The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge has a rich history dating back to the 15 th century, when it was founded by Henry VI in 1441. At nearly 600 years old, the ensemble has firmly established itself worldwide as one of the most sensational choirs to listen to.
Today, the choir consists of a combination of 16 choristers (choirboys), between the ages of 9 and 13 years old, and 14 male undergraduates from various fields of study. In addition, there are two organ scholars. Upon its founding, the choir was to sing at the daily services, a task they still perform to this day, six days a week. One day of the week, Monday, the daily service is sung by the King’s Voices, a mixed-choir from the college. In addition to singing at the daily chapel services, the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge records and performs extensively, in the UK and internationally.
Henry VI’s vision for the choir was simply that it would provide the music for the daily chapel services and also the Mass celebrations. Little did he know that the choir would eventually become one of the most outstanding of its sort. While the choir now consists of choirboys and undergraduates, it originally consisted of 10 secular chaplains and 6 stipendiary lay clerks (also known as ‘singing-men) in addition to the 16 choirboys. It was not until June 1927 that all of the lay clerks had been replaced by undergraduates, under the organist AH Mann.
During its initial years, Henry VI gave very specific indications for the choirboys that were to be recruited. He insisted that they be poor, but of “strong constitution and of honest conversation”. Additionally, they needed to be under the age of 12 and able to read and sing. Outside of the choir, they were required to wait tables and were provided, in exchange, meals, clothing and boarding costs.
The quality of and funding for the choir varied greatly throughout its long history. Under Henry VI, they were well taken care of, but following his 1455 capture and 1461 death, the funding was cut drastically by Edward IV. As a result, the number of choristers was also reduced, only to return to 16 in 1467.
The next king, Richard III, was also not very interested in the choir. The choir eventually attracted the attention of his successor, Henry VII, when he attended the Evensong in 1506 in the incomplete Chapel. He promised, at that moment, to provide more funds to allow the choir to function properly and to allow for the completion of the Chapel.
Interestingly enough, the Chapel was completed in 1515 but the choir remained in a temporary chapel until 1536, when it collapsed.
During the Tudor period, the choir experience much irregularity as each new monarch had a different musical preference. At the worst of times, in 1550, the choir was disbanded as ordered by the Protestant king, Edward VI. With the Catholic Queen Mary, the choir was reformed in 1553. During the ruling of Elizabeth I, beginning in 1558, the choir continued to prosper. Also at this time, the choristers were selected from a larger geographical area, all across southern England.
The gifted boy, Orlando Gibbons, entered the choir in 1596. His lifelong contribution to the choir is marked by the regular performance of his music at Evensong. His elder brother, Edward, was the organist of the choir when Orlando joined as a chorister. Two years later, Orlando began his University studies, graduating with a Bachelor of Music degree in 1606. He was then appointed by James I the ‘gentleman’ and organist of the Chapel Royal.
Gibbons was a remarkable and versatile composer, perhaps even the most versatile English composer of his time. He composed many compositions for the choir, both sacred and secular, that have since been regularly sung at Evensong.
In 1606, John, the brother of composer Thomas Tomkins, was appointed organist. He remained until 1625, during which time he ensured the choir’s level of singing was improved.
The choir’s next period was quite bleak and the quality quite poor. Visitors reported to the king in 1636 that the ‘choirmen cannot sing’. Things were not looking up for the choir in 1646, when the Commonwealth forbade it to recruit new choristers. As music in church was against the ruling puritan tradition, the organ was also dismantled. Each time one of the choristers’ voices broke, his position was left vacant. By 1650 only one chorister remained, together with five lay clerks. Two years later the singing stopped. The choir was completely disbanded until the Restoration in 1660.
During the Restoration, the choir was again in demand. At once, 10 new choristers were chosen and within six years there were again 16 choristers. From this point on, the choir has remained active, though its quality has not always been even.
Despite suffering quality at time during both the 18th and 19th centuries, the performances of the choir were always well attended, though this could also have been attributed to the fact that they sang at the only local chapel that was open to the public.
There were also periods, of course, in which reports of ‘extraordinary music’ were common in reference to the choir. Charles Darwin enjoyed the choir’s singing of the anthem so much during the late 1820s and early 1830s that he would even hire them to sing in his rooms at Christ’s College.
In the mid-1800s, choristers were required to also receive instrumental instruction. Around this time their uniform, which is still used today, was selected. Instead of wearing the school uniform, they opted to wear an Eton suit, top hat and Eton collar.
Under the leadership of AH Mann, the choir flourished. The undergraduate choral scholars replaced the lay clerks and a house near the school was built for the organist. At this time, the famous Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was founded by Dean Eric Milner-White.
In the mid-1920s, the first recordings of the choir took place. First, a radio broadcast from a Sunday service was aired in 1926, followed by recordings in 1927 and 1929, though only two of the tracks were released. Mann was only satisfied with their recordings of Bach’sAuf! Auf! Mein Herz’ (BWV 441) and his Gott lebet noch(BWV 46), which were both released in 1931.
A tradition began in 1928 with the annual broadcast of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols (with the exception of 1930), which still occurs every year.
Following the dark years of World War II, the choir took part in the propaganda filmChristmas under fire. After the war they made their first commercial recordings, and have since performed at the BBC Proms and have been featured on many TV broadcasts. Many of the early recordings, which made the choir so famous, were under the direction of David Willcocks and Philip Ledger.Today, the recording tradition continues under the direction of Stephen Cleoburg. After many successful partnerships with labels including Decca and EMI, King’s College founded its own recording label in 2012. The choir also maintains an active international concert schedule.
Many professional musicians were trained by the college including conductors such as Sir Andrew Davis and Edward Gardner, singers Robert Taer, Michael Chance, Gerald Finley, Michael Georg and Stephen Varcoe and organists such as Simon Preston, Thomas Trotter, David Briggs and Davide Goode. There are even composers who are alumni of the choir, including Francis Grier and Bob Chilcott. Among the instrumentalists who were trained by the choir are violinist/conductor Roy Goodman and clarinetist Andrew Marriner.
Text by Melanie Garrett Images courtesy of IMG Artists