Every year in King’s Chapel, Cambridge there is a Founder’s concert when former choral scholars in the famous choir (in my day known loosely as “the chaps”) are invited to return to the college and sing with the current choir. Extra trebles and a few sopranos are roped in as well in case the balance becomes too bottom heavy, and the repertoire is large-scale, with a good student orchestra to accompany. Afterwards, there’s a dinner in Hall. It’s an excuse for a reunion and a chance to rekindle the old lags’ connection with a period in their lives when, as very young adults, they were part of an ensemble of extraordinary professional standards; an ensemble that during seven services a week, as well as numerous tours and recordings, strives to set a standard by which choral singing throughout the entire world is measured.
For this year’s concert in March, it being the Queen’s diamond jubilee, Stephen Cleobury asked Philip Ledger to conduct the pieces he had recorded with the choir back in 1977 for the Silver Jubilee. These were Parry’s I was glad in the full-length orchestral version and Elgar’s Coronation Ode in which Philip asked me to be the tenor soloist.
This time last year, Philip and I had performed three songs at Bob Tear’s memorial service in the chapel. We struggled to keep our composure as we remembered our friend (Philip and Bob were especially close) particularly during the last song, Britten’s The Choirmaster’s Burial. The very next day, Philip felt unwell and within a short time had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
As the disease progressed, Philip worried that he wouldn’t be able to manage to conduct the entire Jubilee programme in the Founder’s concert, so he decided to conduct just the Parry at the start of the concert, and Stephen took over the rest. Stephen also asked me to write a short tribute for the programme book.
On the day, Philip rehearsed with his usual meticulousness, energy and good humour, taking nothing for granted and injecting a flare and sense of scale that, I would say, was very much his trademark. There was nothing mechanical or fiddly about the way that Philip conducted.
At the start of the concert I slid into the back of the Chapel to hear what we had to assume would be the last thing he ever conducted, in the place which had meant so much to him. I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like for him, but for me it was simultaneously heart-wrenching and uplifting, a deeply painful but joyous paradox. It was incredibly moving and I wept copiously. Philip took his bows and walked to the back of the Chapel where Stephen was waiting to congratulate and hug him. Philip broke down in tears, thanked Stephen profusely for asking him to conduct, and left the Chapel, followed by his family.
I saw Philip several times since, at his home in the Cotswolds. He loved to hear all the latest gossip and swap funny stories from our days at King’s. He was never maudlin or self-pitying, and if he was depressed he did a fantastic job of hiding it, even just three weeks ago when I went with Matthew Best to see him.
As we drove away, Philip and Mary stood at the door and waved. I had no idea it would be the last time I would see him. I always thought and hoped there would be a next time.Here’s what I wrote for the Founder’s concert programme:

There’s a photograph I can remember vividly, taken very close to where you are sitting now. The ante chapel is full to bursting point with hundreds of musicians. By the west door is the enormous Kneller Hall Brass Band. Then there are four soloists, the entire Philharmonia Orchestra, and by the organ screen crowds the CUMS Chorus and the chapel choir. In the middle somewhere amongst the vast sea of musicians and microphones is Philip Ledger, wearing a chunky polo-neck sweater, conducting. The year is 1977 and we (I was in the chapel choir at the time) are recording the Coronation Ode and I Was Glad. The extraordinary thing – aside from a general concern that the roof might collapse from the sheer volume of the enterprise – was, and still is, that Philip was 39 at the time. In my book, as a 53 year-old, that practically makes him a child prodigy.

We were very lucky, we King’s “chaps”, to start singing with musicians of the highest calibre while we were in our teenage years. In my short three years we saw the likes of Janet Baker, Bob Tear and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (to name but a few) in here working with Philip. He expected of us as much as he expected of them. Sometimes it was terrifying but most of the time it was (I can say now with many years of singing in the interim) simply the most extraordinary music-making I have yet experienced. Suddenly, on a dull mid-winter afternoon, the psalms during Evensong would become filled with spine-tingling intensity, an anthem would elevate from something polished and well-executed to something transcendental and overwhelming. From my time in the choir, three events stand out: singing Purcell’s Remember Not Lord on the day that Philip’s friend and mentor Benjamin Britten died, the Byrd 3-part Mass one Christmas Eve after the carol service, and a concert in Hiroshima Cathedral; all events of heart-stopping intensity and passion, which are not characteristics you would normally expect from a college chapel choir. But that was Philip working his magic.

I count myself extremely blessed to know Philip as a musician (he is without doubt the finest accompanist I’ve ever sung with) and as a friend, a blessing I share with all of his “chaps”. I don’t think the words “I was glad” can even begin to express the depth of our feelings or the weight of our gratitude to him.
Thank you, Philip.

Comments (1)

  1. Reply

    Although I was not a student there, when Philip became head of music at the University of East Anglia I auditioned for and was accepted into his choir. While we were certainly no King’s College Chapel choir Philip demanded the total effort and commitment of every member of that choir. In return he gave us his energy and enthusiasm and led us in performances that we would not have thought ourselves capable. It was because of Philip that I became a regular performer at the Aldeburgh Festival and travelled the length and breadth of the land being directed by him or by Ben Britten in concerts that are now seared into my memory and which enriched my life beyond any normal measure. Yes, indeed, Philip – thank you!

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