Magister puerorum: An Interview with Stephen Cleobury Print E-mail
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Written by Christopher Brodersen   
Monday, 10 June 2013

Magister puerorum: An Interview with Stephen Cleobury

Recently I had a chance to chat by telephone with Stephen Cleobury, director of the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

Q: It’s a great honor to talk to you today, Mr. Cleobury. You have been the director of the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, since 1982—is that correct?

A: Yes.

Q: And presently you’re engaged in a concert tour of the United States.

A: Yes—we begin tonight with a concert in Chicago.

Q: Ah, so this is your very first concert of the tour.

A: That’s correct.

Q: What are the other stops on your tour?

A: After Chicago, we go to the Twin Cities; we’ll be singing in St. Paul. Then to Philadelphia where we perform in the Kimmel Center. After that the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and then we finish at Princeton University in New Jersey.

Q: Wonderful.

A: It should be a great time.

Q: Is this the full choir?

A: Yes.

Q: Are there any instrumentalists with you?

A: Well, we have our two organ scholars with us. We’re singing a mixture of a cappella music, and music with organ accompaniment.

Q: Of course, the Choir has made many, many recordings over the years. My favorite is the one you did a long time ago of A Ceremony of Carols and several other works by Britten, on Argo. Still the best sung, best sounding version, in my opinion. Have you made any newer recordings of A Ceremony of Carols?

A: Yes, I believe we made one about 20 years ago.

Q: Well, the first recording seems to have a life of its own—it’s been reissued on ArkivMusic.

A: That’s good to hear. I should mention that we’ll be releasing another Britten recording later this year. It will have Rejoice in the Lamb and the Hymn to St. Cecilia , along with the main work, the cantata St. Nicholas.

Q: Great—I look forward to that. Aside from the tour, the big news is your two new recordings on what amounts to your own label, is that right?

A: That’s right.

Q: But I’m curious: Somehow it’s connected with the London Symphony.

A: They’ve been helping us with advice, but the actual name of the label is The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

Q: The big ticket item here is the two-CD set of Nine Lessons and Carols. I was listening to some of it before our interview—it’s a bit strange to be listening to Christmas music in April.

A: Right, although it’s cold enough at home for that. But I agree with you.

Q: It’s cold here, too. The concept of “lessons and carols” has been around for quite a while: I can remember LPs from the ’60s of British choirs doing this sort of material. But this one is probably the most extensive I’ve seen.

A: For the first title on our new label, we decided to include the full Christmas Eve service from 2010, but then we’ve augmented it with a half dozen or so newly commissioned carols, including a world premiere of a new carol by John Rutter, All Bells in Paradise.

Q: For me the new carols were the most fascinating part of the program—there is some very modern-sounding music here.

A: Right, well when I came to King’s in 1982, I decided that I wanted to commission a new carol each year. That started in 1983. About five years ago we did issue a CD covering the first 25 years’ worth of these. We used the new recording as an opportunity to do a sort of ‘catch-up,’ so now we’re up-to-date.

Q: Of course, John Rutter is very well known over here. I would venture to say that American church choirs do more of his music than just about anybody else’s. But I found myself in a strange position—his carol struck me as the most old-fashioned-sounding of the bunch! For example, The Christ Child by Gabriel Jackson has a surprising amount of tone clusters and dissonance—quite poignant.

A: Right, it’s very beautiful.

Q: How challenged are your choristers by this kind of music?

A: Actually, the youngsters really enjoy taking on a new piece, because they don’t have the same sort of preconceptions about modern music the way adults possibly do.

Q: What about the technical demands?

A: It’s a concern, but they do enjoy it and get down to business pretty quickly.

Q: But the dissonances don’t present them with any major challenges? They let them roll off their backs, so to speak?

A: Well, I think there are different sorts of challenges. It isn’t any easier to sing Byrd or Palestrina than it is to sing modern music.

Q: That brings me to another question: the whole concept of the English men-and-boys’ choir. And I hope it’s politically correct to say English, because I can’t imagine that you would find similar institutions in Wales or Scotland.

A: I think you do, and they would be very upset with me if I said otherwise. Of course, there are many more choirs like ours in England simply because it’s a bigger country. But there are fine choirs of this kind in Wales and Scotland, and of course Ireland.

Q: Isn’t the idea behind the men-and-boys’ choirs primarily educational? Aren’t most cathedral choirs set up as boarding schools?

A: Some of the choirs are set up as boarding schools, as we are indeed at King’s, but not all of them. But yes, I would say that there is a very strong educational aspect to what we do at King’s.

Q: What is the typical term or length of study for a boy chorister in your choir?

A: At King’s, the boys are with us for about five years. Roughly speaking, they start at about eight-and-a-half and leave when they’re around thirteen-and-a-half. The altos, tenors, and basses in the choir are students in the College, which is part of Cambridge University. They would typically be with us for about three years, from age 18 to 21.

Q: I was surprised to read that the adult singers are usually not music majors, or as you would say, reading music.

A: They do quite a variety of subjects, in fact. Mostly it has to be set on the arts side, so they would be reading English or modern languages. Economics or mathematics, perhaps—we’ve got one doing natural sciences at the moment.

Q: Is there a lot of competition for spots in the alto, tenor, and bass sections? Do you get a lot of applicants?

A: Not as many as you might think, because to some degree, it’s a self-selecting group. In addition to the willingness to commit to the choir and having good vocal potential and the necessary musicianship, applicants must satisfy the academic requirements of Cambridge University, which are quite stringent.

Q: So they’ve already matriculated when they apply for a position in the Choir?

A: Not quite. The processes work in parallel. As it happens, we have a new system in place this year. Now it’s all a question of whether they’ve been offered an academic place. Once they have that, they can audition for a place in the Choir.

Q: So admission to Cambridge comes first.

A: Yes, the academic place comes first.

Q: To me, the interesting difference between English cathedral choirs and continental boys’ choirs, say the Vienna Boys’ Choir, is that English choirs are staffed with adult male altos, otherwise known as countertenors, whereas on the Continent boys usually sing the alto part. I’m guessing the male alto has been a feature of British cathedral choirs since the Middle Ages.

A: Yes, you’re quite right; it’s been more or less an unbroken tradition. It’s easy to forget that, because in the last 50 years or so in the wider musical sphere, the singers who followed in the wake of Alfred Deller, who sang Purcell and Dowland and the great roles in Handel operas, have led to a tremendous renaissance of the countertenor voice. But within the British cathedral choir tradition, it’s been an ever-present feature.

Q: Right. When Alfred Deller’s recordings first started appearing here in the ’60s, I remember that Time Magazine made a big deal of it. Because his voice was so unusual, at least to Americans, they felt it necessary to reassure us by calling him “a red-blooded Englishman.” But the voice really wasn’t that unusual— Time Magazine had obviously never heard a typical English cathedral choir.

A: Yes. Many of our greatest countertenors in recent years, people like James Bowman and Michael Chance, have come through the English cathedral choir tradition.

Q: As have many British singers of note. Reading the liner notes to your Lessons and Carols CD, I was amazed at how many famous singers have sung in your choir.

A: Yes, it’s quite a roll-call, isn’t it?

Q: That brings me to another topic: the whole concept of singing in the British tradition and its relationship to early music. That’s probably another time-honored tradition that has only recently been discovered by the record companies, say in the 1970s and ’80s. It’s a style of singing that many embrace as very appropriate for early music.

A: Of course, English composers like William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, and Henry Purcell have been continuously in the repertoire of cathedral choirs since the music was first composed. When 20th-century recordings began to be made of these composers, and especially when chamber choirs specializing in this music began springing up, the music was as well known as it has ever been.

Q: What I’m getting at is the notion that your singers really don’t need to be told how to sing this music. It’s almost innate for them, isn’t it?

A: Well, it is very strongly embedded in our tradition. But we’re always on the lookout for ways of improving our understanding of how this music may have been performed at the time the composer wrote it. For example, the concert tonight in Chicago includes works by Byrd and Gibbons, and we had new editions made of these pieces for our use. There are still questions involving pitch level and whether the music was performed with organ accompaniment, and we continue to grapple with these.

Q: Naturally that leads to an association with period instruments, for example your new recording of the Mozart Requiem, made with the Academy of Ancient Music. I gather that this is not the first time that you’ve used a period instrument orchestra.

A: No, we’ve been doing that for quite a while now, very often with the Academy of Ancient Music, which appears on this recording. It’s been a revelation, I think, for all of us, not the least in matters of style, but also balance and texture. I’ve found that using the smaller-sized instruments and indeed the smaller numbers of players has solved many persistent problems having to do with balance, texture, and so on.

Q: What are some of the other recordings you’ve made with a period-instrument orchestra?

A: For example, we’ve done the Handel Coronation Anthems, Vivaldi’s Gloria , Handel’s Messiah , and the St. John and St. Matthew Passions of Bach. So we have quite a few under our belt already.

Q: I enjoyed the soloists on your recording of the Mozart Requiem. Instead of boys, you used two females for the soprano and alto solos, which makes sense, I think. The soprano, Elin Manaham Thomas, was remarkable. When I first heard her, I wasn’t sure if I was hearing a boy or a woman—a truly angelic voice!

A: [ laughs ] Yes, she’s great. And if you’ve gone on to the second disc, you will have heard her speaking.

Q: That disc also contains reconstructions of the missing parts of the Requiem, such as the Sanctus and Benedictus, hence the title “Realisations.” Some of these have been recorded before—the one by Robert Levin in particular.

A: Right. Of course it’s not an exhaustive examination of the subject, but an attempt to present four or five extracts, so that listeners can get an idea of the different ways of approaching the problem.

Q: Let’s talk for a moment about your organ playing, which perhaps isn’t as well known to American audiences. For example, you were the president of the Royal College of Organists.

A: I did do a stint as president, but I’m no longer in that position. It’s a two-year term, and people take turns at it.

Q: Do you have much contact with organists over here? Have you ever toured as an organist, just by yourself?

A: I have, and I’m about to do that again. In October, I’ll be coming to give a recital in Seattle. But it’s not the main thing I do now; for me, it’s mostly conducting. But I have kept my organ playing up, and it’s a rather nice contrast between the two activities: directing the Choir and conducting orchestras on the one hand, and then being able to go out on my own as an organist.

Q: It also says in your bio that you were recently made a CBE [Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire] . That’s quite an honor.

A: Yes, it’s a great honor.

Q: So perhaps just a step or two away from a knighthood?

A: That’s not the sort of thing you speculate about—I’m very happy with what I have now.

Q: That’s the sort of distinction that we miss around here.

A: Well, it’s a peculiarly British sort of thing, isn’t it?

Q: We should talk a bit about the history of the King’s College Choir. It was founded in the 15th century by King Henry VI.

A: King Henry founded the College in 1441, and part of his idea was to build a magnificent chapel with daily services, including music. He agreed that there should a choir, and ever since there has been more or less an unbroken record of a choir in the chapel. Today the choir is constituted somewhat differently from what would have been the case in the 15th century, but essentially the same idea.

Today we have 16 boy choristers and 14 choral scholars, along with our two organ scholars. We have our own choir school; that’s how it’s set up presently.

Q: If I remember correctly, Henry came to power right in the middle of the War of the Roses.

A: Well, there was the major dispute between the houses of Lancaster and York during the early years of the Chapel’s history, when the crown changed hands a number of times, and the College’s fortunes were closely bound up in that.

Q: In other words, a very turbulent time in English history. So in light of that, the founding of the College was all the more remarkable.

A: Yes, well the Chapel took about 75 years to complete. It was finished around 1515, during the reign of King Henry VIII, and the stained glass windows and the interior woodwork were finished in the 1520s and ’30s. The Tudor heritage is reflected in the large numbers of pieces of Tudor heraldry that you’ll find in the Chapel today. Of course, it was a time of religious upheaval as well: the establishment of the Anglican Church during the reign of Henry VIII, through the reign of Elizabeth I. And of course the great religious music of Byrd and Tallis emanates from this time.

Q: I have to confess—I’ve been to Oxford, but never to Cambridge. How many colleges are there in Cambridge University?

A: How many? I’m not exactly sure—I would have to guess around 30 or 40.

Q: And how many choirs? There’s a well-known choir at Clare College—John Rutter used to be associated with that. But I believe that’s a mixed choir.

A: Most of the colleges have mixed choirs, as indeed we do at King’s; we have a mixed choir called King’s Voices. There are three colleges with men-and-boys’ choirs: King’s College, St. John’s College, and Jesus College.

Q: If I had an eight-year-old boy who wanted to sing in the King’s College Choir, how would I go about applying?

A: We hold formal auditions twice a year: once in September and once in January. But I’m always pleased to hear potential choristers at any time of the year. People can get in touch with me to arrange an informal audition. And then we take things from there.

Q: Do you have many more applicants than there are positions?

A: Yes.

Q: So you have to turn people away.

A: Unfortunately, yes.

Q: What can the parent of a chorister expect to pay?

A: I can’t remember exactly what the total fees are, but each chorister is given a bursary by the College that covers roughly two-thirds of the total fees. The parents are then expected to cover the remaining one-third. But we do have additional funds that we can use, or help the parents find, that will relieve them even of that one-third. Because we very much hope that any talented child who wants to come to King’s will not be turned away for financial reasons.

Q: Very good. Perhaps that enables you to attract choristers from overseas, maybe elsewhere in the Commonwealth.

A: Yes—we had a Dutch boy a few years ago, and we recently had a boy from South Korea. We’ve also had an Italian boy recently. So we do get one or two a year from overseas.

Q: How do they adjust to the language problem?

A: Well, in the case of the Dutch boy I mentioned, he is only half Dutch—his mother is English. In other words, he’s bilingual. In the case of the Italian boy, his father is a professor of Italian at Cambridge, and the boy learnt English very quickly. It really only works if the boy is fluent in English.

Q: Have you had any boys from North America in your program?

A: Not as choristers. But a few have come through the choral scholar and organ scholar ranks—indeed, one of our present organ scholars is an American.

Q: So your organ scholars are actual music majors, or reading music.

A: Well, actually this one isn’t; he’s reading history. But the majority of them read music, yes.

Q: Is there an actual music department in King’s College, or in Cambridge University overall? How is the music program structured?

A: With any academic discipline at Cambridge, the teaching is delivered in two forms. There are the faculties for the various subjects, so in the case of music, lectures are provided by the Faculty of Music. But teaching at Cambridge is done at the college level as well. In the case of King’s, we actually have more music fellows than any other college, about four or five of us who teach. Students receive a combination: lectures through the Faculty, and small group teaching through the College.

Q: The Faculty—perhaps that’s what we would call in America the tenured professors?

A: I don’t know how many actually have tenure, but broadly speaking, most of the lecturers in the Faculty would have a College position as well. So they engage in a mixture of teaching.

Q: A bit different from American universities, but it sounds like it works out the same.

A: It’s a bit difficult to explain the Cambridge structure, but that’s the best I can do—a mixture of university and college.

Q: Well, our time is up and I would like to thank you for this opportunity to chat. I hope the rest of the tour goes well, and “break a leg” at tonight’s concert!

A: Thank you as well.

NINE LESSONS AND CAROLS. COMMISIONED CAROLS Stephen Cleobury, cond; King’s College Cambridge Ch; Ben-San Lau (org) KING’S COLLEGE CAMBRIDGE 50001 (2 CDs: 110:51 Text and Translation)

Music by ORD, TRANCHELL, GOLDSCHMIDT, VILLETTE, HURFORD, REGER, WEIR, RAUTAVAARA, BACH. Arrangements by Cleobury, Vaughan Williams, Ledger, Willcocks, Sandström, Nixon, Wilberg; Commissioned Carols by JACKSON, DEAN, TURNAGE, MULDOWNEY, DAVIES, RUTTER

MOZART Requiem (ed. Süssmayr) Stephen Cleobury, cond; Elin Manahan Thomas (sop); Christine Rice (mez); James Gilchrist (ten); Christopher Purves (bs); King’s College Cambridge Ch; Academy of Ancient Music (period instruments) KING’S COLLEGE CAMBRIDGE 50002 (1 SACD + 1CD: 128:48 Text and Translation)

“Realisations”: MAUNDER Amen. LEVIN/BEYER Sanctus. DRUCE Benedictus. LEVIN Cum sanctus tuis. FINNISSY Lacrimosa. Mozart’s Requiem: An Audio Documentary by Cliff Eisen

Last Updated ( Friday, 24 May 2013 )
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