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New teacher for Lessons: an interview with Daniel Hyde, Director of Music at King’s, Cambridge

20 December 2019

The new Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge, talks about choirs to Roderic Dunnett

Leon Hargreaves/King’s College, Cambridge

Daniel Hyde with the King’s College Choir

Daniel Hyde with the King’s College Choir

WHEN Boris Ord became Organist and Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge, in 1929, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols introduced by Dean Eric Milner-White was little more than a decade old. The BBC had started to broadcast it only the year before. Ord could little have suspected that this innovation — heard only on the radio until he conducted the first televised version in 1954 — would become a broadcasting tradition famous worldwide.

The boy choristers and choral scholars of King’s will be watched this Christmas Eve at 5 p.m. on BBC2, and the Festival will be heard on Radio 4 and the World Service at 3 p.m.

This year, too, there will be a change. Sir Stephen Cleobury, who died on St Cecilia’s Day, aged 70, had retired this summer after 37 years at the helm — a tenure unmatched by Ord (1929-57) or his successor Sir David Willcocks (until 1974), who had been Ord’s organ scholar, and, in between, had become a veteran of the Normandy landings.

The new Director of Music, Daniel Hyde, will be making his debut. Born in 1980, he was a boy chorister at Durham Cathedral under James Lancelot, and an organ scholar. He was educated at Oakham School, which has a strong choral and musical tradition, and eventually succeeded to an organ scholarship under Cleobury at King’s. So he knows the place well already.

Indeed, when Sir Stephen was still in charge this summer, and couldn’t manage a tour of Australia — some eight or nine concerts were scheduled — Hyde took the choir out there for him. It gave him a chance to get to know the boys and men, and for them to get to know him.

Hyde has also served as director of music at Jesus College, Cambridge. After a time at Perth Cathedral, West Australia, he was appointed Organist and Informator Choristarum of Magdalen College, Oxford, where he made well-received recordings, before taking up an appointment as director of music of St Thomas’s, Fifth Avenue, in New York, after the early death of John Scott, who had gone there from St Paul’s Cathedral.

AND now King’s. What sound should he go for to match the unique acoustic of the soaring, Gothic-Perpendicular chapel?

“Sounds do change,” he says. “Philip Ledger’s King’s recordings [1974-82] are quite different in sound to David Willcocks’s; and early Cleobury is quite different from Stephen’s later recordings.”

This year’s carol service will inevitably still display the Cleobury sound, says Hyde, who is credited — not, he says, accurately — with speaking dismissively of the old-fashioned habit of hooty boys and blustering men, a phenomenon dating back generations, although certainly not in vogue under present cathedral choirmasters, many of whom are former organ scholars of King’s or St John’s, Cambridge (as was John Scott).

“I don’t mind wobble,” Hyde says, however. “It’s not like taking a pot of paint, and splashing on a single colour. Voices, not least young voices — boys, choral scholars or, at Magdalen, academical clerks — have their own individuality. It’s a balance to suppress that to produce a homogeneous choir sound, yet allow the beauty of fresh young sounds to shine through.”

One option would be to pursue the German or French 15th- to 17th-century Continental sounds explored by George Guest at St John’s, and George Malcolm at Westminster Cathedral.

“The trouble is that recent music directors haven’t taken George Malcolm’s or George Guest’s ideals as they were,” Hyde observes. “They’ve played around with it, tweaked it — to immense disadvantage. The big trouble is, the sound obfuscates the words.”

WHEN I finally interview Hyde, he sounds weary. Our original meeting was cancelled at short notice after news came of Sir Stephen’s death. The follow-up work that created would have exercised any headmaster, schoolmaster, or choirmaster. It is a reminder of the responsibility that a leader of young musicians has.

He talks a little more about the technical challenge.

Leon Hargreaves/King’s College, CambridgeDaniel Hyde

“One distinct problem is that the King’s Chapel’s sound dries up considerably when the chapel’s full,” he says. “So when the building’s packed, you don’t know precisely what you’re expecting. The preparation time being so, it’s tricky to anticipate what exactly the sound has to be. . .

“Musical line, and shaping the choir’s sound to the acoustic, is a big part of what’s important in preparation. It’s a very dangerous thing, a fatal mistake, if one fails to be prepared to adapt to the building. And achieving the right kind of warmth to the sound, most particularly of the boys, since they are so prominent.

“Choristers, if intelligent and musically talented, quickly acquire the right kind of know-how to fit into a choir. It’s much nicer that we — and John’s — have boarding houses. Indeed, our choristers must board: that’s part of the deal, because rehearsal hours are so early or late, and the heavy schedule demands it. It also means we can throw our catchment much wider, and the choir benefits from that. . .

“The boarding houses are much nicer, more like home. They used to be more spartan. The boys have breakfast at 7.45, and I find joining them there is a big help in getting to know them, and for them, hopefully, to be increasingly at ease with me, too.”

He adds that it is important to avoid “what I call the ‘lowest common denominator’ seen in certain choral compositions today: music that is saccharine, music that the boys, with their wonderful prep-school wisdom, call ‘cheesy’”.

Will Hyde and his King’s choir live up to our hopes? On Christmas Eve, you will get the ideal chance to hear. But I bet they — and, above all, he — will.

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