70
Sir Stephen Cleobury, who directed the world famous choir at King’s College in Cambridge, has died at the age of 70.
A renowned conductor and organist, he was director of music at King’s for 37 years.
He presided over the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, which is broadcast live by BBC Radio each Christmas Eve, and Carols from King’s, the pre-recorded carol service aired on BBC television on the same day.
King’s College provost Professor Michael Proctor said: “As director of music, Sir Stephen served this college with distinction for nearly four decades. On this truly sad day, the college community, and indeed many around the world, are mourning his passing with a profound feeling of loss.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with Sir Stephen’s family and the choristers and scholars of our choir who worked so closely with him.”
Sir Stephen had been living in York since retiring in September. He died peacefully there on Friday November 22 in the late hours of St Cecillia’s Day, the patron saint of music and musicians, following a long illness.
At King’s, he founded the tradition of an annual commissioned carol for Christmas Eve, in 1984, which has made an important contribution to contemporary choral writing.
In 2018, speaking on BBC Radio 3, Jeremy Summerly noted: “If for nothing else, Stephen Cleobury should go down as the man who really recharged the writing of contemporary choral music – not just the Christmas carol, but the fact that his commissioning has affected how people write choral music. In all four corners of the globe people switch on the radio on Christmas Eve and hear a new piece of music.”
Sir Stephen also introduced the successful annual Easter at King’s, which the BBC regularly broadcasts, and a series of notable performances throughout the year called Concerts at King’s.
He was a teacher to thousands of young choristers, choral singers and organ scholars at King’s, and enhanced the choir’s reputation and activities through touring, broadcasting and recording. The choir’s work is now released through the college’s own label.
Sir Stephen conducted the choir in December 2018 on the 100th anniversary of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, which attracts an audience every year of millions. A decade after being made a CBE in 2009, he was knighted in the 2019 Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to choral music.
He was chief conductor of the BBC Singers from 1995 to 2007, and conductor laureate since 2007. He also had a long association with the Cambridge University Musical Society, conducting it from 1983 to 2009.
Born in Bromley, Kent, in 1948, he was the son of John Cleobury and Brenda Randall.
His musical education began as a chorister at Worcester Cathedral.
He became an organ scholar at St John’s College, Cambridge, under the directorship of George Guest, before becoming sub-organist of Westminster Abbey then master of music at Westminster Cathedral in 1979.
He then held positions as head of music at St Matthew's Church, Northampton, and head of music at Northampton Grammar School in the mid 1970s.
He took up the role of director of King’s in 1982, and was succeeded in October 2019 by Daniel Hyde.
Away from King’s, Sir Stephen served as a visiting fellow at the Louisiana State University School of Music from 2013-14.
As an organist, he played in locations from Birmingham to Houston, Cape Town to Hong Kong. His recordings included Bach Clavierübung Pt 3 and the Leipzig Chorale Preludes for BBC Radio 3.
Sir Stephen was also president of the Royal College of Organists from 1990-92, a fellow of the Royal College of Music and was made an honorary doctor of music by Anglia Ruskin University.
In 2008, he was awarded an honorary fellowship of the Royal School of Church Music, while in 2018 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of York.
He was married to Emma and they had two daughters. Sir Stephen’s brother, Nicholas Cleobury, is also a conductor and his cousin Stephen Dean is a composer.
King’s has opened a book of condolence, which is available in the chapel during normal opening hours until the end of the term. An online book of condolence is available on the college website, and a memorial service will be held in the chapel later this academic year.