James O’Donnell to move to Yale University

The Organist and Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey will succeed Thomas Murray as professor to students in sacred music.

Yale Institute of Sacred Music (ISM) has announced the appointment of James O’Donnell as professor in the practice in the ISM and Yale School of Music.

In addition to teaching organ and sacred music at Yale, 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.

James O’Donnell is one of the world’s most celebrated concert organists, choral conductors and liturgical musicians. He joins the Yale faculty after over thirty years’ service as director of music at two leading choral foundations, Westminster Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. As organist and master of the choristers of Westminster Abbey since January 2000, he has led the renowned choir of men and boys both in daily choral services and for numerous occasions of state including the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (Prince William and Catherine Middleton), the funeral service for Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and the recent Service of Thanksgiving for the Duke of Edinburgh. He has toured with the choir to Asia, Australia, the United States and throughout Europe, and made many acclaimed recordings. He was professor of organ at the Royal Academy of Music in London from 1997-2004 and is now a visiting professor there.

James O’Donnell said, ‘I am delighted to have the opportunity to work and teach at Yale. I will, of course, be very sorry to leave Westminster Abbey 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 forty years working mainly in cathedral music in the UK, 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.’

Robert Blocker, dean of Yale School of Music, said, ‘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.’

The Dean of Westminster Abbey, The Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle, said: ‘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. He has given glory to God.’

James O’Donnell takes up his new position at the beginning of 2023. Recruitment for the role of Organist and Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey will begin shortly, with the successful candidate expected to take up the post in January.