Courtesy of Yale School of Music

Last week, James O’Donnell directed the Westminster Choir in a carefully-curated program at Queen Elizabeth II’s royal funeral.

In January, he will cross the pond to join the faculty at Yale School of Music, where he will instruct graduate organ majors, teach general courses at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and lead a new vocal ensemble focused on choral liturgies.

“I want the world to see that there is a much larger love than any one of us,” said Institute of Sacred Music organ lecturer Walden Moore. “I think Queen Elizabeth understood that. I know James understands that. And all this work that they did with that service represents that.” 

O’Donnell’s passion for conveying all-encompassing love through sacred music traces back to his days at Westcliff High School for Boys, where he played both organ and the harpsichord. He studied organ at Jesus College, University of Cambridge and, upon graduating in 1982, became Assistant Master of Music at the Westminster Cathedral. He was promoted to Master of Music six years later.

In 2000, O’Donnell became the choirmaster of Westminster Abbey and has been directing the music for daily services as well as statewide functions for the past two decades. 

While arranging the music for Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral, O’Donnell aimed to curate a series of hymns that would highlight significant moments in Queen Elizabeth’s life. Particularly notable was a choral arrangement of “O Taste and See How Gracious the Lord Is,” which was composed for the Queen’s 1953 coronation by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

“It was refreshing to know that the music selected and performed by the Abbey Choir would be drawn from the great British composers and not alloyed with music and personalities lifted from popular culture, as has happened too often with Royal weddings and funerals held at Westminster Abbey,” Thomas Murray, professor emeritus in the practice of organ at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, wrote to the news. 

Andrew Nethsingha will take over O’Donnell’s role at Westminster Abbey. In an email to the News, Nethsingha called the service “exceptionally dignified and moving,” noting “outstanding” work by the choirs, director and organists. 

According to a statement from Yale News, O’Donnell — upon joining Yale’s faculty — will play a “significant role” in forging relationships with organists, choir directors, clergy and theologians worldwide. 

The Institute of Sacred Music, or ISM, founded in 1973, aims to foster interdisciplinary study between the Yale School of Music and the Yale Divinity School. Since its inception, ISM has expanded from a group of fewer than 20 students and staff to a world-renowned program housing over 100 professors, students and fellows. Music majors have the opportunity to study choral conducting, organ, or voice, while divinity majors study worship music and literature. 

Rachel Seeger, an ISM alumn and the music program manager at Trinity on the Green, described her excitement over O’Donnell’s upcoming role at Yale, calling him “a childhood hero.” 

“I think it’s very fitting for somebody of Mr. O’Donnell’s caliber and excellence to be succeeding Professor Murray,” she told the News in an interview. “I’m very excited for the students. And I think the alums are very excited as well that he’s coming.”

“I am delighted to have the opportunity to work and teach at Yale,” O’Donnell said in an April ISM statement announcing his appointment. 

“I will, of course, be very sorry to leave Westminster Abbey after 23 years and am deeply grateful for the rich experience, the friendship and support of my colleagues, and the privilege of playing a part in countless memorable occasions. However, after nearly 40 years working mainly in cathedral music, the appointment at Yale will inspire me to draw fully on my experience and skills in new and different ways. I look forward to all that lies ahead.”

Previous work by O’Donnell also includes performing as an organ soloist with globally recognized orchestras, like the London Philharmonic, Tokyo Philharmonic and BBC National Orchestra of Wales. 

He has also conducted noteworthy groups, including — but not limited to — the BBC Singers and the Yale Schola Cantorum, and has released more than 50 organ and choral recordings. 

In addition to learning the music at Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral, O’Donnell led the music at Prince William’s wedding to Kate Middleton. 

Anika Arora Seth is the 146th Editor in Chief and President of the Yale Daily News. Anika previously covered STEM at Yale as well as admissions, alumni and financial aid. She also laid out the weekly print edition of the News as a Production & Design editor and was one of the inaugural Diversity, Equity & Inclusion co-chairs. Anika is pursuing a double major in biomedical engineering and women's, gender and sexuality studies.
Elena is a Junior studying English and Education.