On The Vine – June 2014 – The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge
Even today, wandering down the narrow laneways in the old part of Cambridge city, centred around the eponymous University, it is easy to imagine being transported back to Elizabethan England, if not quite back to the time of the Plantagenets when the University first began. (King Henry III placed local scholars “under royal protection” around 1231). A glassy chrome-edged shopping centre has now burrowed into the centre of the old city, but enough of the timeworn architecture of the ancient residential colleges remains to render the atmosphere convincingly archaic.
In 1441, King Henry VI founded King’s College at the University. It was to house a choir consisting of “poor boys, of strong constitution and of honest conversation”. Except for a few years in the 1550s under Edward VI, and during the Commonwealth period in the 1650s, the Choir has been singing services at the college continuously for more than 500 years.
The criteria of social disadvantage and conversational prowess have been replaced by more demanding entry requirements, but the Choir of King’s College Cambridge is still one of the few choirs in the world that maintain the ancient English tradition of boy sopranos. Although the choir, and the college, bear their ancient heritage with pride, this is also a very pragmatic matter of providing sixteen boy choristers with a consummate musical education, unparalleled performance opportunities and a rounded general education at the Kings College School (across the river Cam from the College). Not to mention a trip to Australia every dozen or so years!
The choir’s distinctive national history is honoured in the concert program, featuring some of England’s finest choral composers such as Byrd, Tallis, Purcell, Stanford, Parry and Britten. But other great music rounds out the choral adventure, including works by Palestrina, Monteverdi, Bach and Fauré.
The choir is probably best known to Australians through the “Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols”, which has celebrated Christmas every year since 1918, and has been broadcast since 1928. The telecast of the service is still distributed internationally through the BBC World Service. Stephen Cleobury, the choir’s Director of Music since 1982, was responsible for starting a commission program for composers to create new carols to be premiered at the Christmas service. Three of those composers to date have been Australian, and are included on the program for this concert tour. These “Australian” carols were composed by Peter Sculthorpe, Brett Dean, and myself.
For more information on the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, and to book your tickets, please visit www.musicaviva.com.au/kings or call 1800 688 482.