History of the Choir

The Founder’s vision

Henry VI

Henry VI (1421 - 1471) on the lectern in the Choir of the Chapel

When Henry VI founded King’s College in 1441, it was his intention that a choir would provide music for the daily offices and celebrations of the Mass. The College Statutes of 1453 stipulate that the College would consist of a Provost, seventy fellows and scholars, and a choir composed of ten secular chaplains, six stipendiary lay clerks (or ‘singing-men’) and sixteen choristers.

Henry VI specified that the choristers were to be poor boys, of strong constitution and of ‘honest conversation’. They had to be under twelve years of age when admitted, and able to read and sing. In addition to their choral duties, singing daily Matins, Mass and Vespers, they were to wait at table in Hall.

The boys were provided with meals and clothing, and eight pence a week for their board. They were not allowed to wander beyond the College grounds without permission from their Master or the Provost.

The earliest record of a permanent schoolmaster dates from 1456, when Robert Brantham, a former Eton and King’s scholar, held the post of master over the choristers, as well as singing in the Choir.

Except for a few years in the 1550s under Edward VI, and during the period of the Commonwealth in the 1650s, when choral services in the Chapel were suppressed, the Choir has been singing services continuously for over 500 years. 

An historical overview

Chapel elevation

Stages in which the Chapel was built
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In the early years, the fortunes of College, the Chapel and the Choir were closely tied to those of the reigning monarch. During the Wars of the Roses, and especially after Henry VI’s capture in 1455 and death in 1461, Edward IV cut the revenues to the College and reduced the number of choristers (until 1467, when the number was restored to sixteen).

The Choir fared little better during the reign of Richard III and in the early years of Henry VII’s rule. In 1506, though, Henry VII attended Evensong in the still incomplete Chapel and resolved to allow sufficient funds to complete the Chapel and support the Choir.

Even though the Chapel was completed by 1515 by Henry VIII, the Choir continued to sing in a small, temporary chapel, until this collapsed in 1536 and they moved to the current Chapel.

In the early years of the 16th century, Christopher Tye, later to become a prolific composer of Church music, was a chorister at King’s. He later became a fellow of the College, and taught the boys singing.

The Tudor period

During the turbulent years of the Tudor age, as the role of music within the liturgy changed with each successive monarch, the Choir was disbanded around 1550 under edict from the Protestant king, Edward VI. It was reconstituted during the reign of that Catholic Queen Mary (1553-58), and continued to thrive under Elizabeth I (1558-1603), for whom the choristers performed in Chapel in 1565.

Originally the choristers appear to have been local Cambridgeshire lads, either the sons of College servants or of those working elsewhere in the University, or of the lay clerks of the Chapel. But by time of Elizabeth I’s rule, they were drawn from across southern England, with three Devon-born boys recorded as having sung for the Queen herself.

The Stuarts and the Commonwealth

Orlando Gibbons

Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625)

In 1596, the twelve year-old Orlando Gibbons entered the Choir as a chorister, probably under the direction of his eldest brother, Edward, who was then the Organist. In 1598, Orlando entered the University and gained the degree of Bachelor of Music in 1606. At the age of 21, he was appointed as ‘gentleman’ and Organist of the Chapel Royal by James I.

During his short lifetime, he showed himself to be one of the most versatile English composers of the age. His numerous sacred and secular compositions remain in the repertoire; his death on 5 June 1625 is regularly marked by the singing of his music at Evensong.

John Tomkins, brother of the composer Thomas Tomkins, was officially appointed as Organist in 1606 and he stayed until 1625. During his tenure, the Choir flourished and a very high standard of singing was attained.

Following this, however, the Choir’s fortunes fell and, by 1636, when Archbishop Laud sent visitors to King’s, they reported that the ‘choirmen cannot sing and are divers of them very negligent. The choristers ... come to service with surplices and when they list they come without them’.

In 1646, the Commonwealth forbade the recruitment of new choristers, in line with the puritan stance it took against music as part of church services. The organ was dismantled and each time a boy’s voice broke, he was not replaced; by around 1650 only one chorister and five layclerks remained. Sung services were completely suppressed from 1652 to 1660, although the Organist and Master, Henry Loosemore continued to draw his salary from the College.

The Restoration

With the Restoration in 1660, ten new choristers were immediately elected to the Choir. By 1666, the full number of sixteen was attained. The School admitted non-singing boys soon afterwards and, in 1693, a new School, known as ‘the Brick Building’ was built to the south of the Provost’s Lodge.

The 18th and 19th centuries

There were times during the 18th and 19th centuries when the quality of the Choir declined, and although the School never closed down, the Brick Building was appropriated to become part of the Provost’s Lodge some time before 1828 and the choristers had to move out to temporary accommodation.

Possibly because it was the only Chapel in the town which was open to the public, its services were always well attended and there are accounts from the 1750s of the performance of 'extraordinary music' at King’s and of the Choir’s custom of performing from the Chapel roof following sermons.

In the late 1820s and early 1830s, Charles Darwin took such intense pleasure in listening to the anthem on weekdays that he sometimes hired the King’s choristers to sing in his rooms at Christ’s College.

Willaim Sterndale Bennett

William Sterndale Bennett (1816-75)

One highlight of the nineteenth century was the choristership of William Sterndale Bennett. The son of one of the lay clerks, he entered the Choir in 1824, at the age of eight. Two years later, he went to the Royal Academy of Music in London and, when he was 17, he met the composer, Felix Mendelssohn, who invited him to Germany, where he later pronounced him 'the most promising young musician I know’. A prolific composer, Bennett was later Professor of Music at Cambridge from 1856-66 and Principal of the Royal Academy of Music from 1866 to his death in 1875.

Conditions for choristers and the lay clerks were quite abysmal for the first half of the 19th century. There are records of rough initiation rites and brawling in the streets with boys from other schools and thefts from local shops (though the elderly former chorister who in 1899 recalled these events of his boyhood did so with great nostalgia!). Food allowances for the older choristers were supplemented by the left-overs from the mid-day meals at which they served.

In 1856, an Act of Parliament enabled the Cambridge colleges to rewrite their statutes. At King’s, the new regulations regarding the Choir stipulated that choristers were to receive instrumental instruction from the Organist. Financial assistance and bursaries were also to be provided for former choristers who elected to continue their education.

The building of a new Choir School in West Road was completed in 1878. As with many schools and colleges of the time, the facilities were quite austere, with no central heating or hot water and only one bathroom, shared by the Headmaster, his family and the boys.

A new set of rules was drawn up which forbade the choristers from visiting the rooms of undergraduates or receiving presents from members of the University. There were no school uniforms, but choristers were required to wear an Eton suit, top hat and Eton collar going to and coming from Chapel. This remains the custom today. 

The 20th century

AH Mann

AH Mann (1850-1929) in his room

Musical standards and morale during the later 19th century fluctuated depending on who was Organist and Headmaster. In the late 19th century, in order to secure more consistently high musical standards, the College appointed Arthur Henry Mann , the first Organist whose appointment was made as the result of an open competition.

His task was to bring the Choir to greater musical ‘efficiency’, aided by a number of reforming fellows who envisaged the Choir becoming part of the College’s educational mission. Reflecting the importance which the College attached to the post, a house was built for the Organist close to the School on West Road, known as Kingsfield, now occupied by students.

Under A.H. Mann, the lay clerks were gradually replaced by undergraduate singers – ‘choral scholars’. It was, inevitably, a slow process, because of the existing contracts between the College and the lay clerks, and it was not until June 1927 that the last of the lay clerks left the stalls.

Booklet for A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols 1918

Opening page of the first booklet for A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols (1918)
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Among other notable developments was the creation of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols by Dean Eric Milner-White in 1918, based on a Christmas Eve service that had been introduced by Bishop Benson at Truro Cathedral.

Mann reluctantly yielded to suggestions that the repertoire be expanded to include Tudor music, alongside the Victorian music that he tended to favour.

The first radio broadcast from King’s was a Sunday service on 2 May 1926. Then in 1927 and 1929 the new HMV mobile van visited Cambridge to record the choirs of King’s and St John’s. Mann was dissatisfied with the result, however, and and only two of the recorded tracks were released - Bach's ‘Auf! Auf! Mein Herz’ (BWV 441) and ‘Gott lebet noch’ (BWV 46), released in 1931.

In 1928 A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was broadcast on Christmas Eve for the first time. It was broadcast the following year but for reasons that are not clear not in 1930. From 1931, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols has been broadcast annually.

The 1930s saw the founding of an Organ Studentship in Dr Mann’s memory, removing the need for an unofficial assistant organist and adding to the Choir’s educational role. The decade also saw the first tours overseas, with an invitation from the newly formed British Council for Relations with Other Countries to tour Holland, Germany, Denmark and Sweden.

During the Second World War, many choral scholars as well as the Organist and Organ Scholar (Boris Ord and David Willcocks) joined the armed forces. During this time Harold Darke acted as Organist; the School continued to function, but the lower voices of the Choir were provided by a very few choral scholars and a number of volunteers.

The Chapel was dark and cold: the stained glass windows were removed and kept in safe storage, replaced by blackout material and grey tar-paper which rattled furiously in the wind. The BBC, however, continued to broadcast the Christmas Eve service annually. The Choir even took part in a war propaganda film, ‘Christmas under fire’, which was designed to elicit American support for the war effort.

Following the War, the Choir made its first commercial records, and the increase in broadcasting, initially as part of the war-effort, became a habit. In the immediate post-war years, King’s made frequent broadcasts. The first television recording of a shortened version of the Christmas Eve service took place in 1954, and regular TV broadcasts took place from 1963.

The Choir in 1951

The Choir in 1951

In the mid 1950s, when Boris Ord’s health was declining, David Willcocks was appointed Organist while Ord took on the new role of ‘Director of Music’. When Ord died in 1957, Willcocks became ‘Organist and Director of Music’, a title which his successors Philip Ledger and Stephen Cleobury have held.

Continuous expansion led the School to acquire St Martin’s House in Grange Road, which provided new classrooms and junior dormitories; a new choristers’ block was built in 1970 and the school became co-educational in 1976. Its buildings were expanded considerably during the 1990s and in the early 2000s under the headmastership of Nicholas Robinson, providing new chorister rehearsal rooms and individual practice rooms for each of the boys.

In more recent times, the Choir has gone from strength to strength. The international reputation of the Choir was enhanced by the many recordings it made, especially in the early days of LPs, under David Willcocks and Philip Ledger, a tradition which has been maintained and brought into the era of recordings and webcasts by Stephen Cleobury, who was appointed in 1982. It has had fruitful relationships with Decca and EMI, and in 2012 the College launched its own recording label.

The impact of King’s Choir upon the professional music scene has been extensive in recent decades. Sir Andrew Davis, a former King’s Organ Scholar, succinctly sums up the success of many King’s musical alumni:

Their success has a lot to do with the music directors they’ve had. After David Willcocks came Sir Philip Ledger, and now it’s Stephen Cleobury. Plenty of other cathedrals have the same routine but not the same results.

Although the Chapel’s acoustic – extremely resonant but with a softness that makes it extraordinary – also influences the choir’s sound, that halo effect, the King’s sound is quintessentially English, with a purity in the way the boys in particular sing, which could become hooty but never does. The voices are always supremely well blended.

A lot of great singers have come up through that choir, including Robert Tear and Gerald Finley, and they’re always incredibly accomplished musicians. Indeed, the musical training one gets in that choir is incredible because you have to master things to an exquisite level so quickly.

Michael Chance as a choral scholar

Michael Chance (left) as a choral scholar in 1977

The list of distinguished musicians have passed through King’s Choir in recent decades, is indeed extensive, ranging from Sir Andrew Davis and Edward Gardner in the conducting world, the late Robert Tear, Michael Chance, Gerald Finley, Michael George, James Gilchrist, Christoph Genz, Andrew Kennedy and Stephen Varcoe in singing, to Simon Preston, Thomas Trotter, David Briggs and David Goode in the world of organ-playing.

Some, such as Francis Grier and Bob Chilcott, are composers, while others are distinguished instrumentalists, such as the violinist/conductor, Roy Goodman and the clarinettist, Andrew Marriner.

Former Organ Scholars can currently be found conducting and in the organ lofts of Westminster Abbey, Westminster Cathedral, the Temple Church in London, in Durham, Gloucester, Norwich and Peterborough Cathedrals, St Albans Abbey, St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, Magdalen College, Oxford, and Trinity College in Cambridge. The choirs of all the London foundations are well stocked with former members of King’s Choir.

For further information about the Choir, see The Choir today.

Directors

The Choir is conducted by the Director of Music, a Fellow of the College.

  • 1606-1619? John Tomkins
  • 1622-1623 Matthew Barton
  • 1624-1627 Giles Tomkins
  • 1627-1670 Henry Loosemore
  • 1670-1726 Thomas Tudway
  • 1726-1742 Robert Fuller
  • 1742-1799 John Randall
  • 1799-1855 John Henry Pratt
  • 1855-1876 William Amps
  • 1876-1929 Arthur Henry Mann
  • 1929-1957 Boris Ord
  • 1940-1945 Harold Darke (Boris Ord's substitute during the war)
  • 1957 Sir David Willcocks
  • 1974-1982 Sir Philip Ledger
  • 1982-present Stephen Cleobury

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