An Interview with Stephen Cleobury
Music education has always been important at King’s College. While the world scrabbles after new educational models and dwindling government support, Stephen Cleobury can reflect on a history that goes back to the Middle Ages.
“William Byrd famously said that since singing was so great a thing, he wished that everybody would learn to sing; it’s good for your posture, and it will help you to speak better.
“Think back to the 16th century. Music and the ability to sing or play an instrument was very highly prized as a social skill.
“Here we are very much aware of the research which demonstrates that learning music will help you in other fields. Having worked with young choristers for most of my professional life, I can see that the activity of being in a choir makes a huge difference – not only learning to read music and sing, but the attitude of mind that it instills in a child about teamwork, responsibility, high standards, and just building up confidence.
”Music is actually capable of transcending all boundaries – social, ethnic and religious. Music can be an agent of social development, and that’s great, too. It’s an intellectual education, and it’s enriching.”
Of course, the betterment of young minds is only a byproduct of the Choir of King’s College’s first function, which is to provide music for services in the Chapel during term time. At the same time, choir members enjoy a thorough education – the boys at the choir school, the young men as choral scholars at Cambridge.
All of this keeps the choir members too busy at home to be able to tour more than occasionally.
“Normally we are singing five days a week, so I try to give them as much variety as possible – from early music right through to contemporary. The British tradition of sight-reading is very renowned.
“British orchestras are famous for their ability to read new music and assimilate it very quickly.
“The thing about British choirs is that they do a lot of repertoire. Our boys are singing different repertoire every day, so they have a large repertoire. And in order to be able to learn this repertoire quickly enough to present it on a daily basis, they have to become good sight-singers. So a very large part of my system of training is directed towards teaching them to read music fluently and well.
“At the same time, we’re very aware of the actual quality of the sound that we’re making, and in creating something that is engaging and appropriate to the music.”
Touring provides a rare opportunity for the choir to step outside their daily routine and concentrate for a block of time on a specific block of repertoire.
“It’s very important to us. Touring is excellent for choirs, not least because you’re there primarily to focus on the concerts.
It’s only when we have a tour like this one that we have the opportunity to repeat programmes – and that is also very rewarding. And of course for the young people who have not been before, to come to Australia is the experience of a lifetime.”
The tour’s two programmes – one devised for larger halls with organ, the other for smaller venues – will include repertoire from Byrd and Palestrina, Purcell and Montervdi through to Hubert Parry and Benjamin Britten.Fauré’s Requiem, originally composed for choir and orchestra, will be performed with organ, and forms the centre-piece of the larger programme.
In the light of the choir’s five-and-a-half centuries, Cleobury’s three decades at the helm seem fleeting, though he is still the longest-serving director of music since 1929. His very first tour with the choir, back in 1983, was to Australia.
The link to Australia, and also to Australian music, has remained strong for him ever since.
“I know Brett Dean and Carl Vine personally, and admire them hugely, as I do Peter Schulthorpe,” he says. “So we’ve grouped three pieces that I commissioned from them for the choir together on our tour programme.
“It’s important to us that the choir’s tradition is maintained, but also developed. And the commissioning of new music is one of the chief mediums through which we do that. We mustn’t stand still and become a museum.”
Interview by Shirley Apthorp