Music at Westminster Abbey – who are the choristers and organists, and what services are there?

16 September 2022, 16:11

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

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

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

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will be remembered and honoured in a state funeral on Monday 19 September at 11am, in Westminster Abbey, which has been home to some of the most important royal and national occasions of recent years.

Offering music to suit the solemn and moving occasion, will be the Abbey’s world-famous choir, organists, and music director. They are expected to perform some of Her Majesty’s favourite hymns among other music, in a service broadcast and televised around the world.

Ahead of the service, which is predicted to be watched by more than half the world’s population, we look at the Abbey’s centuries-old musical tradition – from the choir’s daily services to some of the most famous occasions held inside 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 Choir of Westminster Abbey is a world-renowned, all-male vocal ensemble, founded in the late 14th century when the Abbey was a Benedictine monastery.

Made up of 30 boys and 12 professional adult singers, known as Lay Vicars, the choir’s main function is singing in the Abbey’s daily services.

The Abbey Choir’s voices 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 held in the Abbey. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI invited the Choir to sing with the Sistine Chapel Choir at a Papal Mass in St Peter’s Basilica.

At 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 seen them 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 performed in concerts and tours all over the world with principal conductor James O’Donnell, from the US to the Far East, Italy to Denmark. O’Donnell, who is also the Abbey’s Director of Music, is responsible for all music-making at the Abbey.

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

Choristers in The Choir of Westminster Abbey

The 30 boy choristers, who are aged between eight and 13, all attend the Abbey’s Choir School – the only Choir School in the country to cater to choristers only. The boys’ singing commitments are interspersed with academic classes, sports and other activities.

Outside of term time, visiting choirs take over from the Abbey Choir in singing the daily services, while the Abbey Choir is in recess.

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

The boy choristers of the Choir of Westminster Abbey, 2019
The boy choristers of the Choir of Westminster Abbey, 2019. Picture: Getty

Westminster Abbey’s organ – and the organists

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

The grand 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 (Organ Scholar), who play the organ for the Abbey’s daily services. They also conduct the Choir and train the boy choristers.

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

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

The Royal Family has confirmed that The Choir of Westminster Abbey, led by musical director, James O’Donnell, will sing during the memorial service. The choir will be joined by The Choir of His Majesty’s Chapel Royal, which is based at St James’ Palace and whose history can be traced to the 15th century.

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