Just in: Westminster Abbey loses its organist

Just in: Westminster Abbey loses its organist


norman lebrecht

April 26, 2022

In a shock announcement James O’Donnell, Organist and Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey, has announced that he is leaving after 23 years.

O’Donnell, 61, has been responsible for all musical matters at the Abbey. He has been recruited as Professor at Yale School of Music and Yale Institute of Sacred Music and will leave the Abbey at Christmas.

He says: ‘It has been an immense privilege to have held the responsibility for the music at Westminster Abbey since January 2000. It has been hugely inspiring to make music day by day with the Abbey’s outstanding choristers, lay vicars, and organists and to have played a part in so many great occasions in this extraordinary place. I am grateful to the three supportive Deans with whom I have worked, and to so many talented colleagues among the Abbey clergy and staff.’

Robert Blocker, Dean of Yale School of Music, says: ‘The appointment holds significance for the entire discipline of music, for James O’Donnell’s extraordinary talent and experience will now be directed deeply to a new generation of young artists connected to the church and society. In him, we have a colleague whose humility embraces his musical gifts and whose very presence will enrich our community.’


  • Gary Freer says:

    A big loss, but 23 years is a decent shift in such a demanding job.

  • Failed Organist says:

    Mr O’Donnall will be sorely missed on the English Church Music scene, but maybe like most English Cathedral Organists, he sees the way the Church of England have been failing to respect the musicians working for them and doesn’t relish the job anymore.
    Why would you wish to continue providing the highest standards of music when the majority of clerics you share the responsibilities with, are disinterested in music in worship when the church currently dumb down their liturgy and understanding of the role of music in worship?
    He will be appreciated far more in the USA than here in England, where the further decline in church membership and disinterest in religion generally is inevitable in a society more interested in worshipping the sports fields or Hypermarkets on Sunday’s than attending and supporting their failing church or Cathedral.

    • Allen says:

      The irony is that the CofE’s attempts to attract attention by dumbing down seem to be making matters worse.

      However, I’m sure that the worship of shopping malls in the US is thriving.

  • UK Arts Administrator says:

    If you read what Mr O’Donnell is being offered at Yale you can see why (having turned 60 and having done a tremendous job over 23 years at Westminster Abbey) he can now turn his huge talents and considerable intellect to make a significant difference in the USA, where he will also be a University “Don”, for which he is immensely well qualified – and (though that will have been lesser in his mind) hopefully earn a salary of which even the finest UK cathedral organist can only dream. To leave a real legacy in two continents will be quite an achievement.

    From https://ism.yale.edu/news/james-odonnell-appointment-announced:

    “Yale Institute of Sacred Music (ISM) is pleased to announce the appointment of James O’Donnell as professor in the practice in the ISM and Yale School of Music. Mr. O’Donnell succeeds Thomas Murray as professor to graduate organ majors and other students in sacred music. Additionally, he will direct a newly formed professional liturgical vocal ensemble that will serve as a model and a vehicle for study for students preparing for careers in church music and liturgy. […]

    “In addition to teaching organ and sacred music at Yale, Mr. O’Donnell will lead a newly established vocal ensemble consisting of professionals from the region that will sing regular liturgies in a variety of traditions in conjunction with local parishes, chaplaincies, and other Yale faculty and students. It will serve as a model and a vehicle for study for students preparing for careers in church music and liturgy.

    “Mr. O’Donnell will also have a significant role in shaping important new outreach and collaborations with organists, choir directors, clergy, and theologians around the world who have leadership roles in church music and liturgy.”

    There is genuine graciousness from the Dean of Westminster, The Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle at https://www.westminster-abbey.org/abbey-news/james-o-donnell-secures-role-at-yale-university :

    “In Westminster Abbey we strive for excellence. That is a difficult thing to deliver; it is a hard discipline. Yet, for 23 years, it is precisely what James O’Donnell has given us. Those who have worked with him know about his focus, his grip, his deep understanding. Those who have listened to our music know of his talent (though he would be quick to direct our attention to those who make music with him). Many of us would note his warmth, humour and learning. It is my job now to record inadequate thanks and express profound admiration for a breath-taking and sustained achievement. We have been privileged to listen to the music he has made. Yale have chosen well.”

    By the by, whoever is James O’Donnell’s successor at Westminster Abbey will presumably sometime during the coming years oversee the music at the first Coronation since 1953. And, before then, those well-placed within the UK cathedral circuit may already be bandying around half a dozen likely names to be shortlisted by (assuming they are brought in) a firm of headhunters (who in turn may well earn a fee more than most UK cathedral organists earn in a year).

    • Hmus says:

      Is Yale somehow able to be offering him fully paid health care for life (actual care, not “health insurance” with co-pays, deductibles and ‘pre-exisiting condition’ exclusions all of which requires a paid CPA to navigate) as part of the salary? If not, he will be back in the UK the minute he retires.

    • Snodgrass says:

      Ah yes, the headhunters. The same firm again?! Are we to forget the Wesley Carr-Martin Neary debacle and no one being willing to take the job, despite the prestige? As one organist commented at the time, “who hasn’t been asked?” Time has moved on but yes, the history…

  • Charles Ives says:

    Not exactly and there will be no shortage of fine people to replace him. He will not be a “don” in any sense and Yale doesn’t offer tenure to performance faculty but renewable contracts which in this case is best likened to an artist in residence position. Appealing and yet not.

    A very strange move on almost every level.