By Derek Parker

In 1441, King Henry VI ordered King’s College, Cambridge to create a choir to provide music for the daily
celebrations of the Mass in the grand Chapel. It should consist of ten secular chaplains, six ‘singing men’
and sixteen choristers. No-one could have foretold that King’s College Choir would still be singing over five centuries later.

King’s College Cambridge choir

With poverty endemic outside a small group of aristocrats and landowners, it was an unbelievably lucky chance for a Cambridge boy to have a good voice and a natural gift for music: he could settle to daily free meals, free clothing, and a generous eight pence a week for his board. Royal support vacillated, however, and the choir had its ups and downs over the centuries – mainly downs during the Tudor age, when the monarchs attended services and congratulated the choirmasters, but were notably hesitant about handing over the eightpence a week. Artistically, there was a notable up in 1696, when 12-year-old Orlando Gibbons joined the choir and eventually became its ’gentleman and organist’ and most notable composer of the time. His successor John Tomkins (half-brother of the more notable composer Thomas) led the choir for over twenty years, improved its singing enormously and only leaving to become organist at St Paul’s.

From 1649 the choir’s fortunes fell to their lowest: Cromwell’s Commonwealth hated any church music more elaborate than plainsong, the organ of King’s was demolished, and when a boy’s voice broke, he was not replaced. Within a couple of years only one remained. After the Restoration in 1660, singing boys were diligently sought, and the full choir of 16 was restored within the next six years. The talent or sometimes lack of talent of the choirmasters governed the choir’s fortunes from then on not only musically. Discipline was sometimes non-existent: during the first half of the 19th century the choir became notorious in and around Cambridge as a sort of junior Mafia, the boys not only violently beating up rival choirboys from other colleges, but stealing food from local shops, and generally terrorising the town’s citizens.

Music became only a minor interest. No doubt all that contributed to the choir’s notoriously bad performances during the 18th and 19th centuries. Its reputation was restored by William Sterndale Bennett, who joined the choir in 1824 when he was eight. Two years later he went to London and the Royal College of Music, where he met and was taken up by Mendelssohn. Bennett’s interest in King’s Choir persisted after he became a well-known composer and Principal of the Royal College, and he was largely responsible for the rehabilitation of its reputation. A handsome new choir school was built (though King’s College Cambridge Choir there was no central heating or hot water, and only one bathroom – shared by the headmaster and his family).

There is no record of the boys’ opinion of the new rules which required them to wear an Eton suit, high collar and top hat when going to and from Chapel (they continue to do so to this day). One of the wiser rules forbade the boys from accepting gifts from undergraduates or visiting their rooms. The choir’s reputation built and built during the 20th century, thanks in the first instance to the work of organist Arthur Henry Mann, whose love of Victorian church music was intense (he had to be almost forced to allow the choir to perform even Tudor music). He fought bitterly against the idea of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in 1918, but it became one of the choir’s most notable annual performances – heard on the radio from 1926 and on television from 1963.

From the end of the Second War onward, two notable men, Boris Ord and David Willcocks worked diligently to preserve and enhance the work of the choir. New buildings for the school provided modern conditions for the boys – including rehearsal rooms and individual study conditions. In 1976 only the oldest and most Conservative members of the College shivered slightly at the news that the choir was to become co-educational. Since then – particularly under the ægis of David Willcocks and Philip Ledger and later Stephen Cleobury – there have been many recordings of the choir’s work in all the genres in which they might have been expected to specialise, and some more unexpected but no less successful. The choir of King’s College is deservedly world-famous – its only competitor, arguably, the Vienna Boys’ Choir (about fifty years younger) – heard now not only through recordings and live television, but in person, on several worldwide tours. This is a musical establishment of which England can be and is extremely proud.

Celebrating the King’s College Choir on the program Hosanna on Sundays 14 and 21 July at 5pm.