Who is James O'Donnell, the choirmaster at Westminster Abbey?

All you need to know about James O'Donnell, the choirmaster at Westminster Abbey, and the man responsible for the music at the Queen's funeral

James O'Donnell, organist and choirmaster at Westminster Abbey
Published: September 15, 2022 at 5:08 pm
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Who conducts the choir at Westminster Abbey?

The conductor of the Westminster Abbey choir is James O'Donnell. In fact, to give him his full title, O'Donnell is organist and master of the choristers of Westminster Abbey.

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As the person in charge of music at the Abbey, O'Donnell will have a key role to play at the Queen's funeral on 19 September. Let's find out more about the man and his career.

How old is James O'Donnell?

Born in 1961, James O'Donnell is currently 61 years old.

How long has he been at Westminster Abbey?

O'Donnell has held the post of organist and choirmaster of Westminster since 2000.

What does his job entail?

As organist and choirmaster at Westminster, O'Donnell has been responsible for the music at national ceremonies held at the Abbey. These have included the funeral of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother in 2002, and the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011. He will also be arranging the music at the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, in Westminster Abbey on 19 September.

What roles did James O'Donnell have before arriving at Westminster Abbey?

O'Donnell's first major role was as assistant master of music at Westminster Cathedral, where he subsequently became master of music in 1988. He later worked as professor of organ at the Royal Academy of Music, the UK's oldest conservatoire, from 1997 to 2004. More recently, in 2010-13, O'Donnell served as president-elect, and subsequently president, of the Royal College of Organists.

Later this year, O'Donnell will take up a new position as professor at the Yale School of Music and Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Andrew Nethsingha will take over his role at Westminster Abbey - and therefore quite likely presiding over the music for King Charles III coronation

Where did James O'Donnell do his training?

O'Donnell learned his trade as organ scholar at Jesus College, Cambridge.

What else should I know about James O'Donnell?

Various awards and honours have come O'Donnell's way. For example, during his tenure there, Westminster Cathedral Choir won a Royal Philharmonic Society Award - the first choir to win such an award. Later, after leaving Westminster Cathedral, O'Donnell was awarded the papal honour of Knight Commander of the Order of St Gregory the Great (KCSG).

He has also been elected a fellow of the Royal School of Church Music (FRSCM), an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Music (HonRAM), and a fellow of the Royal College of Music (FRCM).

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Last but not least, O'Donnell set to music the words of Psalm 139, O Lord, thou hast searched me, and known me. He conducted this setting for the reception of the Queen's coffin at Westminster Hall during the week of official mourning.

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