At the time the Choir of King’s College was created in Cambridge, the king of England in question was Henry VI, and the late-medieval Wars of the Roses were soon to break out. It’s been singing daily services in the college chapel ever since then. Today the choir comprises 16 boy choristers, 14 male university undergraduates, and two organ scholars, and has become an icon of music culture around the world.
“Our regular activities take place during university and school term,” says director of music Stephen Cleobury, reached in his office in King’s College, Cambridge. “We sing services in the chapel on six days a week—the boys on five days and the men sing one day, and there are two services on Sunday. We also sing for Christmas and Easter, and a short period in summer. The two organists are a very important part of the operation because they not only accompany the choir but assist me with training it.”
Change came slowly to the choir over the centuries. “I think the choir would have been of clerks in minor [religious] orders singing plainsong originally, and gradually more and more polyphonic music,” Cleobury explains. “Then came the Reformation and they were singing repertoire from the newly emerging Anglican Church. Since about 1878 we’ve had a school across the river from the college in which our choristers are educated. Previously, they were children drawn from the town. In the early 20th century the professional lay clerks were replaced by the undergraduate choral scholars. So it has changed a bit.”
The voices now reach beyond the ancient chapel walls. The Choir of King’s College is best known for its annual Christmas Eve performance of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, broadcast by the BBC since 1928 and reaching millions of global listeners. Typically, the choir tours twice each year, with a few one-off engagements as well. For 2017 the major tour is to North America, which finds the Choir of King’s College performing in Vancouver for the first time since Cleobury became director 34 years ago.
The ensemble’s touring program spans everything from 16th-century composers William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons to 19th-century masters Anton Bruckner and Johannes Brahms, suggesting that Cleobury enjoys a large degree of freedom in his choice of material. “As well as singing in services and giving concerts, we’re also educating young people, so I like to give them as wide a range of repertoire as I can,” he says. “We do everything from Gregorian chant right through to newly commissioned works. It’s principally sacred music, because that’s what we sing in the chapel, and I’ve found over the years that audiences in our concerts like to hear the sort of repertoire we’re best known for doing. But we also sing with orchestras—for instance, we’re performing the St. Matthew Passion when we get back from the tour in April.
“Currently, we’re making a recording of motets by William Byrd,” he continues. “After that, we’re at a few summer festivals, and in September we’re going to Rome to sing in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore and in St. Peter’s. I’m always kept very busy. As director, my work involves recruiting, auditioning, administering, and managing the choir, but most importantly rehearsing and preparing it for singing.”
The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, plays the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Sunday (March 26).