MUSING WHILE I WORK
by Clare O'Brien
Just learned a few moments ago of the death of Sir Stephen Cleobury.
Some of you are probably thinking “who?” Classical musicians don’t command the same level of recognition as pop stars and rock legends, and most of the time they’re probably more than grateful for that. I’ve worked for both, and the stresses and strains that led to the death of my more recent employer Chris Cornell wouldn’t have come close to touching Stephen.
The Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge was a deceptively quiet man, dignified and bespectacled, famous for presiding over the start of Christmas for half the world. My children knew almost from birth that Christmas doesn’t begin until the first notes of “Once In Royal David’s City” soar out of King’s College chapel via BBC radio, and Stephen was the man who upheld that long tradition – the Festival Of Nine Lessons and Carols – for nearly 40 years. He did much more than just that, but I’m not writing a career retrospective here. You can get the whole story from his Wikipedia page, from this Classic FM obituary (which contains some video) and from countless reviews of the marvellous music he helped create and record. Better still, just seek it out and listen to it yourself.
Instead, I want to remember the year I spent working for him at King’s before I left to start a family and nurture it in the wilds of Scotland. His quiet sense of humour, his passion for music and for teaching. His funny stories about Cambridge life, and the even funnier stories his students told me about him. It was because of him that I got to experience a world I would never otherwise have touched, a world in which I could rub shoulders with the gods of the classical music world, work inside a 15th century building and once narrowly miss colliding with the Queen in a corridor. I never did learn to look where I was going.
Knighted in the Queen’s Birthday Honours this last summer, Stephen died on St Cecilia's Day – St Cecilia is the patron saint of music - which probably would have amused him in a sardonic sort of way. He had recorded Britten’s Hymn to St Cecilia with King’s College Choir and his sense of the religious, though never a standard kind of devotion, was always vibrant, spun through his interpretation of the church music to which he gave his life. He had a young family with his second wife Emma, and it must have been a source of great pride when his nine-year-old daughter became a chorister at York Minster last year.
Some time after I stopped working at King’s, I returned to interview Stephen for a Christmas feature commissioned by a glossy magazine. It was only then that I thought to ask him what kind of music he listened to at home. “Anything but choral,” was the wry reply. Knighted only this last summer for his long service to choral music, he didn’t have long enough to savour whatever he was enjoying in retirement. Prog-rock? Bebop? Dubstep? I’ll never know. But he made a mark on the world while he was here, and this year’s Christmas will be bittersweet.