Robert Prizeman, composer and conductor who wrote the theme tune for Songs of Praise and founded the boys’ choir Libera – obituary

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Robert Prizeman
Robert Prizeman

Robert Prizeman, who has died aged 69, was a composer, conductor, and the director of Libera, a boys’ choral group that emerged from the choir of St Philip’s Church in Norbury, south London; he also worked on Songs of Praise, composing the programme’s theme music, a Toccata for organ, and arranging many of the hymns for broadcast.

Bob Prizeman founded Libera in 1985, creating musical opportunities outside the church tradition for boys aged between seven and 16. “We began to do more outside concerts and started to develop our own style of singing – less and less a conventional church choir,” he told a Southwark diocese newspaper. The name Libera, Latin for “free”, came from a piece of music that he wrote for television. “Libera is a group of people – but it’s also a style,” he said of their blend of sacred and secular repertoire. “Spiritual but accessible, with words that are not off-putting.”

Boys are recruited from years three and four in local schools, though Prizeman was dismayed at the separation between church culture and much of the community. “Few people outside a church know what a choir is and most boys don’t know how to sing,” he said, adding that he looked for potential rather than for ability. “A couple of verses of Away in a Manger and an aural test and I can usually tell whether a boy will make it.”

Purists may twitch at the way Libera take sturdy and simple tunes and sweeten them with marshmallow harmonies, or the juxtaposition on a Christmas album of sacred music with the theme from The Snowman. Yet critics have praised their youthful ardour and fetching tonal blend, which radiates great joy and innocence.

Under Prizeman a Libera performance was a visual experience, with his choristers in white flowing, monk-like robes and the stage brightly lit. He took them overseas, including to the Far East, where they were treated like pop stars, with press conferences, television interviews and screaming fans. He, however, kept out of the limelight. In this country an earlier iteration of Libera appeared on Top of the Pops in 1984, and their album Free (2004) was a finalist at the Classical Brit Awards.

Over the years they sang for two popes, including Francis at Krakow on World Youth Day 2016, as well as at the wedding of the former choirboy Aled Jones and on the same billing at a gala concert as Meat Loaf and Miley Cyrus. “Then they go and sing in a church with an organ in south London,” added Prizeman with a laugh.

Libera performing on the television programme This Morning in 2011 - Steve Meddle/Shutterstock
Libera performing on the television programme This Morning in 2011 - Steve Meddle/Shutterstock

Robert Gordon Prizeman was born in south London on February 28 1952, the son of Robert Prizeman and his wife Valerie (née Smith). He was a chorister at St Philip’s, a church in the High Anglican tradition, and was educated at Trinity School, Croydon, before going to the Royal College of Music. Meanwhile, he became choirmaster at St Philip’s aged 18, from which came Angel Voices and then Libera. He did some radio work, including a programme about the Anglican composer Herbert Howells for Radio 4 in 1982, before joining Songs of Praise.

Libera also appeared on radio broadcasts including in Song of Hope, a modern interpretation of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, with Wendy Craig and Martin Bell on Radio 2 on Good Friday 1998. In 2001 they accompanied some of the most frightening moments in the film Hannibal, starring Anthony Hopkins as a psychopathic cannibal. As Prizeman wryly observed, it would be many years before the choristers were old enough to see the movie.

Robert Prizeman was unmarried. If, his latest album with Libera, has just been released; the final track is Lux Aeterna, eternal light.

Robert Prizeman, born February 28 1952, died September 8 2021

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