Music at Westminster Abbey – who are the choir members and organists, and what…

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September 16, 2022, 4:11 PM

King Charles III speaks with members of the Westminster Abbey Choir.

Image: Getty


Westminster Abbey – home to a 700-year-old choral tradition and a long history of musical creation.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will be commemorated and honored at a state funeral on Monday, September 19 at 11 a.m., at Westminster Abbeywhich has hosted some of the most important royal and national occasions in recent years.

The Abbey’s world-renowned choir, organists and music director will provide music suited to the solemn and moving occasion. They are expected to perform some of Her Majesty’s favorite hymns among other music, in a service broadcast and televised around the world.

Ahead of the service, expected to be watched by more than half the world’s population, we look at the Abbey’s centuries-old musical tradition – from daily choir services to some of the most famous occasions held in its hallowed halls.

Read more: How will music play a role at the Queen’s funeral at Westminster Abbey?

A History of the Choir of Westminster Abbey

The Westminster Abbey Choir is a world-renowned male vocal ensemble, founded in the late 14th century, when the Abbey was a Benedictine monastery.

Composed of 30 boys and 12 professional adult singers, called Lay Vicars, the main function of the choir is to sing in the daily services of the Abbey.

The voices of the Abbey Choir have been the soundtrack to some of the most important royal, state and national occasions of recent years, including the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee and memorial services for Stephen Hawking and Nelson. Mandela, all detained at the Abbey. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI invited the choir to sing with the Sistine Chapel Choir during a Papal Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica.

In their daily services and in their recordings, their repertoire ranges from Gregorian chant and Tudor polyphony to 20th century choral works and new commissions. Their partnership with the Hyperion label has allowed them to record 19th and 20th century Anglican choral music, the Tudor music of Byrd and Taverner, and the Duruflé Requiem with Britten Sinfonia.

The Abbey Choir has given concerts and tours all over the world with principal conductor James O’Donnell, from the United States to the Far East, from Italy to Denmark. O’Donnell, who is also the Abbey’s Music Director, is responsible for all musical creation at the Abbey.

Read more: Which former British monarchs rest in St George’s Chapel in Windsor?

Choristers of The Westminster Abbey Choir

The 30 chorister boys, aged 8 to 13, all attend Abbey’s Choir School, the only choral school in the country catering only to choristers. The boys’ singing engagements are interspersed with academic lessons, sports, and other activities.

Outside school periods, the visiting choirs take over from the Abbey Choir to sing daily services, while the Abbey Choir is on vacation.

Read more: Girls choristers now outnumber boys in English cathedrals for the first time in history

The Boys Choristers of the Westminster Abbey Choir, 2019

The Boys Choristers of the Westminster Abbey Choir, 2019.

Image: Getty


The organ in Westminster Abbey – and the organists

There are four organs in Westminster Abbey: the majestic five-manual Great Organ, a two-manual Queen’s Organ in the Lady’s Chapel, plus a smaller five-stop continuo organ and a practice organ .

The great organ was installed for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II’s father, King George VI, in 1937, and can be heard during the Abbey’s daily choral services.

Currently there are three musicians, Peter Holder (Sub-Organist), Matthew Jorysz (Assistant Organist) and Dewi Rees (Scholar Organ), who play the organ for daily services at the Abbey. They also lead the choir and train the boy choristers.

Read more: How does a pipe organ work and what are the different parts?

Will the Westminster Abbey Choir sing at Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral?

The Royal Family has confirmed that the Westminster Abbey Choir, led by Music Director James O’Donnell, will sing during the memorial service. The choir will be joined by Her Majesty’s Royal Chapel Choir, based at St James’s Palace and whose history dates back to the 15th century.

The Westminster Abbey Choir has already played an important musical role in the national mourning of Queen Elizabeth II. As Her Majesty’s coffin arrived at Westminster Hall on September 14, 2022, the Abbey Choir joined the Choir from Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal for a moving rendition of James O’Donnell’s Psalm 139.

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