Stephen Cleobury (1948-2019)

Celebrated conductor and organist dies, aged 70

Published: November 27, 2019 at 12:00 pm

Stephen Cleobury, the former music director at King’s College, Cambridge, has died aged 70, after a long illness.


Cleobury was appointed director of music at King’s in 1982 and, in a tenure that lasted for 37 years, he was responsible for maintaining the choir’s reputation as one of the finest in the world. He was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2009 Queen’s Birthday Honours and he was knighted in 2019, both for his services to choral music.

Born in Bromley in 1948, Cleobury was educated at St John’s College, Cambridge, where he was organ scholar. Prior to his arrival at King’s, he held positions in Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral.

Cleobury’s discography was as accomplished as it was extensive. One of his most notable recordings was his 2018 album marking the centenary of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. It was in this service, which is broadcast live on BBC Radio 4 every Christmas Eve, where Cleobury’s innovation was brought to the fore. Every year, he commissioned a new carol for the service, which brought forth new works by composers such as John Rutter, Judith Weir and Thomas Adès. Speaking to BBC Music Magazine about the service in December 2013, Cleobury remarked: ‘I hope it ends up being a judicious amalgam of old and new, set in a sequence that’s musically satisfying.’

Cleobury also expanded the choir’s repertoire beyond what was deemed traditional, performing works by Rachmaninov, Kodály, Górecki, Pärt and Janáček. Additionally, he established both the Easter at King’s festival and Concerts at King’s, the latter of which featured world-class performers and ensembles such as Gerald Finley, Alison Balsom and the Academy of Ancient Music. The choir itself established its own record label in 2012.

Away from King’s, Cleobury was chief conductor of the BBC Singers from 1995 to 2007, conductor of Cambridge University Musical Society from 1983 to 2009 and he was honorary president and regular conductor of the East Anglia Chamber Orchestra. Also a celebrated organist, he gave recitals in various locations across the world, including Houston, Cape Town, Westminster and Hong Kong’s Performing Arts Centre.


A book of condolence is available at King’s College Chapel and online.

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