Months before Stephen Cleobury steps down from his job as Director of Music of King’s College, Cambridge, we caught up with him to ask about the choir, his legacy and singing in general.

Alison Karlin: I believe the choristers start at King’s College School at 8½ years old. How do young children of that age discover a passion for singing?

Stephen Cleobury: I think it’s a very natural thing. When we audition them and assess them for the choir, we’re looking for potential rather than a list of great achievements, I think you can tell a lot about a way a young child sings a song or a hymn about their potential enthusiasm for singing. It’s just how they approach it.

Stephen Cleobury © Emma Cleobury
Stephen Cleobury
© Emma Cleobury

Do lower church attendances across the UK mean that you have a smaller pool of children to choose from?

I think there are a number of sociological issues at work here overall. When I was first doing this sort of thing, 40-50 years ago, it would be quite common to audition a youngster who was already singing in a local church choir. It’s much more rare today. The other point is that it’s a commitment for families, for parents as well. When we’re assessing the choristers, we have to make sure that every party is comfortable with the idea, because the parents are increasingly likely to be attending services as often as they can. If you look at the way a family might spend time at the weekend, there’s much more in the way of leisure activity and people wanting to go away, so there’s a question of people understanding what the commitment is and being prepared to make it.

Are the children who apply to become choristers overwhelmingly white and middle class?

No, I wouldn’t say so. But I don’t inquire about their background: I’m interested in getting good singers for the choir. And at any time, there are people for whom we’ve found additional funding. The college gives a generous scholarship [two thirds of fees], but even that remission means that the fees are still beyond the means of some people and in those instances we work very hard to find additional sources of funding. We can’t promise 100%, but we do our best to increase that two thirds.

How do you find boys for the choir? Is it just from the UK, or do you also take them from overseas?

We advertise quite widely. We mention choristers every time we do a concert. There’s a notice in every order of service or concert programme. I think we take all reasonable steps to try to reach as many as we can. We have quite a variety of nations represented, one boy has a Chinese mother; recently we had an Indian boy in the choir. All comers are welcomed, encouraged and accepted. We’ve had a Korean boy, a Dutch boy and a pair of Australian brothers.

As Music Director of the choir, you’re perhaps best known for the annual commissions of new choral music, a practice you instigated. Which of the pieces you commissioned have become favourites?

John Rutter's What Sweeter Music and Judith Weir's Illuminare, Jerusalem in 1985. We commissioned Judith last year, for my last year. She’s an alumna of King’s and is now an honorary King’s fellow so she’s got very strong links with the College.

The list of composers you've commissioned carols from reads like a Who’s Who of top composers. Do you have any regrets about composers you didn’t get around to?

If I were staying on, John Adams would be one.

Can you tell us why you started this annual commission?

For me, it has been a minor crusade. What I’ve wanted to show is that the best and most distinguished composers alive today are willing to write choral music, and they’re willing to write for a choir in a liturgical setting. I happen to think that quite a lot of music that’s written nowadays for the church is not of very high quality. I don’t think that the church needs to put up with mediocre music.

Why would your commission appeal to these composers?

It’s an attractive idea for them because they know they’ll get a large audience at their première – millions of people listen to the Nine lessons and Carols from King’s College on Christmas Eve. So composers are willing to do this. It may not be what they are doing every day, but they’re willing to write for a choir in a liturgical context, and that’s what I’ve tried to do with that scheme.

Stephen Cleobury, King's College Chapel © Paul Grover
Stephen Cleobury, King's College Chapel
© Paul Grover

Have contemporary and choral music moved in parallel, or do you think they have diverged?

That’s very difficult to say. If you look at choral music at the moment, there’s a great amount of activity going on in that field. There’s a wide variety of music being written. You get anything from some of the avant garde that is more the property of a group like the BBC Singers right through to what is known as the minimalist school where the music is of a much simpler kind but in many cases has its own merits. And I think there’s a wish to reach out (to both) amateur singers as well as professional singers, to create a wide variety of choral styles and appetites for the kind of music that people want to sing.

Are many people singing in choirs at the moment? Does that mean that choral music is more often heard than other types of contemporary classical music?

Here is my own analysis, which may or may not be right. Earlier you’ve alluded to the decline of music in schools and in churches and in church choirs. What I think has been happening is that choral music has been finding other outlets. There is still music in schools and in music in churches and a flourishing scene in our cathedrals. But at the same time, choral music has also moved out into the sphere of leisure time activity. So a lot of the choirs are amateur choirs which are providing the opportunity for people who like singing to do that as part of their leisure time. It’s moved out into different areas and different constituencies. It's perhaps healthier for it, that it’s getting a bigger and bigger audience.

And how do you feel about that?

Well anyone like me would be in favour of more people singing. There’s a famous quotation from William Byrd (1588):

“Since Singing is so good a thing, I wish all men would learn to sing.”

And then he lists some of the benefits that accrue from doing that. There’s no doubt – and one sees this with young children – that in the activity of singing and taking part in a choir and perhaps learning some of what might be thought to be old fashioned values now – teamwork, loyalty, punctuality – you learn a lot of life skills.

My own youngest daughter, who’s just nine, has joined York Minster Choir this last year and we’ve noticed a huge change in her development arise as a result of her regular singing. So I would just say, "Get out there and sing!"

And I hope it’s not inappropriate to mention this subject, but I’d add there is an increased amount of talk about mental welfare in our student population and quite rightly so. I read in the paper that a senior educationalist said "if you have a young person for whom not all is going well, it could be a good cure to get alongside people and join a choir. And get a social life in that way." It has probably more to it than meets the eye. In the act of singing you use your whole self. I mean you use your body – your physicality – you use your brain and you express with your heart your feelings, so it’s very holistic in that way.

Thank you Stephen. You’re about to hand over to one of your ex organ scholars, Daniel Hyde. Are you retiring completely?

I’m not going to go out and spend my time tending the garden. If people ask me to do things, I shall be pleased to do them. So I’m hoping some sort of a freelance career may open out ahead of me. I’m not going to be idle.