Stephen Cleobury

Stephen Cleobury

Conductor • Organ

• 1948 2019

Editor's Choice

Stephen Cleobury had big boots to fill when, in 1982, he was entrusted with upholding the lofty standards set by Sir David Willcocks and Sir Philip Ledger as Head of Music at King's College, Cambridge. It was a task he met with unassuming distinction for 37 years. From 1995 to 2007, he also served as Chief Conductor of the BBC Singers, later becoming their Conductor Laureate. That the music of Herbert Howells (1892-1983) was particularly close to Cleobury's heart is touchingly evident on what proved to be his penultimate recording project in the magnificent surroundings of King's College Chapel, both in the role of conductor (An English Mass, and the 'Te Deum' and 'Magnificat' from Collegium Regale) and organist (three solo pieces, including the resourceful Master Tallis's Testament from 1939, which Cleobury had studied with the composer in the late 1960s when he was Organ Scholar at St John's, Cambridge.

Biography

As the long-time music director of the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, Stephen Cleobury led an extraordinary career during which he fundamentally shaped that venerable institution artistically. He championed contemporary music to a degree unusual for a conductor at the heart of the English choral tradition.

Cleobury (pronounced "CLOW-bury" with the first syllable rhyming with "how") was born in Bromley, in Kent County in southeast England, on December 31, 1948. His younger brother, Nicholas Cleobury, is also a conductor. Cleobury's musical career began, as with so many other choral directors, as a boy soprano, in his case at Worcester Cathedral. Cleobury attended St. John's College, Cambridge, as an organ scholar, studying organ and choral music with David Willcocks and George Guest. His first post was as sub-organist at Westminster Abbey. In 1976, he conducted a new work, The Lion of Suffolk, by Malcolm Williamson at a memorial service for Benjamin Britten, and he continued to emphasize contemporary music in his programming. He also worked at the Northampton Grammar School and St. Matthew's Church in Northampton in the 1970s. In 1979, Cleobury was promoted to master of music at Westminster Cathedral.

He moved to King's College as music director in 1982, a position that also involved conducting the school's centuries-old choir. To general listeners, the choir may be best known for its annual, internationally broadcast Christmas-season Festival of Lessons and Carols, which Cleobury revivified through the commissioning of a new work for the event each year. He became director of the Cambridge University Musical Society in 1983; with that university-wide choral-orchestral group, he was able to conduct larger works, including a new piece in 2009 by Peter Maxwell Davies, The Sorcerer's Mirror, that addressed the threat of climate change and marked the 800th anniversary of Cambridge. Cleobury also served as director of the BBC Singers from 1995 to 2007 and continued to be associated with the group as conductor laureate.

He led the Choir of King's College in recordings for a wide variety of labels, as organist as well as choir director, on the choir's own label in the 2010s. For that imprint, he released a recording of Herbert Howells' An English Mass in 2019. Cleobury retired in September of 2019 following a long battle with cancer and passed away in York on November 22, 2019. His influence will continue to be felt in the many choral arrangements he had made, in use at King's and around the world.

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