The Choir of King’s College Cambridge – SOLD OUT!

Sunday March 26, 2017 | 2:00pm (Pre-concert talk 1:15pm)
Chan Shun Concert Hall at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts | Map

Buy Tickets...SubscriptionsAdd to Calendar26-03-2017 2:00 pm26-03-2017 6:00 pmThe Choir of King’s College Cambridge – SOLD OUT! Sunday March 26, 2017 | 2:00pm (Pre-concert talk 1:15pm)The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge is undoubtedly one of the world’s best known choral groups; every Christmas Eve, millions of people worldwide tune into A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, a service that has been broadcast by the BBC since 1928. Chan Shun Concert Hall at the Chan Centre for the Performing ArtsDD/MM/YYYY

King’s College Choir; Stephen Cleobury


The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge is undoubtedly one of the world’s best known choral groups; every Christmas Eve, millions of people worldwide tune into A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, a service that has been broadcast by the BBC since 1928. While the Choir exists primarily to sing the daily services in King’s College Chapel, its international fame and reputation, enhanced by an extensive recording catalogue, since 2012 on their own label, has led to invitations to perform around the world.

“Moments of iridescence… creating vividness in restraint through the unadorned splendour of this superbly polished vocal sound.” – Sydney Morning Herald

“I would happily sit in King’s College Chapel listening to this choir sing for the rest of my days.” – The London Times

Supported by the Alvin S. Nemetz Foundation, and Birgit Westergaard & Norman Gladstone



William Byrd (1543-1623)                 Rorate coeli

William Mundy (1529-1591)             Sing joyfully

Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625)          This is the record of John

William Byrd                                        Laudibus in sanctis

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)               Le Gibet

Organ solo by Richard Gowers

Olivier Messianen (1908-1992)       O sacrum convivium

Gabriel Faure (1845-1924)               Cantique de Jean Racine

Maurice Durufle (1982-1986)         Ubi caritas Durufle

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)           Hodie Christus natus est


Henry Purcell (1659-1695)               Jehovah, quam multi sunt Purcell

Giovanni Gabrieli (1556-1612)         Exsultavit cor meum in Domino

O magnum mysterium

Henry Purcell                                       I was glad

Orlando Gibbons                                 Fantasia

Organ solo by Henry Websdale

Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)            Christus factus est

Charles Villier Stanford (1852-1924) O for a closer walk with God

Percy Whitlock (1903-1946)               Jesu, grant me this, I pray

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)          Schaffe in mir, Gott


Programme Notes


Byrd ‘full’ anthems are presented here alongside examples of the new ‘verse’ anthem. In the former, the choir sings unaccompanied, whilst in the latter, sections for solo voice are contrasted with those for the full choir, with accompaniment for viols or organ.

Rorate coeli – William Byrd (1542/3, London-1623, Stondon Massey)

Rorate coeli, proper to the season of Advent, is in the form of an Introit (which would have been sung as the priest processed to the altar at the beginning of Mass). In this genre, an antiphon, (‘Rorate’), is followed by a psalm verse, (‘Benedixisti…’) and the ‘Gloria Patri…’, following which the antiphon is repeated. As is the case in this work, which has a five-part texture, the verse is usually written for reduced voices, here three.

Sing joyfully – John Mundy (c.1555-1630, Windsor)

Mundy was Organist at Eton and at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, and in 1585 became Organist at Westminster Abbey. Like Byrd he wrote works in both Latin and English. This appropriately buoyant setting of words from Psalm 81 features a bass soloist. The composer particularly enjoys giving expression to the sounding of the trumpet.

This is the record of John – Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625, Canterbury)

Gibbons was a King’s chorister when his elder brother was Master of the Choristers, later studying music at the college. This setting of words from the first chapter of St John’s Gospel was commissioned by William (later Archbishop) Laud, when he was Master of St John’s College, Oxford (dedicated to John the Baptist). By the 1630s, manuscript copies of this verse anthem could be found in cathedral libraries across England.

Here the countertenor carries the solo part and the composer, renowned for his great sensitivity to the English language, reacts imaginatively to the text. For example, the melody moves up and down the scale by step at the words ‘make straight the way of the Lord’.

Laudibus in sanctis (1591) – William Byrd

This grand motet, from Cantiones Sacrae, sets a paraphrase of Psalm 150. The only places these pieces could have been performed liturgically were Oxbridge chapels and the Chapel Royal; Byrd described them as ‘songs which, from their subject-matter, are called sacred’, and he may have intended them for country houses with musically-literate catholic families.

Piano Solo: ‘Le Gibet’ from Gaspard de la Nuit, Trois poems pour piano d’après Aloysius Bertrand (1908; premiered in Paris on 9 Jan 1909 by Ricardo Viñes)  – Maurice Ravel (1875, nr Biarritz -1937, Paris

Gaspard de la Nuit is a collection of poems published in 1842 by Aloysius Bertrand, who used the conceit that he had met a mysterious old man in a park in Dijon who lent him the volume of poems; when he tried to return the book, he was told that M. Gaspard, the old man, was in hell, because he was, in fact, the devil. The third of the poems to which Ravel gives pianistic expression in this wonderfully impressionistic piece in E flat minor, depicts the body of a hanged man on a gibbet; a bell tolls from the walls of a distant city, while the corpse is reddened by the setting sun. The piece is played tonight by Richard Gowers.

The four composers in this group enriched French choral repertoire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Duruflé and Messiaen were influenced by the renaissance of interest in Gregorian chant, led by the monks at Solesmes.

O sacrum convivium (1937) – Messiaen (1908, Avignon-1992, Paris)

This meditation on the Blessed Sacrament is the only piece Messiaen wrote with a strictly liturgical text. A slow-moving piece for unaccompanied choir, it draws on the distinctive harmonies of Messiaen’s early style. The texture is basically homophonic, the trebles briefly breaking through in the ‘alleluia’. It closes with one of Messaien’s favorite chords, the added sixth.

Cantique de Jean Racine, Op.11 (1864) – Gabriel Fauré (1845, Pamiers-1924, Paris)

 Racine published this paraphrase of the hymn Consors paterni luminis Fauré’s in 1688; the 19-year old Fauré’s charming setting won first prize in a competition at the École Niedermeyer de Paris. The beguiling melody is touched with delicious harmonic turns. The accompaniment presents, Schubert-like, a continuous stream of triplets. The music rises in intensity in the central verse and closes in a mood of intense calm.

Ubi caritas from Quatre Motets sur des thèmes grégoriens, Op.10 (1960) – Maurice Duruflé (1902, Louviers-1986, Louveciennes)

 Duruflé was steeped in liturgical music from his days as a chorister at Rouen Cathedral. Unlike Messiaen, he was no innovator. His music looked back to Fauré, Debussy, Ravel and Dukas and was extensively based on Gregorian chant. Of his Requiem he wrote:

I have attempted to penetrate to the essence of Gregorian style and have tried to reconcile, as far as possible, the very flexible Gregorian rhythms as established by the Benedictines of Solesmes with the exigencies of modern notation.

Thus he approaches the Quatre Motets, which set liturgical texts: Ubi caritas is sung at Mass on Maundy Thursday, commemorating Christ washing his disciples’ feet.

Hodie Christus natus est from Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël (1951-2)- Francis Poulenc (1899, Paris-1963, Paris)

Poulenc was brought up a catholic by a father whom he described as ‘profoundly religious, but in a very liberal way’. This enabled Poulenc to reconcile his religion with his homosexuality and might explain why his sacred and secular writing shared the same luscious harmonic language.

These motets contrast with the more austere Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence. This, the fourth motet, displays an exuberance typical of this composer.




Purcell wrote works for the theatre and other secular music, but was also involved in the revival of the Anglican choral tradition following the Commonwealth. Gabrieli’s music, from an earlier period, complements that of Purcell, exhibiting many of the same features, including the basso continuo and passages in triple time.

Jehovah, quam multi sunt (c.1682) – Henry Purcell (1659, Westminster-1695, Westminster)

This dramatic setting of Psalm 3 was possibly intended for use in the private Catholic chapel of Charles II’s queen, Catherine of Braganza. The use of Latin at this time did not necessarily indicate a particular religious persuasion. Latin was appreciated by listeners as varied as Pepys and Cromwell. It was also a way of courting an international audience.  The text is associated with King David’s flight from Absalom. Noteworthy is the expressive section, ‘I laid me down and slept’, and the dramatic bass solo in which the breaking of teeth is graphically represented. The work ends with a sunny triple time section. With its succession of contrasted sections, it is almost a mini-cantata. The late Sir David Willcocks had a particular love of the passage ‘I laid me down and slept’ and the Choir sang it at his memorial concert on St Cecelia’s day 2015.

Exsultavit cor meum (1615) – Giovanni Gabrieli (1557, Venice-1612, Venice)

The words of this anthem, published in Gabrieli’s second book of ‘sacred symphonies’, are taken from 1 Samuel 2, Hannah’s song of thankfulness for the birth of the child for which she had prayed, which prefigure the Song of Mary – the Magnificat. This is a full anthem in the Renaissance style in which successive phrases in the text are each given a particular ‘point of imitation’.

O magnum mysterium (1615) – Giovanni Gabrieli

St Mark’s, Venice, with its various locations for musical ensembles, provided Gabrieli with opportunities to write for ‘opposing’ groups of singers and players. This piece, set for two contrasting four-part choirs, is typical. In this period, some vocal lines were taken by instruments. Today the full choir sings the first choir part, while a countertenor sings the top part of the second choir, the other voices being assigned to the organ.

I was glad (1685) – Henry Purcell

Charles’s brother James succeeded to the throne in 1685. Purcell’s contribution to his coronation was this exuberant setting of Psalm 122. Francis Sandford’s account of the coronation was published the year before James’s deposition and flight from England, in the wake of the arrival of William and Mary (James’s daughter) who shared the throne from 1688.

Sandford’s work identifies the musicians who took part and the positioning of the anthems. I was glad was sung by the choirs of Westminster and the Chapel Royal as they entered the Abbey ahead of the King and Queen. With its many changes of metre, it cannot have been the easiest of pieces to sing in procession.

Fantasia (1612) – Orlando Gibbons

This work is one of Orlando Gibbons’s contributions to the collection of keyboard pieces published in 1612 as Parthenia or the Maydenhead of the first musicke that was ever printed for the Virginalls. Indeed, this was the first printed collection of music for keyboard of any kind in England. ‘Virginals’ is here treated as a generic word and covered all plucked keyboard instruments, such as the harpsichord and virginals, though most of the pieces in the collection, to which William Byrd and John Bull also contributed, can equally well be played on the clavichord or the organ – or, indeed, by stringed instruments playing in ensemble – such as collections of viols. This particular piece presents a series of points of imitation in the manner of a renaissance motet. It is played on the chamber organ tonight by Henry Websdale.

The early 19th century saw the gradual introduction of ‘hymn-anthems’, settings of strophic hymns, rather than biblical passages. Initially regarded as an encroachment of dissenting practices (Wesley being an early exponent), the genre became increasingly accepted, even within the Oxford Movement (especially when the texts were based on medieval Latin originals). Late Victorian congregations, who enjoyed hearing a familiar tune, loved them. Two examples of this genre are enclosed tonight by two of the finest motets from the German 19th century tradition.

Christus factus est (1884) – Anton Bruckner (1824, nr Linz – 1896, Vienna)

Bruckner heard Wagner’s Parsifal in Bayreuth in 1882, and would have noted the use of the ‘Dresden Amen’ in the second part of the Grail-motif. This Amen, consisting of a sequence of six notes, was composed by Johann Naumann (1741-1801) for use in the Royal Chapel in Dresden, from which it had spread throughout Saxony. Wagner would have been familiar with the device from attending church as a boy in Dresden; Mendelssohn used it in his Reformation Symphony in 1830, and Bruckner used it in several of his motets as well as in his Ninth Symphony. He uses it twice here in Christus factus est, at ‘exultavit illum’ and ‘super omne nomen’. Devotees of the Anglican choral tradition will know that Stanford also made use of it. This piece opens and closes quietly, reaching a shattering climax at its central point and makes much use of dramatic silences. It is a setting of the Gradual for Maundy Thursday, which is based on Philippians 2:8 – ‘Christ became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross’.

O for a closer walk with God (1910) – Charles Villiers Stanford (1852, Dublin-1924, London)

Stanford was a significant figure in late 19th century Cambridge. Organist of Trinity whilst yet an undergraduate, he was Professor of Music by the age 35.In 1909 he wrote Six Bible Songs for solo voice and organ, followed in 1910 by Six Hymns for choir and organ, based on existing hymn tunes; he intended each hymn to be sung after one of the songs. O for a closer walk was to follow ‘A Song of Wisdom’. The anthem is based on the tune ‘Caithness’ from the Scottish metrical psalter (1635). The words are by William Cowper, who, with John Newton (author of ‘Amazing Grace’) produced a book comprising 350 hymns. His text ‘Walking with God’ is inspired by Genesis 5:24, ‘And Enoch walked with God’.

Jesu, grant me this, I pray (1927) – Percy Whitlock (1903, Chatham, Kent-1946, Bournemouth)

This hymn-anthem, unusual in that it is penitential, unaccompanied, and in a minor key, was written for the choir of Rochester Cathedral, Kent, where Whitlock was assistant organist from 1921-30. The words, which appear in Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861), are a translation by Henry Baker of the 17th century Latin hymn, Dignare me, O Jesu, rogo te.

Schaffe in mir, Gott   Op.29 no.2 (1856-60) -  Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

With the exception of the German Requiem, Brahms’s choral writing is less well-known than his symphonies and chamber music. It does, however, represent an important seam in his compositional output and he was himself a skilled and experienced choral conductor. In this motet, based on words from Psalm 51, most famously set by Allegri, Brahms displays his consummate command of contrapuntal techniques. He was a subscriber to the first complete edition of the works of J.S. Bach and we find here, perhaps unsurprisingly, not only a well-developed fugue, but also, in the opening passage, a remarkable canon; the second bass part is an augmentation of the soprano line. Because the music moves so slowly, this is something more obvious to the eye (looking at the score) than to the ear. The relative austerity of the opening sections is dispelled by the overwhelmingly joyous conclusion.

© Emma Cleobury 2017

Artist Bios

King’s College Choir

Founded in the fifteenth century, the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge is the pre-eminent representative of the British church music tradition. It is most famous for singing A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, the Christmas Eve service that the BBC has broadcast since 1928. Today, King’s College Choir comprises 16 boy choristers, aged between nine and 13 years, and 14 male undergraduates, reading for degrees in a variety of subjects. There are also two organ scholars.

Singing at daily Chapel services is the Choir’s primary duty, and has been since the foundation of King’s College in 1441, when King Henry VI envisaged that the Choir would provide music for the daily offices and celebrations of the Mass in his new Chapel.

Daily services are not the Choir’s sole commitment today though: its worldwide fame and reputation, enhanced by its many recordings, has led to invitations to perform around the globe, and to an extensive international tour schedule.

Stephen Cleobury

Stephen Cleobury has for over quarter of a century been associated with one of the world’s most famous choirs, that of King’s College, Cambridge. His work at King’s has brought him into fruitful relationships with many leading orchestras and soloists, among them the Academy of Ancient Music and the Philharmonia. He complements and refreshes his work in Cambridge through the many other musical activities in which he engages.

At King’s, he has sought to maintain and enhance the reputation of the world-famous Choir, considerably broadening the daily service repertoire, commissioning new music from leading composers, principally for A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, and developing its activities in broadcasting, recording and touring. He has conceived and introduced the highly successful annual festival, Easter at King’s, from which the BBC regularly broadcasts, and, in its wake, a series of high-profile performances throughout the year, Concerts at King’s. One of the most exciting innovations in this context was the first ever live simultaneous transmission of a concert (Handel Messiah) direct to cinemas across Europe and North America.

Between 1995 and 2007 he was Chief Conductor of the BBC Singers and since then has been Conductor Laureate. During his time with the Singers, he was much praised for creating an integrated choral sound from this group of first-class singers, all of whom are professional soloists in their own right. With the Singers he relished the opportunity to showcase challenging contemporary music and gave a number of important premieres, including Giles Swayne Havoc, Ed Cowie Gaia, and Francis Grier Passion, all these with the distinguished ensemble, Endymion. His many recordings with the BBC Singers include albums of Tippett, Richard Strauss and Bach.

From 1983 to 2009 he was Conductor of the Cambridge University Musical Society, one of the UK’s oldest music societies, a role in which he has not only conducted many orchestral works, but most of the major works for chorus and orchestra. Highlights have included Mahler Symphony No. 8 in the Royal Albert Hall and Britten War Requiem in Coventry Cathedral on the 50th anniversary of its bombing. His recordings with CUMS include Verdi Quattro Pezzi Sacri and Goehr The Death of Moses. As part of the 800th anniversary celebrations of Cambridge University he gave the première of The Sorcerer’s Mirror by Peter Maxwell Davies.

Performances as an organ recitalist also find him travelling the world. He has played in locations as diverse as Houston and Dallas, Leeds and Birmingham Town Halls, Westminster, Lincoln and St David’s Cathedrals, the Performing Arts Centre in Hong Kong, Haderslev Cathedral in Denmark, and Salt Lake’s huge LDS Conference Center, where he played to an audience of several thousand people. At the American Guild of Organists’ Convention in Minneapolis-St Paul in 2008, he gave the première of Judith Bingham’s organ concerto, Jacob’s Ladder; in the Messiaen centenary year he performed La Nativité du Seigneur in King’s Chapel. He has recorded Bach Clavierübung Pt.3 and the Leipzig Chorale Preludes for BBC Radio 3; discs of on the organ of King’s include albums of music by Howells and Elgar and Priory Records have released a DVD of popular repertoire.

Stephen has played his part in serving a number of organisations in his field. From his teenage years until 2008 he was a member of the Royal College of Organists, serving this organisation as a Council member, Honorary Secretary, President and Vice-President. He has been Warden of the Solo Performers’ section of the Incorporated Society of Musicians and President of the Incorporated Association of Organists; he is currently Chairman of the IAO Benevolent Fund, which seeks to support organists and church musicians in need. He was appointed CBE in the 2009 Queen’s Birthday Honours.