A Conversation With…Stephen Cleobury

Just as his new collection of hymn arrangements for SATB choir has been released, Stephen Cleobury visited the store to sign copies and have a chat with us about the release. Stephen Cleobury has been Director of Music at King’s College in Cambridge for almost 32 years, and is a renowned composer, arranger and conductor.

His music and performances have been heard around the world on both radio and television. This new collection is accessible and enjoyable, allowing a lot of freedom when deciding the tempo and dynamics.

Our sheet music manager Jon Kingsman spoke with Stephen about the book:

Jon: “Welcome to Millers Music Stephen, can you tell us a little about your new book Hymns From King’s?”

Stephen: “Well Hymns From Kings is a set of arrangements of 20 popular hymns for various seasons of the Church’s year, and many of them have been written anew especially for this book, although some date from earlier years. What I’ve been keen to do is preserve the traditional idea of the Descant, but also to make the arrangements interesting for choirs, so some of the intervening verses are for unaccompanied choir or different combinations of voices with the tune not always in the top part, and then the final verses have, in nearly every case, an obvious descant but the choir also has four parts to sing. So really the aim has been to provide descants but to keep a higher level of interest than normal for the choir.”

Jon: “What standard of choir is the book aimed at?”

Stephen: “They’re very straight forward, there’s a little bit of divisi writing, but not very much. I think they’re very manageable.”

Jon: “What have been the most popular hymns in the selection so far?”

Stephen: “Well the book has only just come out of course, so it’s maybe a bit early to say. But one of my favourites (seems a funny thing to say I’ve a favourite of my own), one I wrote a few years ago, has found it’s way into this book, Praise My Soul The King Of Heaven, which is the last one in the book actually. This particular one doesn’t have the four part format for the choir because it’s an older one. The ones I’ve done more recently, such as Love’s Divine, All Loves Excelling, you’ve got a verse for divided Tenors and Basses, half a verse for Sopranos and Altos, then it starts with the Descants in the last verse, then unison, then the choir breaks into full harmony, and the tune is there in the tenor parts, so the tune isn’t always in the top.”

Jon: “What would you consider the minimum size the choir would have to be?”

Stephen: “You’d need a minimum of two of each voice, so at least eight people”

Jon: “And its been done with Piano accompaniment rather than Organ?”

Stephen: “No very definitely Organ accompaniment, but all are easily adaptable to the Piano.”

Jon: “I notice that Love’s Divine All Loves Excelling is written to the Welsh Hymn tune Blaenwern more associated with the Methodist Church than the Anglican congregation”

Stephen: “Yes I suppose it is but I think it’s such a great tune that it’s worth including that.”

Jon: “Can you remember what the highest note the Sopranos have to reach is?”

Stephen: “Probably A, there might be a B flat somewhere. One of the things I think you have to do when you’re writing these things is write the Descant quite high, and then it’s easily audible. Once it gets down to the same level as the tune it can easily get buried.”

Jon: “Do you envisage these being used regularly with the congregation singing all the verses as well?”

Stephen: “Well some of the verses really are for the choir only, so you’d have to have a situation where if there was a service sheet it would say for example that the choir doesn’t sing in verse two, but I think the way that they’re laid out it makes it fairly obvious what the possibilities are. I’ve found to my pleasure that this tune Just As I Am, [Without One Plea] works well as a canon, so sometimes I’ve written a little Organ introduction, and in this case it’s part canonic.”

Jon: “And this one [Just As I Am, Without One Plea] out of the American Pentecostal tradition”

Stephen: “Indeed I can tell you’re the expert here on all these Hymns! Harvest hymn there [Come, ye Thankful People, Come], Handel… this actually started life as an arrangement for Organ and three Trumpets which is slightly reflected there in the [Introduction], and then I swing into a different key for the middle verse, and go back again, that can be a bit naff but I hope I’ve done it in a tasteful way.”

Jon: “How readily available are recorded versions of these?”

Stephen: “Not at all [currently], but we’re hoping to make a recording of the majority of contents of the book with the Kings College Choir, next year.”

Jon: “Stephen, thank you very much for your time.”

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