Director of Music
Christopher Gray took up his current post as Director of Music at St John’s College Cambridge in April 2023. With responsibilities centreing around the College’s celebrated choir and organ, he works with the Choristers, Choral Scholars, Lay Clerks and Organ Scholars to provide music that enhances the liturgy of the beautiful Gilbert Scott chapel, upholding a tradition that dates from the 1670s.
After his early musical education in his hometown of Bangor, Northern Ireland, Christopher became Assistant Organist at St George’s Parish Church, Belfast. At the age of 18 he moved to England to take up the organ scholarship at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he read music. A Fellow of the Royal College of Organists, Christopher studied the organ with David Sanger and Nicolas Kynaston at Cambridge. He was subsequently taught by Margaret Phillips at the Royal College of Music, where he was a post-graduate student and a prize-winner. During this time, he also held the organ scholarship at Guildford Cathedral, working with Stephen Farr and Geoffrey Morgan.
In 2000 Christopher was appointed Assistant Director of Music at Truro Cathedral, working closely with Andrew Nethsingha and then Robert Sharpe. In 2008 he became Director of Music, taking on responsibility for the cathedral choir and its seven sung services each week, as well as the Father Willis organ. Under his direction, Truro Cathedral Choir has recorded extensively, including a series of single-composer albums that have consistently received generous praise from critics in the international classical press, with three CDs receiving ‘Editor’s Choice’ recommendations in Gramophone. He has directed the choir in dozens of live broadcasts for national radio and television, including BBC Radio 3 Evening Concerts. During his time at Truro, Christopher commissioned new pieces of music from some of the UK’s leading composers, including Paul Drayton, Graham Fitkin, Gabriel Jackson, Sir James MacMillan, Sasha Johnson Manning, Russell Pascoe, Philip Stopford and Dobrinka Tabakova. Under his direction the Choir has broadcast and recorded with the BBC Concert Orchestra, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the City of London Sinfonia. As Musical Director of Three Spires Singers and Orchestra Christopher has conducted most of the large-scale choral repertoire.
Previous Directors of Music
Professor Stephen Darlington MBE was Director of Music and Tutor in Music at Christ Church, Oxford, from 1985 to 2018. Previously he was Master of the Music at St Alban’s Abbey and Artistic Director of the world-famous International Organ Festival.
Stephen will take up the post in Lent Term 2023 after Andrew Nethsingha, who has been Director of Music at St John’s since 2007, leaves the College to take up the role of Organist and Master of Choristers at Westminster Abbey. A permanent Director of Music will be appointed
Stephen has an extensive discography, comprising over sixty CDs, includes several award-winning recordings. Stephen has travelled worldwide both with Christ Church choir and as an organist and conductor, directing, amongst others, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, London Mozart Players, English Chamber Orchestra, Northern Sinfonia, Hanover Band, English String Orchestra, London Musici, Oxford Baroque and Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra.
Stephen was President of the Royal College of Organists from 2000 to 2002 and until recently was Choragus of the University of Oxford. He is the holder of a Lambeth Doctorate in Music and is the Chairman of the Ouseley Trust. He is also an Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of Music, Fellow of the Royal School of Church Music and Honorary Canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. He was awarded an MBE in the New Years Honours List in 2019.
Performing in North America, South Africa, the Far East, and throughout Europe, Andrew Nethsingha was Director of Music at St John’s College, Cambridge from 2007 to 2022. He has released over 25 albums with the Choir of St John’s. He helped to set up the recording label, ‘St John’s Cambridge’, in conjunction with Signum Classics. The first release on this label, DEO (music by Jonathan Harvey), was a 2017 BBC Music Magazine Award winner. Six recent albums have been ‘Editor’s Choice’ in Gramophone Magazine. Pious Anthems & Voluntaries (music by Michael Finnissy) was runner-up in the Contemporary category of the 2021 Gramophone Awards. His announcement that in future the St John’s Choir will include male and female voices, both adults and children, was hailed by Classic FM as “one of the 10 defining classical moments of 2021.”
Andrew Nethsingha was a chorister at Exeter Cathedral, under his father’s direction. He later studied at the Royal College of Music, where he won seven prizes, and at St John’s College, Cambridge. He held Organ Scholarships under Christopher Robinson at St George’s Windsor, and George Guest at St John’s, before becoming Assistant Organist at Wells Cathedral. He was subsequently Director of Music at Truro and Gloucester Cathedrals, and Artistic Director of the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival.
Andrew’s concerts conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra have included: Mahler’s 8th Symphony, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Britten’s War Requiem, Brahms’ Requiem, Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius and The Kingdom, Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, Poulenc’s Gloria and Duruflé’s Requiem. He has also worked with: the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, London Mozart Players, Britten Sinfonia, Orchestra of St Luke’s (New York), Aarhus Symfoniorkester, and BBC Concert Orchestra. Venues have included the BBC Proms, Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Verbier Festival, Tokyo Suntory Hall, Konzerthaus Berlin, and Singapore Esplanade.
In January 2023 Andrew moved to a new post as Organist and Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey.
Renowned for his fine musicianship, David Hill is widely respected as both a choral and orchestral conductor. His talent has been recognised by his appointments as Musical Director of The Bach Choir, Music Director of Leeds Philharmonic Society, Associate Guest conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Principal Conductor of Yale Schola Cantorum, and International Chair in Choral Conducting at the Royal Northern College of Music. He was Chief Conductor of the BBC Singers from September 2007 to September 2017 and is a former Music Director of Southern Sinfonia.
Born in Carlisle and educated at Chetham’s School of Music, of which he is now a Governor, he was made a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists at the remarkably young age of 17. Having been Organ Scholar at St John’s College, Cambridge, David Hill returned to hold the post of Director of Music from 2004-2007. His other appointments have included Master of the Music at Winchester Cathedral, Master of the Music at Westminster Cathedral and Artistic Director of the Philharmonia Chorus. He holds an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Southampton for Services to Music, and in March 2018, he was honoured with the prestigious Royal College of Organists medal, in recognition of distinguished achievement in choral conducting and organ playing.
David Hill has a broad-ranging discography covering repertoire from Thomas Tallis to a number of world premiere recordings. As well as achieving prestigious Grammy and Gramophone Awards, many of his discs have been recommended as Critic’s Choices, with his ongoing series of English choral music for Naxos, and discs for Hyperion with the Yale Schola Cantorum receiving particular acclaim.
Hill has appeared with the BBC Symphony and BBC Philharmonic orchestras, London Philharmonic, City of London Sinfonia, English Chamber Orchestra, Royal Northern Sinfonia, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, the Orchestra and Chorus of Welsh National Opera, the Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North, Ulster Orchestra, Hallé Orchestra, RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg, Réal Filharmonia de Galicia, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Omaha Symphony, and Portland Baroque Orchestras as well as the Netherlands Radio Choir and RIAS Chamber Choir, Berlin.
In January 2019 David Hill was awarded an MBE for services to music.
Christopher Robinson was born in 1936 and educated at Rugby and Christ Church, Oxford, where he was Organ Scholar. After a period as Organist and Master of the Choristers at Worcester Cathedral from 1963-75, he moved to St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, where he was Organist and Choirmaster until 1991, when he succeeded George Guest as Director of Music at St John’s College. He was conductor of the Oxford Bach Choir from 1976 to 1997 and of the City of Birmingham Choir from 1964 to 2002. As well as conducting most of the large-choir repertoire with the City of Birmingham Choir, there were also concerts of special note. For example, Christopher Robinson’s expertise in and affinity for Elgar’s music produced several highly praised performances of The Dream of Gerontius. In 1981 he conducted Messiaen’s La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jesus Christ and in 1989 two highly acclaimed performances of Tippett’s Mask of Time. The Choir gave a widely praised first performance in England of The Jacobite Rising by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.
He holds honorary degrees from Birmingham University and the University of Central England and is an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Music. He has been Chairman of the Elgar Society and President of the Royal College of Organists. In 1992 the Queen bestowed on him the honour of Commander of the Victorian Order for his services at Windsor Castle, and in the summer of 2002, the Archbishop of Canterbury made him a Lambeth DMus. He became an Honorary Fellow of the Guild of Church Musicians in Autumn 2003 and received a CBE in the 2004 New Year’s Honours List. Since retirement in 2003 he has continued to be active as a conductor, composer, keyboard player and mentor to young musicians. In 2006 he was Acting Director of Music at Clare College and from 2015-17 was Mentor to the Organ Scholars at Downing College. In 2019 he continued to work with various college choirs, including Queens’, King’s and Caius. He was Interim Associate Director of Music at King’s during the Hilary Term and Acting Precentor at Caius in the Easter.
George Guest was born in Bangor, Wales. His father was an organist, and George assisted him by acting as organ blower. He became a chorister at Bangor Cathedral, and subsequently at Chester Cathedral, where he received organ lessons from the sub-organist, Dr. Roland Middleton. He passed the examination for ARCO in 1940, and FRCO in 1942. By this time he had become the organist and choirmaster of Connah's Quay parish church, Flintshire. George Guest was always proud of his Welsh roots and from the 1970s onwards took a personal interest in the Cambridge University Welsh Society (Cymdeithas Y Mabinogi), sponsoring many of its events and providing a welcome face for Welsh students away from home. At the age of 18 he was called up for military service, and joined the Royal Air Force, being posted to India in 1945. On leaving the services in 1947 he took up the post of sub-organist at Chester Cathedral. The cathedral organist, Malcolm Boyle, encouraged him to apply for the Organ Scholarship at St John's College, Cambridge, in which endeavour he was successful. At Cambridge he studied under Robin Orr. In his final year as Organ Scholar, Robin Orr announced that he intended to retire, and the College Council offered the post to Guest.
Within five years of Guest becoming Organist and Choirmaster, the whole future of the Choir at St John's College came into question, with the proposed closure of the day school which provided the Choristers. Guest, with the support of his predecessor, persuaded the College to found a Choir School. Under George Guest's direction, the choir built up a formidable reputation, challenging the supremacy of the choir of King's College, Cambridge. Guest introduced a more "continental" tone into the choir, as George Malcolm was doing at Westminster Cathedral. The choir began broadcasting on the BBC in the early 1950s, and recorded its first long playing record in 1958. By the time of Guest's retirement in 1991, the choir had recorded sixty LPs or CDs under his direction. The BBC has broadcast Evensong from St. John's College on every Ash Wednesday since 1972, and the Advent Carol Service each year since 1981. During George Guest's tenure, the choir undertook many overseas tours. In 1987 Guest was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the Queen's Birthday Honours. Herbert Howells and Michael Tippett are among the many composers who wrote liturgical settings for the St John's College Choir whilst George Guest was Organist and Choirmaster. They also include the French composer Jean Langlais, who wrote a setting of the psalm Beatus vir for the choir: a rare occurrence of a Continental composer writing for the English Cathedral tradition. Speaking about the Choir, "We are not", said Guest, "the exponents of the hard face and the stiff upper lip. Our singing — we hope — is redolent of all the emotions".
During World War II, Robin Orr served in the RAF; during this time, Herbert Howells was appointed Acting Organist of St John’s. While Howells’s Music was rarely performed during his tenure, his substantial compositional output includes two works which have particular significance for St John’s: A Sequence for St Michael was a commission for the College’s 450th anniversary, and a setting of the evening canticles was later dedicated to St John’s (Collegium Sancti Johannis Cantabrigiense). Respected and remembered fondly by his Choristers, Howells took great care over the singing of the Psalms, for which St John's were already renowned.
Born 1909 in Brechin, Scotland, Robin Orr studied at the Royal College of Music before becoming Organ Scholar of Pembroke College; he subsequently received lessons in composition from Alfredo Casella and Nadia Boulanger. Orr was University Lecturer in Music from 1947 to 1956, after which he became Professor of Music at Glasgow University. Orr returned to Cambridge in 1965 to take up the Chair of Music, a position he retained until his retirement in 1976. Among his compositions (including three operas and three symphonies) are several works written for St John’s Choir, including A Festival Te Deum and the anthem Jesu, Sweet Son Dear.
Following undergraduate study at St John’s (where he read Classics), Rootham studied at the Royal College of Music. He succeeded Walford Davies as Organist of Christ Church, Hampstead, in 1898. In 1901 Rootham became Organist of St Asaph Cathedral, returning to St John’s in the same year; he subsequently became University Lecturer in Music, and was made a Fellow in 1914. Rootham worked closely with the Cambridge University Musical Society in the promotion of contemporary music, leading performances of works by Kodály, Honneger and Pizzetti. Although he composed widely, Rootham is remembered for his encouragement of contemporary composers, as well as the revival of forgotten works by Handel and Mozart.
Edward Thomas Sweeting
Prior to St John’s, Edward Thomas Sweeting held positions as Organist at St Mary’s Kensington and Rossall School, Lancashire, where he taught the future Sir Thomas Beecham. Following his tenure as Organist at St John’s, Sweeting became Organist of Winchester College. He died in 1930.
The son of a Lay Clerk at Winchester Cathedral, George Garrett was a Chorister at New College, Oxford. After a brief period as Organist of two churches in Winchester, Garrett was appointed as Organist of Madras Cathedral. Two years later, he was appointed to St John’s, where he stayed for over forty years. In 1873, Garrett was appointed University Organist; he died in Cambridge on 8 April 1897. Garrett’s compositional output is wide-ranging (including a St John’s College ‘Boat Song’, no less), though he is chiefly remembered for a particular Anglican chant setting, used by choirs throughout the country.
Alfred Bennett took up his short-lived appointment as Organist of St John’s on 24 June 1856. On 27 December of the same year, he left England to take up the post of Organist of St John’s Church, Calcutta.
Thomas Attwood Walmisley
The son of Thomas Forbes Walmisley (Organist of Croydon Parish Church), Thomas Attwood Walmisley was born in Westminster in 1814. He took up the joint appointment of Organist at St John’s and Trinity Colleges in 1833 at the age of 19. His premature death was, as John E. West has suggested, “hastened by an unwise indulgence in lethal remedies”. Stanford commented that “Walmisley…was a victim of four o’clock dinners in Hall, and long symposiums in the Combination Room after; and being a somewhat lonely bachelor, the excellent port of the College cellars was, at times, more his master than his servant.” As a composer, Walmisley is chiefly known for his setting of the Evening Canticles in D minor.
Samuel Matthews’s musical career began, as with Beale, as a Chorister at Westminster Abbey. He was subsequently a Lay Clerk at Winchester Cathedral. He became joint Organist of St John’s and Trinity Colleges in 1821 and died at the early age of 36.
William Beale was a Chorister at Westminster Abbey and later a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. He became joint Organist of St John’s and Trinity Colleges in 1820. Less than a year later, he became Organist of Wandsworth Parish church, and was later Organist of St John’s Church, Clapham Rise.
John Clarke-Whitfeld held posts at Ludlow Parish Church, Armagh Cathedral and Christ Church and St Patrick’s Cathedrals, Dublin. Following the Irish Rebellion of 1798, he became joint Organist of St John’s and Trinity Colleges. He subsequently became Organist of Hereford Cathedral, but was dismissed on the grounds of the following minute passed by the Chapter: “In consequence of the long and increasing deterioration in the choral services of the cathedral…the Dean and Chapter now feel it to be their indispensable duty to communicate to him…that the office of Organist will be vacant at Midsummer next.”
William Tireman took up the post of Organist at St John’s having first been dismissed from service at Doncaster Parish Church “in relation to playing the organ and accompanying the voices in the choir”, and subsequently holding the post of Organist at Trinity College. He took up the post of Organist at St John’s in February 1777 but died in March of that year.
Bernard Turner was the son of the German organ builder Heinrich Tolner (Henry Turner) who settled in Cambridge. The length of Turner’s tenure as Organist is not known.
During his tenure as Organist at St John’s, Thomas Williams also sang in the choirs of King’s and Trinity Colleges. He is recorded in the College rentals for having been “paid a stipend for teaching the Quire from 1682 to 1729”.
James Hawkins appears to have had a long - albeit informal - connection with St John's College. He may have been a chorister here (some authorities attest to him being at Worcester Cathedral) but he was almost certainly the 'Mr Hawkins' that trained the choristers at St John's from 1681-2 as well as being sometime organist. His anthem Behold, O God our defender was inscribed 'to the Great, Good, and Just Nonjurors of St John's College in Cambridge.' In 1719 he took the degree of BMus from the College, and one of his sons, William, was also educated here.
In 1682 he received his first permanent appointment as organist to Ely Cathedral, following the death of John Ferrabosco, and he later became Master of the Choristers in succession to Robert Robinson, the two posts having been separate in the past. It was there that his proclivity to compose got the better of him, for in 1693 the chapter resolved 'that the organist shall not be allowed any bill for pricking books, setting any chorus or composing any anthems or doing anything else for the church unless his design shall be first allowed before he performs it.'
His career illustrated the emergence of the cathedral organist from relative seclusion to being a leading professional musician in the local area, as whilst at Ely he was granted permission to teach at Bury St Edmunds and elsewhere.
The College records mention John Brimble as an Organist of St John’s. He matriculated at St John’s on 13 July 1668, but died aged 19 - the date he was a Director of Music is therefore estimated.
George Loosemore is mentioned in the College rentals as being paid for “learning the Choristers” from 1661 to an unknown date. He may be the George Loosemore who became Organist of Trinity College after the Restoration.
The second son of the composer Orlando Gibbons, Christopher Gibbons was a Chorister at the Chapel Royal under Nathaniel Giles, and sometime Organist of Winchester Cathedral. As a composer he bore a huge influence on such Restoration composers as John Blow, Pelham Humfrey and Henry Purcell. The exact length of his tenure at St John’s is not known.
Little is known about James Dunkin; he is the first Organist of St John’s College to be noted by Watkins Shaw in The Succession of Organists.