The King's College Choir is one of today's most accomplished and renowned representatives of the great English choral tradition. It was created by King Henry VI, who founded King's College, Cambridge, in 1441, to provide daily singing in his Chapel, which remains the main task of the choir to this day.
Today the choir is directed by Stephen Cleobury and derives much of its fame from the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, broadcast worldwide to millions on Christmas Eve every year, and the TV service Carols from King's which accompanies it. The choir commissions a carol from a contemporary composer for each year's Festival.
The statutes specify that the choir consists of ten chaplains, six clerks (lay singers) and sixteen choristers who were to be "poor and needy boys, of sound condition and honest conversation ... knowing competently how to read and sing". Perhaps recognising the workload placed upon the choristers who were to sing Matins, Mass and Vespers daily, the statutes also stated that "they should be doubly occupied with their prescribed duties and with their education".
When Henry VI was deposed during the Wars of the Roses in 1460, the choir was probably reduced in numbers due to lack of funds, although by 1467 the full choir was in residence again. During this time the choir were singing in a temporary chapel, with the main King's College Chapel still being under construction. On 22 April 1506 Henry VII visited Cambridge and attended evensong, and the following day heard mass with Bishop John Fisher. Following this visit, he resolved to fund continued construction, which was continued by his successor Henry VIII, completion finally coming in 1536.
Elizabeth I visited the chapel in 1564, and attended evensong on 5 August and again the following night, although she turned up late, causing the service to be restarted. It is recorded that pricksong was sung (an early form polyphony with a melody performed as a counterpoint to a plainsong) as it likely had been since the foundation of the college.
During Oliver Cromwell's rule the number of choral services were reduced, and departing choristers were not replaced. By 1651 there was only one chorister left and by 1654 there were none. Lay clerks were still retained during this time; it is likely that they sang secular anthems, including on Guy Fawkes Night. Upon the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, ten choristers were appointed immediately; the choir was at full strength by 1666.
In 1827 a survey of choir schools in England noted of King's: "the Choristers attend service in the Chapel once a day in the afternoon on common days; on Sundays and Saints' days twice, morning and evening. They are also permitted to sing at the Chapels of other Colleges, and at St. Mary's Church. They are instructed in singing by the organist, and in reading, writing, and arithmetic by a master appointed by the College. The Statutes prescribe that they should be under 12 years of age at their admission. They are generally admitted about eight years of age, and leave the Choir when the voice breaks."
By the 1860s it was recognised that musical standards in the choir needed improvement.John Jebb's 1843 enquiry into Anglican choirs found that "in Cambridge, the Choral Service has suffered mutilation in every place where it is retained. King's College has reduced the original number of its Conduct Chaplains from three to one; and though retaining its sixteen Choristers (which evidently were intended to be proportionate to a more numerous body of adult singers), there are but a small number of Clerks, too weak for the magnificent organ which accompanies them, and for the unrivalled Chapel where they minister. The Choir indeed attends twice daily; but the prayers are not chanted (a very modern innovation), and at the Sunday morning service the Nicene Creed is not sung.". Amongst the lay clerks, whose duties were at this time divided by also singing at Trinity, indiscipline and absenteeism were common.
Reform began after the passing of the Cambridge University Act 1856, which enabled the statutes and governance of the college to be altered. Two chaplains and twelve lay clerks were specified, and sharing duties with Trinity was ended in 1871. The same year a new Master over the Choristers was appointed, who was tasked with being "watchful of their moral conduct" and "maintaining disciple without undue severity at all times". Conditions for choristers were improved with the intention of recruiting boys from a higher social background. They were given instruction in instrumental music and financial assistance upon leaving.
To further widen the field for selection it was decided to open a boarding school instead of paying for choristers to be lodged with local families. From 1876 it was decreed that choristerships should be open to all candidates "whether resident in Cambridge or elsewhere" with those resident outside the city lodged at the expense of the college, and a purpose-built King's College School was opened two years later. Also in 1876 it was decided that choral scholarships were to be awarded, with students replacing the permanently employed lay clerks. Existing contracts meant this was a slow process, with the last clerk leaving in 1928.
1876 also saw the appointment of a new organist on an increased salary, Arthur Henry Mann. There was little if any formal training of choir instructors at this time in England - most were organists who taught the choir following whatever technique they themselves had been subjected to as former choristers. Mann was fortunate in this regard having been a chorister at Norwich Cathedral under the renowned Zechariah Buck. Mann was therefore an outstanding choir trainer himself and greatly improved the reputation of King's College Choir. He worked on improving the diction and timing of the choir to allow them to work with the acoustic of the chapel and its particularly lengthy reverb. He also opened up services to the public, where previously visitors needed written permission to attend.
The statutes of the College provide for sixteen choristers. These are boys who are educated at King's College School. They come from a variety of backgrounds with bursaries being available to families unable to afford the subsidised school fees. Boys usually join the choir as probationers aged eight following a successful audition at age six or seven. After two years as probationers they enter the choir as full choristers, departing three years later or earlier if their voice changes.
From the beginning of the 20th century the fourteen lower voices of the choir have been provided by undergraduates who sing as Choral Scholars. These students must gain an academic place at Cambridge University as well as successfully obtaining a choral award at King's College through an audition process. They remain in the choir throughout their typically three year degree. Although some will study for a degree in music, many study other subjects with only medicine and architecture being incompatible.
Very occasionally, a Lay Clerk may be appointed in place of a Choral Scholar, usually if a vacancy arises unexpectedly: for example, when a student, having gained a conditional place at the college (subject to A-level grades being achieved) fails to meet the conditions. Such Lay Clerks have, to all intents and purposes, the same status as a Choral Scholar. The few Lay Clerks that have existed (since the establishment of Choral Scholars) have often been Choral Scholars agreeing to remain for an additional year.
The Choral Scholars form collectively, in their spare time, a separate group, The King's Men, singing a wide range of music written for men's voices, from early music through to barbershop arrangements (many of the latter having been written exclusively for the group by present/former Choral Scholars).