Sir Stephen Cleobury (1948-2019)

SirStephenCleobury - Sir Stephen Cleobury (1948-2019)

Picture: Kevin Leighton / King’s College Cambridge

We join with the whole company of church and choral musicians in mourning the death of Sir Stephen Cleobury, who died on 22 November, St Cecilia’s Day, after a long illness.

May he rest in peace.

A personal appreciation by Dr Simon Lindley

Simon Lindley, St Peter’s Singers’ Director of Music, knew him well and writes:

For so very long a major, often a principal, player in the musical and cultural fabric of Britain, it is virtually impossible to imagine life without Stephen’s presence amongst us.

For those of us deeply fortunate to have known him all his life and ours, the loss is particularly acute. We met as young teenagers, his brother Nicholas, Stephen, myself and others , with us youngsters attending a number of memorable Three Choirs’ Festivals of the mid to late 1960s prior to setting off for college and university and going our various ways in life. We heard Elgar directed by the legendary Dr Herbert Sumsion, Britten’s then new War Requiem in the skilfull and elegant hands of Dr Melville Cook and modern excitement in Christopher Robinson’s spectacular account of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast followed by applause, no less, then previously notably absent from Three Choirs events – or, actually, until then for it has continued ever since!

Stephen was truly fortunate in his early musical mentors who contributed very much to his rounding as a musician and a person – Douglas Guest, Christopher Robinson and Harry Bramma at Worcester of course, and – equally significantly – George Guest during his university years as Organ Scholar of St John’s College, Cambridge. Yet it was clear to his friends and surely, too, to those who guided his career that here was a consummate musician of the very highest distinction in terms of meticulous, yet not inflexible, preparation and so many other virtues that marked him out very early on for the dizzy heights of the most distinguished musical career. His stylistic awareness was remarkable and in middle life he set off for a whole new endeavour with the direction of full time adult choirs of the highest distinction including a memorable twelve-year period in charge of the BBC Singers. One recent review of (yet another) fine recording credits him thus:

If for nothing else, Stephen Cleobury should go down as the man who really recharged the writing of contemporary choral music – not just the Christmas carol, but the fact that his commissioning has affected how people write choral music. In all four corners of the globe people switch on the radio on Christmas Eve and hear a new piece of music.

Many of our finest British present-day composers would echo those sentiments and, along with generations of choristers and students, will experience a sense of bereavement not easily assuaged.

Modest demeanour, measured and deftly articulated speech which his charges found facility in imitating, immense personal kindness and personal support to others in time of difficulty in their lives were a ‘given’. Many wondered if he ever took a day off. I doubt it! As a player, he remained keen to keep in trim as affirmed by many superb solo recordings over four decades while his recitals as accompanist as well as soloist linger long in the memory as profoundly musical experiences.

His career began at the prestigious Anglican parish of St Matthew, Northampton, moving on to posts as Sub Organist of Westminster Abbey and Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral; in the latter position, he did much to stabilise the rocky boat in respect of the sustaining of the finest, and most historic, aspects of Catholic liturgy and the traditional music of the church. Having moved to King’s College Cambridge in 1982 he found himself utilising the magical Gregorian Chants most notably in the “propers” of the Mass and thus providing a living link with music of the pre-Reformation era.

All this is well known and ‘on the record’, as we say. What is less widely publicised is his willingness to further projects for friends, colleagues and musical organisations, conducting Come Sing Messiah performances and further charitable endeavours – it was my immeasurable privilege to do my best as accompanist on a number of such occasions, one of the most tricky being at the keys of the historic instrument in Great St Mary’s, the Cambridge University Church, whilst the maestro conducted the assembly from a distant venue far to the East. The same experience at St Andrew’s Holborn, in support of the Royal College of Organists, seemed an altogether less strenuous option, as indeed it did prove to be. Stephen came twice to Leeds to attend our annual Parish Church choristers’ prize-giving at the heart of the city centre. We never forgot his generosity of spirit in giving up much valuable time at the beginning of a week to support these events.

Towards the end of his long tenure at King’s came the 2016 organ restoration project for which he worked indefatigably in so many ways. Well-deserved honours came his way, including an Honorary Doctorate from Anglia Ruskin University, a CBE in 2009 with the final accolade of knighthood in the Queen’s Birthday Honours this year. Nor should we forget his own contributions and composer and arranger of so much traditional music and very particularly at this time of year – much of it tinged with reminiscences of beautiful utterance from the pages of the Oxford Book of Carols and the Cowley Carol Books of yesteryear.

Our love and gratitude go out to his family and close friends, along with our sorrow that his last years were so challenging in terms of the challenges of health and the subsequently all-too-brief retirement that he had so very richly deserved.

Rest in peace, Stephen, and thank you, from the bottom of our hearts for all that you brought to our lives.