Westminister Abbey is one of the most well known cathrdrals in Christendom. It is where English kings are crowned and where the country's heroes are burried. The singing of services has been at the centre of the life of Westminster Abbey throughout its history and this is now maintained by a highly trained choir of mens and boy's voices. To-day the choir is one of the glories of the Abbey. But to produce the special quality in boys' voices demands intensive training in a specialised choir school. The Westminster Abbey Choir School is now the only English choir exclusively for the education of boy choristers. It is a special place, offering boys from 8-13 a unique opportunity to be a part of one of our great national institutions.
There has been a church at the scite of the Abbey since the 8th century. The site was once an island in the Thames. Construction of the Abbey began in 1065. Most of England's kings since the Abbey was built have been crowned there. Many of England's mostilustrious heroes are buried there as is the unknown warrior of World War I. There is also the renowned poet's corner.
The singing of services has been at the centre of the life of Westminster Abbey throughout its history and this is now maintained by a highly trained choir of mens and boy's voices. The Choir is at the forefront of the national shrine--to provide excellence in the worship of God and to attract people of many nations to Christian faith and life. Early history of the Choir is lost in obscurity, but it is probable that boys joined with the novices here in the singing of the masses and daily services as far back as 1170.
In the 16th century, it was the foundations of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I that provided funds for the education of the choirboys along with the 40 scholars of Westminster School. The first 'Chorister School' was opened in 1848 in a room off the South Cloister and in 1891 a Choir House was built in Little Smith Street which was used until the opening of the present building in Dean's Yard in 1915. World War II had a disruptive effect and in the autumn of 1939 the boys were evacuated to Christ's Hospital in Horsham, Sussex, but by Christmas 1940 the school had to be disbanded.
In 1947 the Choir was re-assembled under the Master of the Choristers, Sir William McKie. This was the Choir that sang at the dedication of the Battle of Britain window in July 1947 and at the wedding of Princess Elizabeth in November of the same year.
Since then, the Choir has been heavily involved, performing at most services in the Abbey. These included the Coronation in 1953 of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Royal Weddings and other special events of national and international importance.
Westminster Abbey is not an Anglican cathedral but an abbey (a royal peculiar directly under the authority of the Queen). Westminster Abbey has a dean but not a bishop.
To-day the choir is one of the glories of the Abbey. But to produce the special quality in boys' voices demands intensive training in a specialised choir school. The Westminster Abbey Choir School is the only school in Britain attended entirely by choirboys. A HBC reader tells us that there were once several choir schools in Britain exclusively for the choristers. The economics of supporting such a small school proved to much for other cathedrals. Westminster Abbey of course as the focal point of the nation has obtained the funds to continue operating its own school. The Dean and Chapter consider that the retention of this very small school of 38 boys is the best way by which the Abbey's high reputation for choral singing can be maintained. The Grade II listed school building in Dean's Yard has recently undergone extensive renovation at a cost of £1 million. The Dean and Chapter each year, already contribute a subsidy (currently £10,000) per chorister. This subsidy enables the fees to be kept within the means of most parents: in some cases, additional bursaries have to be found from
Abbey income for boys whose parents do not have that means. In this way, the wish of the Dean and Chapter is fulfilled, that any musically gifted boy who is prepared to work hard should be able to join the School.
A boy joining Westminster Abbey Choir becomes an heir to a tradition of musical excellence many centuries old. Singing daily in
the Abbey is the central part of life for the
choristers. The Choir takes part in numerous
state and national occasions, gives concert
performances in Britain and abroad, and
makes frequent TV and Radio broadcasts and
recordings. Westminster Abbey is founded on the daily worship of God. The contribution of the choristers to this unique Choir School is therefore integral to to the ministry of the Abbey.
The boys of Westminster Abbey Choir come
from various parts of the country, their families
from all walks of life. What they have in
common is musical talent; previous
experience in a choir is less important.
Selection is through a series of musical and
Life at the Choir School is certainly very busy; but it is immensely fulfilling. Of necessity the 38 boys in the School have to board, but its small size and the number of staff who live on the premises allow the School to have an extended family atmosphere. The present building, opened in 1915, was extensively refurbished a few years ago and offers
excellent teaching facilities. Boarding accommodation is light and airy, and small units in the dormitories provide each boy with space to call his own. The staff are united in the common purpose of offering excellence in all they do. The boys will acquire skills which will enable them to lead lives with enthusiasm and purpose
The school explains that they are very conscious that, as a specialist school, choral singing and music should not stand in the way of the boysí development as
normal, healthy children. They play soccer and cricket, competing against other schools, run in St. Jamesí park and swim regularly. The grass of Deanís Yard and a playground at the back of the school give them space to let off steam. The boys can play table tennis, table football, snooker, or at the end of a busy day, sit and watch a little television or a video. Although the school and Abbey routines inevitably impose some restrictions, we encourage parents to see their sons as often as possible. On most weekends boys can be taken out after Evensong (at about 4:15 pm) until their bedtime. Our term dates differ a little from other
schools, as the Abbey Choir is essential for the major church festivals. In particular, apart from the younger ones, the boys are required to sing for the Christmas and Easter periods. They have a tremendous amount of fun and families become involved in some of the celebrations
With an average class size of seven boys the School offers an excellent academic education. The school prepares its boys for the Common Entrance examination at 13+ to senior independent schools. A full academic curriculum is taught by specialist staff, and a well equipped ICT room with access to email and the internet, allows the boys to be introduced to a wide range of computer skills. Every boy learns the piano and an orchestral instrument. In recent years nearly all our leavers have won substantial music awards to their senior schools, making it financially possible for them to stay in independent education for the remainder of their schooling. The opportunities available to Abbey Choristers are exciting and develop not only musical skills but also teamwork and professionalism. The sheer variety of experience can provide the foundation of a musical career.
We have few details about the historical uniform for the Westminster Abbey choristers. We note in the 1980s that they woore a traditonal English school uniform with a stripped blazer. I believe there was also a cap, but this seem to have been dropped. The boys wear grey shirts during school days, but white shirts when they dress up. In both cases they erar a plain blue tie. Often they do not even take their ties off to play football during breaks as seen here (figure 4). Boys through the 1980s wore grey short pants and grey kneesocks without colored stipes at the top. Unlike some schools, the Abbey choristers always seem to have their kneesocks pulled up to their knees. According to one reader, the choristers now seem to wear long pants, although I am not sure about the younger boys.
The Choristers perform in scarlet red vestments with a relativelt simple collar. They wear black capes when moving from the school to the choir. Badges of achievement are worn with blue ribbons.
The Westminster Abbey Choir is involved in a range of royal events, including marriages, coronations, funerals and others. The Choir sung at the funeral of Britain's
beloved Queen Mum. Along with the Choir three were boys participating in different outfits than the Choristers. One of our readers reports that these other boys were
also singing. They were not partof the choir, but royal pages dressed in th scarlet and gold royal livery.
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