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Dr Stephen John Cleobury (1948 - 2019) CBE

Stephen Cleobury

Areas of Interest


Honorary Award

Honorary Doctor of Music, 2001



Dr Cleobury enjoyed an international reputation as a conductor and organist. He was Director of Music and Organist at King's College, Cambridge, a post he held for over 30 years. He was Conductor Laureate of the BBC Singers, following a period of ten years as their Chief Conductor, and was Director of the Chorus of the Cambridge University Musical Society. He received his early musical education as a chorister at Worcester Cathedral, and was later Organ Student at St John's College, Cambridge. Stephen was then successively Organist at St Matthew's, Northampton, Sub-Organist at Westminster Abbey and Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral.

Dr Cleobury was appointed CBE in 2009.


"Vice Chancellor, the Senate of Anglia Polytechnic University has great pleasure in recommending the award the degree of an Honorary Doctor of Music of the University to Stephen Cleobury for his significant contributions to British church music and its choral and organ traditions.

King's College, Cambridge, holds a very special place in the affections of the nation, both for the sustained levels of musical excellence down the years, and especially for the customary Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols every Christmas Eve. It is fitting therefore that today we do honour to one who has not only been the principal guardian of this excellence for almost twenty years, but a very distinguished musician of international stature in his own right.

Stephen Cleobury was born in 1948, and received his early education at the King's School, Worcester and St. John's College, Cambridge, both renowned incubators for promising church musicians. He embarked on his first major position as Organist of St. Matthew's Church, Northampton, which he regards as an enriching comprehensive foundation for his subsequent career. From thence he moved to become Sub-Organist at Westminster Abbey 1974-1978, a considerably more narrowly defined role in a considerably larger setting, in a foundation with an established reputation, repertoire and traditions. When the opportunity presented itself in 1978 to become Director of Music at the Westminster Roman Catholic Cathedral, this presented a formidable challenge: a very vulnerable musical tradition in the wake of the Second Vatican Council and its loosening up of Latin liturgy; anxiety over severe shortage of funds; and wavering support of music in the Catholic church hierarchy. In no small measure owing to the steadfast and imaginative support of Cardinal Hume at Westminster, Stephen Cleobury was enabled to make a clean start, based on the Cathedral's Choir traditional repertoire of Renaissance music and Gregorian chant, which was also to play a significant role in his future career. He nurtured the particular sound of the Choir which remains one of its distinctive characteristics to this day.

And so, in 1982, to King's College as Director of Music. This, he concedes was an unexpected move, and in a quite different setting to his initiation at Westminster, in that the King's music tradition was already established; was clearly excellent and highly regarded; and relatively well provided for. In short, the size and grandeur of the mighty musical tradition of King's was somewhat intimidating, as was, in his own mind, the shadow of his eminent predecessors, Boris Ord, Sir David Willcocks and Sir Philip Ledger. It is universally expected that King's is a custodian of the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible, and all associated therewith, and he saw his task as respecting this, whilst introducing appropriate musical innovations to enrich this imposing tradition and to ensure its evolution.

The Westminster experience came to the fore with increased recourse to Gregorian chant and Renaissance repertoire, an implicit acknowledgement of the virtues of a certain musical ecumenism. Whilst preserving the essential character of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, he has commissioned new carols by the leading composers, among them, Thomas Adès, Richard Rodney Bennett, Peter Maxwell Davies, Arvo Pärt, Judith Weir and John Woolrich. These annual revelations are awaited with great anticipation by Britain's church musicians. He is therefore very conscious of his obligation to provide, in the recital of Anglican liturgy and music, what he calls 'spiritual refreshment in the context of musical excellence', and those of us who have been privileged to listen to music at King's will have experienced this in good measure.

Like those who have been formative influences on his style and principles (Douglas and George Guest, Sir David Willcocks, Christopher Robinson and Sir John Eliot Gardiner), he firmly believes that musical activities beyond the confines of King's are essential for his professional development; they also enrich his work at King's. He has achieved further eminence as Chief Conductor of the BBC Singers (since 1995), the Cambridge University Music Society (since 1983), groups which have taken him into wider spheres of music, orchestral, secular, choral and contemporary. In a small way he is also an arranger and editor of music. 

He has been very active in those bodies which develop policy and good practice in the field of church and organ music, notably the Royal College of Organists (of which he was Honorary Secretary and President), the Incorporated Association of Organists (former President); the Royal School of Church Music; the Cathedral Organists' Association, (former President); the Association of British Choral Directors (founder member) and the Church Music Society.

He is fully conscious that his responsibilities extend far beyond King's, simply because King's is in many ways, the flagship of all that is excellent in English church music, and improving on excellence is a continuing and never ending task. There are forces which will readily challenge this excellence and the process of adapting to those forces without diminishing the excellence is one to which he continues to devote himself.

In this task, Vice Chancellor, we wish him every success, and accordingly I invite you to confer on Stephen Cleobury the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Music of this University."