Sir Stephen Cleobury, who directed the choir at King’s College, Cambridge, for nearly four decades, has died at home aged 70.
The British conductor, organist and composer died on the patron saint of music and musicians Saint Cecilia’s Day, following a long illness.
Cleobury was director of music at King’s for 37 years and was perhaps best known for his direction of one of the world’s most-famous choirs.
Stephen Cherry, the dean of King’s College, praised his great contribution to choral music and said the “depths of his love of music” was moving.
A statement released on the King’s College website read: “It is with great sadness that King’s College has learned of the death of Sir Stephen Cleobury. Stephen died last night, 22 November, in York, his hometown since he retired in September, after a long illness. He died peacefully in the late hours of Saint Cecilia’s Day, the patron saint of music and musicians.”
Michael Proctor, the college provost, said: “As director of music, Sir Stephen served this college with distinction for nearly four decades. On this truly sad day, the college community, and indeed many around the world, are mourning his passing with a profound feeling of loss.”
He added that his thoughts and prayers were with Sir Stephen’s family and with the choristers and scholars of the choir who worked closely with him.
In a video posted on YouTube, Cherry said: “The death of Sir Stephen Cleobury, our director of music for 37 years before he retired just a few short months ago, while not unexpected, has brought home to us even more profoundly not only how great his contribution to choral music has been but also how closely we all work together in our small community and how important the bonds of friendship, collegiality and love are to us all.”
Praising his dedication to the relentless schedule of rehearsals and services that was part of his job, Cherry said: “He justly prided himself on meticulous preparation and his attention to detail was as astonishing as the range of his knowledge was impressive, and the depth of his love of music was itself moving.”
Cleobury was well known for presiding over the world-famous Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, which is broadcast live on BBC radio on Christmas Eve each year. In December 2018, Cleobury conducted the choir in the 100th anniversary of the event, broadcast live to millions of listeners around the world.
He also commissioned a number of new choral works from leading composers, and was known particularly for introducing the now-annual commissioned carol at the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.
He also had a long association with the BBC Singers and the Cambridge University Musical Society. Earlier this year, he was knighted in the Queen’s birthday honours for services to choral music.
In an interview with the Guardian last year before the choir’s live Christmas broadcast, Cleobury was asked if he always intended to stay for so long as music director. “I never had a plan,” he replied. “It’s been immensely stimulating and rewarding. Who wouldn’t want to go into that building [the college’s cathedral-sized chapel] each day and make music?”
Of the performance itself, he said: “I shall be full of emotion. I’m sometimes accused of being a bit buttoned up, but I’m not really.”
A book of condolence has been placed in King’s College Chapel while an online book of condolence is available on the College website.
A memorial service will be held in the College Chapel later this academic year.