Westminster Abbey Choir
• Founded 1560
Often appears with
The Westminster Abbey Choir is an institution with a history over 500 years long. Westminster Abbey, founded by Edward the Confessor, was consecrated on December 28, 1065, and William the Conqueror became the first British monarch crowned there the following year. Every British ruler since has assumed power there as well, but beyond pomp and circumstance the Abbey has offered daily worship services for nearly a millennium. Integral to those services over much of that period has been the music of the Westminster Abbey Choir. Records of the choir date to the 1479 appointment of William Cornysh as "Master of the Song Scole." By 1540, Henry VIII had fixed the choir's membership at a size of 12 adult male singers (known as Lay Vicars) and ten boy choristers, and these proportions remain in force today.
The choir may be augmented by students of the Westminster Abbey Choir School, the only choir-based educational institution in England; its 36 students either are choir members or are studying in preparation for membership. These young students sing at Evensong six days a week and at three Sunday services. Auditions for boy singers are held when they are eight years old; when they reach age 14, they leave the choir. Some go on to become Lay Vicars, and the demanding musical training the choristers receive has generated illustrious English musical careers ranging from those of Orlando Gibbons and Henry Purcell to that of David Willcocks.
Royal wedding enthusiasts will have noted the choir's presence at events pertaining to the British monarchy, and in later years, the choir had undertaken concert tours and recording sessions in addition to its official duties. The Westminster Abbey Choir has toured the U.S. four times and has made perhaps two dozen recordings. They are quite a varied lot, some of them (such as The Royal Golden Wedding) capitalizing on public fascination with English pageantry, while others offer a traditionalist sound in the early music repertory (the choir's recording of Palestrina's Pope Marcellus Mass is a standard) or expertly fill the need for a Christmas tradition that seems to have existed since time immemorial. What the second millennium will bring musically for the Westminster Abbey Choir remains to be seen.