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Obituary: Sir Stephen Cleobury

06 December 2019


Dr Edward Wickham writes:

THERE is a good reason that, much to the chagrin of certain types of academic, music history tends still to be understood as the stories of great individuals. The intensity of relationships, forged in the heat of musical performance, the tenacity of impressions made by teacher upon pupil often from an early age, serve to create sodalities of composers and performers whose instincts are as entrained as they are subtle. We talk of “schools” of composers and performers; we might almost talk of “species”.

The “school” of Stephen Cleobury — whose death on St Cecilia’s Day, 22 November, aged 70, followed with cruel swiftness his retirement earlier in the year — is surely among the most extensive in this or any other field of musical life. In the world of Anglican church music, such schools are more strongly delineated than perhaps any other, not least because they are often nurtured in actual schools: choir schools, where the daily routine entails direction in rehearsal and public performance by one charismatic individual.

Former choristers and organists who served under Sir Stephen now hold eminent positions in cathedrals and collegiate chapels, perform as soloists in the world’s major opera houses and concert halls, and fill the ranks of professional chamber choirs. All will have vivid memories of the bracing Cleobury personality and razor-sharp musicianship. Most will also have a go at impersonating the voice, a well-established caricature designed to capture something of Cleobury’s dry, clipped delivery; though in reality he could engage a far more lyrical, even sentimental register, when unconstrained by the necessity of producing first-class performances in the length of time some maestros take to get to the podium.

Cleobury’s own musical schooling began at Worcester Cathedral, and continued under George Guest as organ scholar of St John’s College, Cambridge. He occupied positions at St Matthew’s, Northampton, and Westminster Abbey and Cathedral, before, in 1982, taking up the post for which he was best known, at King’s College, Cambridge.

From at least the early 90s onwards, the choir was extraordinarily prolific: in addition to the established round of services and broadcasts, of which the Christmas Eve Nine Lessons and Carols is the most celebrated, Cleobury’s choir averaged at least one recording a year, in scope and ambition ranging from hymn anthologies to the large-scale choral masterpieces of Bach and Handel, with his 1999 recording of the Rachmaninov Vespers regarded by many as his finest choral release.

At the same time, Cleobury can take much credit for bringing sometimes challenging, always sophisticated contemporary music into millions of homes, by commissioning and broadcasting a new Christmas carol each year. The public were not always overwhelmingly grateful for this dose of Reithian medicine; but anybody with an investment in the good health of British contemporary music undoubtedly was.

Indeed, the accuracy of Cleobury’s musical ear, and the precision with which he could identify faults within the most complex choral texture made him the ideal English choral director, operating in a world of short deadlines and reliant upon musicians with super-fast sight-reading.

As chief conductor of the BBC Singers from 1997-2007, he would regularly impress an ensemble, not naturally disposed to be impressed, by his efficiency and technical acuity. At his very first rehearsal with the Singers, he is said to have responded to a questioning hand with a pre-emptive strike: “It’s an A natural.” His ability to rehearse the whole of Bach’s St Matthew Passion — orchestra, chorus, and soloists — within the contracted three-hour session was a feat to behold; and he recognised better than most that the way to a session musician’s heart was by allowing for a proper length of tea-break.

Coupled with his punctilious professionalism came a deep sense of duty and loyalty to his various posts and to the musical culture which he served. Neither age nor distinction prevented his fulfilling dawn till dusk responsibilities of choirmaster. His attendance at meetings was exemplary, his forewarning of absence meticulous, however modest the occasion. Forthright opinions were delivered with courtesy, criticism with grace.

In a collegiate university that over his near four decades in office saw a wholesale diminution in the perceived importance of chapel worship, Cleobury maintained a robust and consistent defence of liturgical singing and of excellence as a virtue in itself. His relationship with sections of his own college was strained, in particular during a deeply uncomfortable period when his personal life became meat for the national gossip columns. Yet it is a tribute to his resilience that few without knowing the circumstances would have noticed, from his work schedule or his demeanour.

Tragically, that resilience was not sufficient to see him through the last year of his tenure at King’s. Following an accident that revealed a more serious illness, Cleobury was unable to fulfil a schedule of swansongs exhausting to any musician many years his junior. Few could imagine Sir Stephen fully retired, such was his work-ethic; yet the loss of a musician who, in the more relaxed context of masterclasses and guest appearances, might have shared ever more widely the insights and experience of a career at the heart of the English choral tradition is an immense sadness.

The Cleobury school will endure; and whether alumni or not, all those engaged in choral music-making will recognise in him a model of vocation which entails not only exemplary musicianship but also a good deal of honest graft.

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