Founded in the 15th century, the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge has long been renowned as a unique representative of the Anglican church music tradition and recognised for its very special sound. Its music directors have been famously long-lived – Boris Ord (1929-1957) and Sir David Willcocks (1957-1973) to name but two – and since 1982, the choir has been led by the indefatigable Stephen Cleobury.

Choir of King’s College Cambridge. Photo supplied by Musica Viva

In May 2018, it was announced that Daniel Hyde would become the Choir’s new Director of Music in October 2019 following Cleobury’s planned retirement this September, and its latest Australian tour for Musica Viva was to have been Cleobury’s last after 37 years at the helm. However, due to illness, Hyde is stepping in ahead of schedule to lead the nine-date tour that will take in Perth, Adelaide, Canberra, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.

Limelight caught up with Hyde, who enjoys a long-time association with King’s, to talk about growing up in the British choral tradition, his hopes for the future, and filling Cleobury’s sizeable shoes.

You grew up in the Anglican choral tradition. As a boy, how did you relate to that world and tradition?

I was a chorister at Durham and I suppose I didn’t really know anything different. I’d shown some musical flair and I just thrived on all the singing. At that age you soak it all up. It wasn’t for everybody, but for me it seemed like the most normal thing ever.

So, what led you to gravitate to the organ?

As a kid, I stood underneath this massive instrument, singing as a chorister with the organ accompanying us. I was always fascinated by the kaleidoscopic sounds and the power behind those massive instruments. I played the piano from a very early age, but then my voice broke a full year before I was due to leave the choir so it was kind of a logical progression up to the organ loft.

Your relationship with King’s goes all the way back to winning an organ scholarship age 18 and arriving as an undergraduate age 20. What was it like rocking up on day one?

Pretty daunting. I still remember it clearly and see that as a good thing to remind myself of what’s going on in the minds of the next intake. Having grown up in these kinds of buildings, it was amazing to finally sit down and get on with the job. It was very challenging, it still is very challenging, and it was a proper old-fashioned apprenticeship where you’re expected to deliver. You learn what the standard is, you learn that there’s a standard below which you do not stoop, and you work damn hard.

Daniel Hyde. Photo © Ian Douglas

When you arrived, your Director of Music was Stephen Cleobury. Was that a key relationship for you early on?

Yes, you have a close working relationship with people who are your mentors and I suppose from that point onwards Stephen’s been a key guiding figure in my development. Obviously we’re good friends and we get along very well but originally he was the boss and I learned an extraordinary amount from him.

At what point did you decide that, among other things, you fancied becoming a choral conductor?

I don’t think it was necessarily a conscious date in a diary, but I think it was a logical transition after doing a lot of work as an assistant – chorus mastering and playing piano for a lot of different people in rehearsal. I learned a lot by observation in my time at King’s and one appreciates a lot more what it’s like up on the podium when you’ve been on the other side – on the receiving end of it.

As a choral conductor, do you have an ideal sound in your head?

I suppose I have an ideal sound for different choirs in different types of repertoire. I wouldn’t say I would want a choir to sound the same across 500 years of music, but I have an idea of how a choral sound might change depending on what repertoire we are singing.

With choral directing, do you find there are specific musical priorities coming up again and again?

A lot of people think it’s a lot about accuracy and tuning – and I think it is about that – but I think it’s also the way to change the sound and the variety of colours. Interpretative power comes from really working at the language, and of course with that comes vowel colour and unanimity of vowel sounds. That in itself helps tuning. Tuning is not so much an issue that one talks about all the time, but good tuning comes as a result of fine tuning the nuts and bolts of what’s going on in the choir.

You moved to New York in 2016. Was there a reason?

It was an unexpected move. John Scott, who was my predecessor [at St Thomas’s Fifth Avenue], very unexpectedly keeled over and died on the job. It was never expected that one of the prime choral positions in the US would become vacant, so it was all a bit of a surprise really. Sometimes you need to go up for things that are not part of the plan, and I figured I was only going to be offered a job in New York once in my life. Of course, it turned out to be a great thing to do.

Was there anything in particular you’d say you learned from conducting an American choir?

Of course, it is the same tradition, but the choir sounds American – you can hear certain sorts of American dialect and vowels – and I wasn’t going to try and make them sound too English. I think we had four different mother tongues among the children, so they weren’t all speaking English as their first language. Some were Spanish, we had a bit of Mandarin, Korean, so how to blend the sound really was an amazing experiment. It created all sorts of interesting challenges and possibilities.

King’s College Cambridge choristers. Photo supplied by Musica Viva

Is there any element of that in King’s?

There’s an equally diverse background – I think it’s become more and more diverse – which of course is a very good thing. I’m sure if one were to do a project and trace the choir through recordings you’d hear a great shift in vowel sounds, but I reckon if you were to ask Stephen if he has consciously changed the sound of the choir, he’d probably say no. You work with the materials you’ve got – it’s not about trying to impose a set idea.

Returning to King’s, was that always a dream job for you?

I think I was always pretty realistic that I could have the ambition to return to King’s, but that a lot of people would want to take the job. Stephen’s been doing it for nearly as long as I’ve been alive – I was two years old when he got it – so I sensed that I’d be joining a long queue. Now, of course, I’m flattered to actually be about to do it.

Is the sense of tradition that comes with that job daunting? Do you feel that makes the job complicated?

It’s great to have that sense of tradition because people have confidence in it, people want to see it succeed. But yes, I think it probably will be daunting on Christmas Eve, for example, when a lot of people will be listening. People are usually quick to voice their opinions. Stephen is the only person who knows what it’s like to be in the driving seat and I’ll become the next person still alive to know it. Sometimes you just have to remind yourself that you’re doing a job and you’re doing the absolute best that you can with what you have. As long as you’re doing that, I think you can shut out the background noise.

Have you sat down and thought about what you might like to do differently? Or are you taking it as it comes?

I’ve certainly got ideas as you’d expect, but I’m very keen not to assume that because I was here 20 years ago that I know how the place works because of course it’s quite different now. The choir school is bigger, the projects that the choir has done, the development of an Easter festival, these sorts of things were only embryonic when I was a student. So, I want to see how it all works. I want to see what the pacing is of a season, how things flow. I don’t want to come in and just change things for the sake of it because of course one has to be a steward of this tradition. I think the best way to develop something is not to make massive sweeping changes but to be open to understanding how it has worked for so long and therefore be better informed when the time comes – maybe after a few years – to say I’d quite like to do this or that differently.

Daniel Hyde. Photo © Ira Lippke

Looking at the repertoire for the Australian tour, obviously there’s Purcell, Stanford, Parry, Tallis, Byrd and Finzi – cornerstones of the Anglican repertoire. Are there any that you have a special affinity for?

The slightly unusual thing is, of course, that this is Stephen’s program – I’m stepping in on this tour at late notice. I’ve been thinking a lot about the music to make sure I do a top job for him, but my usual inclination has been towards the earlier stuff – the Purcell, the Byrd, the Tallis. Anything English and 16th century you’ll probably find it gets my vote. But then I grew up on the Wesleys and the Howells and the Finzis, so I’m rather enjoying getting back into that.

Unlike contemporary orchestral music, contemporary choral music is often popular with general audiences. Are there particular ideas behind contemporary rep on the programs – Ross Edwards, Judith Weir and Errollyn Wallen?

Judith and Errollyn are members of King’s – they were students here – and the choir has just recorded some pieces of Errollyn’s to go alongside some instrumental works, which will be released on a CD in about a year’s time. One of the things we’re able to do is champion the music of many of our own: Thomas Adès, George Benjamin, all these people were at King’s. Of course, one great legacy of Stephen Cleobury is that he commissioned a lot of music and if we’re not doing it, then who is? You’ve got to take that responsibility, and so I think bringing it on tour is a good thing.

Is there a piece in particular that you think might surprise and delight Australian audiences?

I hope that Ross Edwards piece will go down a storm because obviously it’s a great privilege to have something commissioned for a tour and to be able to premiere it in the country. Also, Bach’s Komm, Jesu, Komm is one of my favourites. I remember singing that as a kid and just thinking this was amazing music. Of course, it’s repertoire that’s known through professional adult ensembles but it’s always great to get the kids singing it, a bit like Bach had at the Thomaskirche. For me, that’s one of the high points of our repertoire list.

Daniel Hyde conducts the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge on tour across Australia for Musica Viva from July 20 – August 6