Conductor, organist and composer Sir Stephen Cleobury, director of the famous Choir of King’s College Cambridge for 37 years, has died aged 70.

“It is with great sadness that King’s College has learned of the death of Sir Stephen Cleobury,” the Choir of King’s College Cambridge said in a statement. “Following a long illness, Stephen died peacefully in the late evening of 22 November – the feast day of St Cecilia, patron saint of music and musicians – in York, where he had lived since his retirement in September.”

Sir Stephen CleoburySir Stephen Cleobury (1948 – 2019). Photo © Kevin Leighton

“As Director of Music, Sir Stephen served this College with distinction for nearly four decades,” said the College’s Provost, Professor Michael Proctor. “On this truly sad day, the College community, and indeed many around the world, are mourning his passing with a profound feeling of loss. Our thoughts and prayers are with Sir Stephen’s family and the Choristers and Scholars of our choir who worked so closely with him.”

Cleobury was born in 1948 in Bromley, Kent, and began his musical training as a chorister at Worcester Cathedral. He held numerous positions as an organist in the 1970s before being named master of music at Westminster Cathedral in 1979.

Cleobury was appointed Organist and Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge in 1982, a position he held until his retirement earlier this year. He led the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge in the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols each Christmas Eve – conducting the 100th anniversary concert last year – and the ever popular Carols from King’s concert. In 1984 he established an annual tradition of a newly commissioned carol for Christmas Eve, as well as Easter at King’s. He also toured and recorded extensively with the Choir, collaborating with ensembles including the Academy of Ancient Music, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the Philharmonia, Britten Sinfonia, the BBC Concert Orchestra and Endymion. His final recording with the Choir was music by Herbert Howells, a composer Cleobury championed across his career. Cleobury was due to make his final tour to Australia with the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge for Musica Viva Australia this year, but had to withdrew due to illness.

“During his long tenure, Stephen enhanced the reputation of the Choir and extended its reach by developing its activities in broadcasting, recording and touring,” the Choir said. “His influence as a teacher and role model to young musicians has been felt by thousands of singers and organists who have been Choristers, Choral Scholars and Organ Scholars at King’s.”

In 1983 Cleobury was appointed conductor of the orchestra and chorus of the Cambridge University Musical Society, who named him Conductor Emeritus in 2016. “He was an inspirational musician, teacher and mentor and he will be greatly missed,” the Music Society said in a statement.

He also led the BBC Singers as Chief Conductor from 1995 to 2007, and was named the ensemble’s Conductor Laureate in 2007. “He was a much loved member of the BBC Singers family and will be greatly missed. Our deepest sympathies are with his wife Emma and his family,” the ensemble said in a statement.

Cleobury’s numerous awards include honorary doctorates from Anglia Ruskin University and the University of York. He was president of the Royal College of Organists from 1990 to 1992, a Fellow of the Royal College of Music and received an honorary fellowship from the Royal School of Church Music in 2008. He was named a CBE in 2009 and this year he was knighted for his services to choral music. A memorial service will be held in the King’s College Chapel later this academic year.