An interview with Stephen Cleobury

June 5, 2018

Lorraine Brugh is currently resident director of Valparaiso University’s Study Centre in Cambridge, England. She is professor of music and the Frederick J. Kruse Organ Fellow at Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, Indiana.

The interview took place in Mr. Cleobury’s office in Gibbs Hall at King’s College, Thursday, October 31, 2017. At 5:30 that afternoon he led the choir in an Evensong for the Vigil of All Saints, with music by Byrd, Palestrina, and Tomkins.

Since the time of the interview, King’s College has announced that Stephen Cleobury will retire from King’s at the end of the 2018–2019 academic year.


Lorraine Brugh: I want our time to include what you’d like to talk about. I’ve thought of four areas I’d like you to comment on and you can add whatever you would like. Those areas are the recent Howells conference, the choir, worship trends, and personal notes. 

Just last weekend, the Herbert Howells Society met here in Cambridge, at St. John’s and at King’s College. You are its current president. What is its mission and current activity?

Stephen Cleobury: There are two organizations, the Herbert Howells Trust and the Herbert Howells Society. Both are, of course, dedicated to preserving the memory of this great man, and the Society is a collection of people who meet together for events such as we’ve just had this past weekend. The Trust is a particular body that allows us to make grants which help to support recording and performance of Howells’s works. These are funded from the royalties from Howells’s estate.  


LB: Would you commend particular organ works to American organists? Some play the Psalm Preludes but most of us don’t go much further.

SC: I think the Psalm Preludes are wonderful. There is a tantalizing aspect to those in my mind. Herbert Howells was acting organist at St. John’s College here in Cambridge during the Second World War. If I understand correctly, he used to come up at weekends and preside over the Sunday services. I imagine he might have improvised on the organ at that time. There may be lots and lots of psalm preludes up in the ether somewhere, but that’s just an idle speculation.

I can only speak of the pieces I know.  There are the rhapsodies, of which the best known is the C-sharp minor, which I played at the end of Evensong. That’s a very forthright piece with a quiet middle section, which is actually the opposite of almost all the psalm preludes that start quietly, rise to a climax and go down again.

The first rhapsody does more what the psalm preludes do: starts quietly and rises to a climax and subsides again, and I think it’s a very beautiful piece, completely different from the third. They are the two better known ones, the first and the third. 

Then there is the Paean which is in the same volume as Master Tallis’s Testament. They are the two pieces I know best from the collection Six Pieces for Organ. The Paean is the nearest thing Howells got to writing a toccata. It is very fast moving, with a lot of sixteenth-note movement. The metronome mark is quite fast. I once asked him if he really expected us to play it that fast and he said he did. I don’t know many people who can. And then Master Tallis’s Testamant, which I think is an outstandingly beautiful piece, in a modal G minor, and again rising, but ending with that little epilogue, that little envoi.  

Everything to do with Howells is about organ management. Organ management, while I wouldn’t say it’s a lost art, is now not always understood. We had a wonderful example of organ management by Nathan Laube who came to play here last year. I don’t think I’ve heard the organ managed better than that very often. By that I mean the ability to grade crescendos and diminuendos perfectly and to treat the organ really orchestrally.

I think that one of the things that has happened is that people have become a lot more interested in authentic performance style for Baroque and Classical music. And that’s absolutely fine; I’m completely signed up for that and do my best to keep up with trends in that regard. But I don’t see that it need also lead to an inability to manage the organ orchestrally.

I think a versatile organist should be able to do both of those things. The challenge for playing Howells is precisely that of managing the sound.

The Partita, which was the big piece I played on Saturday, does have some quite technically demanding writing. However, none of it (Howells’s music) is virtuoso writing in the sense that you’re playing something from the great nineteenth-century French repertoire, or later, Messiaen. It’s not technically that difficult.

It requires one to hold in one’s head the right sort of sound world. Because organ registration, certainly in late nineteenth-century, early twentieth-century English usage, was approached rather differently from the way people naturally approach it now. This can be seen in the organ in the Albert Hall as it used to be. Today we have general combinations and sequencers (steppers), so we can be far too fancy with our registrations, too fussy, because it’s so easy to do, whereas in the old days mostly the pistons were pre-set so that you couldn’t easily change them. If you look at the way they were set, you would find that the crescendo was made by drawing the 8 stops one by one, then the 4 stops one by one, whereas now people would add a 4 to a single 8, then a 2, and so on. That would have worked well at the Royal Albert Hall.

The nineteenth-century orchestra sounds different from a classical orchestra playing on period instruments; the duty of the organist is to reflect different sound worlds as best as can be done on any given instrument. So that’s why I say you need to hold in your head the sound world as best as you can that Howells had in his head. Listen to recordings of the old Gloucester organ made by Herbert Sumison.


LB: Do you think that the German and the north German organ tradition, which builds the sound vertically, has influenced organists today?

SC: Yes, I do. I think you can hear Howells’s music played with too many mixtures. I was talking to Jonathan Clinch about this on Saturday,1 and the very interesting views he has on this. He quotes Howells on that subject:

a. Players were not using sufficient amount of foundation tone, and

b. People were too busy fiddling around with the registration that they lost a sense of musical pulse.

Pulse was very important to Howells. When I worked at Westminster Abbey, long ago now, in the second half of the 1970s (1974–1978), Howells used to come to services sometimes when we were performing his music. I recorded some of it on the Abbey organ. Before that I arranged for him to come and hear me play his pieces. Everyone tends to think that Howells’s music is smooth and broad and redolent of English pastoral scenes. In fact, he was rather a dynamic and passionate man, and was certainly very keen on rhythmic pulse and clarity of texture. Those are two things that people don’t think of in connection with Howells but he really did want them. This might be interesting for American organists. One of the big differences a British organist finds when he/she goes to the United States to play is that you don’t have the stop called “Great and Pedal Combinations Coupled.” You have an independent pedal and you have to register the pedal separately, which is a really good discipline. Here we can get lazy because we have Great and Pedal Combinations Coupled. Here you can push Great Piston 3 and you get an appropriate pedal registration as well. In American organs you have to deal with the pedal separately. I think in Howells that is really important, since his pedal lines are often independent and care is needed to make them clear.

I remember one thing he pointed out to me is that when he writes a pedal point, he doesn’t just put down bottom D for two pages. It is always repeated, rhythmicized, or jumps the octave. He always wanted the pedal to be very alive. I take care when I play to register the pedal so that you can hear it clearly.


LB: Would you like to comment on the organ’s restoration?

SC: We are all thrilled with it. It is still recognizably the King’s organ, but it speaks with a renewed vigor and clarity. I’m particularly pleased about two new ranks, or actually two ranks that were replaced with different ranks. One is a 4 flute on the Great, which you heard in the second movement of the Partita. It is very beautiful. We also introduced a proper Principal 8 in the Pedal, which we didn’t have before. That’s given a whole lot more clarity to the Pedal. Now you can play Bach with a proper principal chorus. Formerly we had a Violoncello, a Geigen, a stringy stop. It wasn’t very good in Bach.


LB: The English organ was slow to develop the independent pedal. Is this a carry-over from that?

SC: Yes, I think it is. But David Willcocks in the 1960s had a lot of new upperwork put in the Pedal. We have had flutes at 16, 8, 4′, and 2 and a 4 Principal and mixture in the Pedal for quite a while now.

I arranged shortly after I came to have the Swell double trumpet (16) made available on the Pedal, which is very useful for playing Bach. You can have the Great and Swell choruses coupled together, but you can access the 16 reed in the Pedal independently.

Although classical Baroque organ music on an instrument like this is a compromise, there are lots of things you can do to make it have integrity.


LB: Both of these things would help with this integrity.

SC: Yes, indeed.


LB: You were also organ scholar at St. John’s. Did you overlap with Howells at all?

SC: No, well not at St. John’s. His service there was in the War, when Robin Orr was away on wartime service, just in the way Harold Darke was here at King’s when Boris Ord was away in the Air Force.


LB: And George Guest was there when you were there? 

SC: Yes.


LB: This collaboration with St. John’s each year—is that a result your being an organ scholar there?

SC: No, you’re talking about the annual Evensong service sung by both choirs. This had been started before I came here as organ scholar at St. John’s, and has probably been going since the early 60s. Originally it was connected with the Cambridge Music Festival, which took place in the summer.

It used to be described as “Evensong sung by the choirs of King’s and St. John’s to mark the opening of the Cambridge Summer Festival.” That has come and gone so we’ve lost that connection, but we have carried on doing the annual service.


LB: I think it’s nice to show that collaboration.

SC: Yes. We choose the repertoire carefully. Each choir is obviously slightly different in its style. We find that if you choose big repertoire like we did this year, like Blest Pair of Sirens by Parry, that sort of piece sounds better with more singers. Some repertoire sounds better sung by one choir or the other.


LB: I was here when you sang a Lassus Mass a couple weeks ago. That sounds best with a small choir.

SC: I quite agree.


LB: Americans are fascinated with the King’s College men and boys’ choir, and how they get trained.  What do you see for their future?

SC: I used a phrase the other day. I gave a speech at a charity dinner, a fundraiser for the Friends of Cathedral Music. In fact, it wasn’t my phrase, but it was actually given to me in the briefing notes. “We are not dealing with some kind of elite group. We are dealing with ordinary children doing extraordinary things.” And it is extraordinary what they do. They are ordinary kids, and they need to play around and be children. I suppose, if anything, what I try to do is to treat them as if they are ordinary people, not as superstars or anything, because they aren’t. But at the same time, you have to manage what they do here. They wear their Eton suits and walk through the college to the chapel. Visitors are coming in here, photographing them, for example, and we have to deal with and manage the issues that arise from that.

As far as the training of them is concerned, we do our best to offer them as broad a musical spectrum as we can. So each boy plays the piano and an orchestral instrument. We teach them theory, they have aural training and sight-reading. We also have a professional vocal coach who teaches them about singing. With children, I think that’s best done on a relatively straightforward and simple level.

Here I’m slouching in this chair, but I’m basically telling them to stand up straight, get their body alignment and balance in good shape, and then thinking about breathing and the easy production of sound, not forcing, just good basic habits.


LB: The older boys model the sound for the younger boys?

SC: Yes, that’s a good point. There are two aspects to the training they get.  You would have seen in the chapel boys in Years 6, 7, and 8. We also have boys in Years 4 and 5 back over the river at King’s College School. They don’t sing in the public services. Some of the Year 5s do. They get one-to-one training, small group training, but they’re also singing along with the older ones. It’s a mixture of specifically targeted instruction on the one hand and modeling, or I call it osmosis, seeping down from one generation to another. One of the things you have to remind the older boys is that they are role models for the younger ones, necessarily.


LB: I saw one of the younger boys relying on another older boy for cues during the Evensong last Saturday, I believe.

SC: I try to place them so there is an older boy next to a younger boy through the ranks.


LB: Could you speak about what goes into the preparation for Christmas Eve Lessons and Carols?

SC: I remember David Willcocks being asked this question. I heard him on a radio interview when I was very young. He gave a typically clever answer that “in a sense you are preparing all the time because every day you’re trying to make the choir sing as well as possible.” I’m not somebody who believes in suddenly trying to up the ante a week before. I try to do it on the basis that it’s what we’re doing every day. That’s not to say we don’t make obviously very special effort for the big occasions. 

I personally feel that unless you’re trying to make it really good every day, you can’t suddenly click your fingers and expect singers to move into another gear for this or that occasion. Because children, especially young children, thrive on consistent expectation, they like to have the ground rules, whatever they are. It’s best to have ground rules, consistency.

Then from my point of view, the preparation is about planning the repertoire, and in a sense I am thinking about that all the time. I’m looking out for publishers catalogues. I get a lot of material sent to me (looking around the office, “a lot of this stuff has been sent to me”), and I do try my best to look properly at everything, because you just never know when a little gem will turn up. And so I have to get all of that organized and sorted out. And then toward the end of November we start in earnest preparing the actual music. We have a carol service for schools here where we air some of the repertoire. We are often asked to sing Christmas carols for a concert. This enables us to prepare gradually through the month of December.


LB: Is it your innovation to commission a new work each year?

SC: Yes, it is. I started that in 1983. When I first started doing it, I got some quite abusive letters from people asking what was I doing degrading this great tradition by introducing horrible, dissonant modern music. 

Now I tend to get the same reaction you are describing. People are keen to hear what it will be. I feel that’s a small achievement.


LB: No small achievement! I wonder how you keep the quality of men and boys from one year to the next.

SC: I remember a comment made by one of the choral scholars when he graduated some years ago, ten or twenty years ago, who said, “I really admire how you peg away every day at it.” And I think that’s what I do, I peg away at it.


LB: Do you see the boys every day?

SC: Almost every day.

We didn’t talk very much about the choral scholars who, of course, are an essential part of the Choir. They sometimes feel a bit neglected. We go on the concert platform, and everyone will applaud the little boys, and then the volume of the applause dies down when the men walk on.

I occasionally do it the other way around and send the men on first. It’s quite interesting to see what the audience does. It is not a question of a front row sixteen trebles with a backing group. All the men are an absolutely vital part of the whole.  

We do services with the men only once a week, and more than that in half-term. I really enjoy those occasions because it gives me a chance to work in detail, in depth, with the choral scholars in a way one actually can’t do when the children are there. They occupy a higher proportion of one’s attention, naturally.


LB: How many of the boys and scholars go on to study music professionally?

SC: Quite a few. It is difficult to put a percentage on it, but a significant number do. Just to mention a few of the organ scholars, there is Sir Andrew Davis in Chicago, Simon Preston, who is, sadly, no longer playing, and Thomas Trotter. That’s just three and there are a lot more.   


LB: Churches in the United States have increasing problems supporting church musicians. How does the Friends of Cathedral Music support church music?

 SC: Friends of Cathedral Music exists to help with funding. I think that funding is an issue for everyone. Everyone thinks the Oxbridge (Oxford and Cambridge) colleges are rich, but they aren’t infinitely rich. We have to make our case for the chapel and the choir within the college as a whole over against educational imperatives, just as you might expect.

In a cathedral, the greatest call on funds is maintenance of the fabric. You can’t have a cathedral choir if the building is falling apart.

It becomes a matter of priorities. In the big London choirs where they are paying a dozen professional singers, it becomes expensive. So there is going to be a continuing need for financial support.

We get no support from central government. The money a cathedral has comes from its endowments if it has any, its lands and assets, if it has any, together with income from visitors.

For instance at Ely, those shops along the High Street, a lot of them belong to the cathedral, and the cathedral derives a rent from them. That’s part of what enables the cathedral to keep going.

Many of them now charge, as we do. I remember in Ely fifteen to twenty years ago, when they introduced charging, there was a lot of heart-searching, shaking of heads. People said it’s awful to charge people to go into a religious building.

One of the clergymen said to me it’s not really about that. It’s a choice. We either charge or we have to close down.

Here, King’s College Chapel is a private college chapel; there is no compulsion upon us to open it to the public. We choose to do so. To make it safe for people to be in there, to heat it, that costs us money.

I don’t subscribe to the argument that it’s a bad thing to charge.


LB: I think you do a good job of separating the worship times and the times the visitors can view the chapel.

SC: That’s got to be done.


LB: In the United States, each parish has to fund its own musicians, and they don’t have land and other support. There are increasingly fewer full-time musician positions. It’s a big issue in the United States, and our system is different than yours. Do you have any comment about our situation?

SC: I don’t have a solution to the problem. I just note what I see. Sometimes I look rather enviously at the level of funding that some of the churches have in the United States. Of course there is a difference. A given parish in the United States, whatever the denomination, has its parish role. Those loyal parishoners see it as a responsibility to see that it is properly funded.

The Church of England is a very different animal, partly because of the established link with the state. I think that, personally, one of the great things about it is that it’s theoretically there for everyone, of all faiths, or no faith. You can be baptized there, married there, and you could be buried there in the parish in which you live.

But there isn’t quite the same degree of community and of financial responsibility. It’s a rather subtle difference but it does makes a difference.

So I go to some churches in the United States that are fabulously well-funded. They have offices, and the director of music has quite a large staff. 

I do understand what you describe because I read about it. If there are fewer people attending church, you have less money coming in.

It’s different here; it’s different again if you go to Scandinavia or Germany where they have had the church tax, which is gradually being abolished in some of these countries. The church had it rather easy when it had the compulsory tax.

If the church loses this revenue, they’ll have to make it the responsibility of people voluntarily to support it.


LB: What you are looking forward to in future projects? How do you nourish your own spiritual life? Does this daily life nourish you?

SC: Goodness . . . . Well, forthcoming events: that’s relatively easy. We have our next United States tour in the spring of 2019, a short tour. I don’t know if we’re allowed to announce yet where we are going. We’re going to Australia in the summer of 2019. We have plans for the UK and Ireland in 2018, and this December we go to Athens.

We have exciting recording plans for a Bruckner Mass, and possibly some more Rutter. And we’ve got a recording coming out of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms.

There’s lots of that going on.  

I think as far as a personal spiritual journey is concerned, as with probably the majority of people, that barometer goes up and down.

I know that Cardinal Hume used to say at Westminster Cathedral, even someone like him, “it’s hard to believe all of this sometimes. Some days it’s harder than others.” That’s something I share with a lot of people.

As to how I perform my job here, I see it as an enabling thing. I want to enable particularly the young people in the choir to experience this wonderful music through liturgy well-conducted.  

I don’t seek to influence them in what they should believe about it. I’m simply laying before them the opportunities, and they take from them what they want. 

It’s really the same in terms of the congregation. So I’m saying, here I am. I’m trying to do this music as well as I can today, and you’re coming to our service. You’ll meet lots of different people, from the college, the university, the town, or visitors from Australia, or Papua New Guinea, and, of course, America. Some will be what one might call card-carrying Christians, some will be lapsed Christians, some will have no particular religious belief or knowledge at all. That’s what makes us very different from a community church in America as we’ve been talking about. Some people think that would devalue the experience for me. I actually think the complete opposite of that.

One of the particular problems the church has today is that it’s easily perceived as being exclusive. If you don’t fit a particular pattern . . . we don’t need to go into the question of gender and sexuality, but we know about all that.

Whereas I think, it’s a cliché, of course, that everyone should be made welcome, whatever their religious standpoint or lifestyle. So if someone comes to the service and hears “Like as the Hart” by Howells, for example, and is moved by that and spiritually nourished by that, that’s great

It’s not my concern whether they’re going to go to the altar and receive communion the next day or not. Those are separate issues. I’m not intending to sound detached about that, but I genuinely feel that.  

There’s another thing I believe in strongly. There’s another side of that coin. I say to the choral scholars (since it’s not necessary for the children at that stage, as they haven’t developed their views), “well look, if you don’t believe this, or don’t agree with it, you still have to behave in a professional way. There are people in the chapel every day for genuine religious reasons to say their prayers, and they don’t want to see you behaving in a way that distracts from that.”

I do insist on what I call a proper professional decorum. It’s important to me that the choir conducts itself properly.


LB: I think that clearly shows. Who have been your own greatest influences?

SC: I was a boy chorister at Worcester. The organist there was Douglas Guest, who’d been an organ scholar here in the late 1930s. The first experience of anything is very formative. Then Christopher Robinson came to be organist there and taught me to play the organ. Harry Bramma was there, a great teacher. Then in Cambridge there was George Guest, of course, whom I worked closely with at St. John’s. I also had good contact with David Willcocks during those years; I played for his rehearsals with the Cambridge University Musical Society. Within the field of church music I would say those are the people.


LB: What about your own composition?

SC: I’m not really a composer. I think I can turn in some fairly decent arrangements. I don’t see myself as a composer of original music. I have composed some pieces and people have been nice about them.

One of the privileges I had when I worked with the BBC singers as chief conductor for ten years was to do a lot of contemporary music, a lot of premières. I found it fascinating to be in close contact with composers. I could tell you a lot about composers from that angle.

One thing that is true of the best composers I’ve met is that they are absolutely consumed with a need, almost a physical need, a mental need certainly, to compose music. It’s something they absolutely have to do.

I don’t feel that kind of an urge to compose. I teach students here to do harmony and counterpoint, so I know how to put the notes on the page in order to do an arrangement. I know how not to write parallel fifths.

It’s the same with going into the musical profession. I remember Herbert Sumison at Gloucester used to advise young people, “If you are thinking about entering the music profession, is it something your innermost feelings make an imperative? If not, you’re much better going off and doing something else and keeping music for your leisure and enjoyment.”


LB: Thank you for your time this afternoon.

 SC: I look forward to seeing you again in the chapel.


1. Dr. Clinch presented a lecture on Howells’s piano music at the Howells Society gathering, October 28, 2017.

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