The best cathedral and abbey choirs across the UK
Our definitive guide to the best choirs from cathedral and abbeys across England, Scotland and Wales
Stretching from Truro in the south to Orkney in the north, Britain is a country blessed with many beautiful cathedrals. And a large percentage of them boast exceptional choirs, filling these wondrous buildings with music on a daily basis.
Traditionally, these used to consist of boy trebles in the front row, and men singing alto, tenor and bass behind. Today, though, girls and women are also part of this glorious cathedral choral scene which is stronger now than ever before.
Wherever you live in the UK, the chances are that there is first-rate cathedral or abbey choir not that far away. Here, we recommend 23 to take a listen to, complete with recommended recordings:
The best cathedral and abbey choirs across the UK
St Paul’s Cathedral Choir enjoyed its highest profile moment in July 1981, when 750 million people worldwide tuned in to watch the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer on TV. It also has an eye-catching array of former choristers, including actor Sir Simon Russell Beale and cricketer Sir Alastair Cook. The cathedral itself has a hugely roomy acoustic, needing a truly world-class choir to fill it.
Howells: St Paul’s Service
The Choir of St Paul’s Cathedral/John Scott; Christopher Dearnley (organ)
Everything about Liverpool Cathedral is big. The largest cathedral by volume in the UK, its organ is second only in size in Britain to the Royal Albert Hall’s. Boys have been singing here since the cathedral’s foundation in 1904 and then, in preparation for the centenary, girls were welcomed to the fold in 2003.
Great Hymns from Liverpool
The Choir of Liverpool Cathedral/ David Poulter; Ian Tracy (organ)
The mother church of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales has played a very important part in British choral music history: it was here, in the early 1900s, that works by Renaissance composers such as Tallis and Byrd were performed for the first time in centuries, soon becoming taken up by others and becoming a standard part of the repertoire once again. From that period onwards, the choir has been a powerhouse of Cathedral music-making.
Byrd: The Three Masses
Westminster Cathedral Choir/Martin Baker
Westminster Abbey Choir
The Choir of Westminster Abbey is renowned worldwide as one of the finest ensembles of its kind, with performing activities rooted in centuries-old tradition and repertoire extending from plainsong and Renaissance polyphony to twentieth-century masterpieces and new commissions. As well as singing daily services, as it has done since the 14th century, the Choir plays a central role in the many royal and state occasions which are held in the Abbey.
Emma Kirkby, Evelyn Tubb (soprano); New London Consort, Westminster Abbey Choir/Martin Neary
Portsmouth Cathedral has an abundance of music with three choirs, including 24 boy choristers and 24 girl choristers. The choirs sing services daily, including choral evensong and compline. With the nickname of 'The Cathedral of the Sea', its choirs have helped launch a cruise ship and an aircraft carrier and participated in D-Day commemorations in France, as well as broadcasting regularly on the BBC.
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Brough: Requiem in Blue
Liane Carroll, Natacha Atlas, Clara Sanabras & Gerard Presencer, Mark Le Brocq, Choir of Clare College Cambridge, Britten Sinfonia, Clare College Choir & Portsmouth Cathedral Choir, Harvey Brough, Andrew Parrott
Smudged Discs SMU603
Nine centuries ago, a choir of boys and monks of the then Benedictine Abbey of St Peter, Gloucester, sang for daily worship. Today’s choir stems from that established by Henry VIII in 1541 following the dissolution of the Abbey. Today, the choir sings live on BBC Radio 3 and regularly takes part in concerts with other choirs and orchestras, particularly the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. All the Cathedral’s choirs are also part of the annual Three Choirs Festival.
Jonathan Hope (organ); Catherine Perfect, Alex Taylor, Arthur Johnson, Matthew Clarke, Charles Lucas (voices); Gloucester Cathedral Choir/Adrian Partington
SOMM Recordings SOMMCD0618 59:01 mins
Bath Abbey Choirs are widely regarded as amongst the finest in Britain. They recently released a new Christmas recording ‘Gaudete’ on the Regent label. The 20th anniversary of the Girls’ Choir was celebrated in 2017 with a concert drawing on texts and music by women, with a commission by Judith Bingham. The choirs have made numerous acclaimed recordings that showcase its wonderful acoustic and fine 4-manual Klais organ, which was completed in 1997.
The Choir of Bath Abbey/Huw Williams
Once the tallest building in the world, Lincoln Cathedral towers over the east of England. Its choir is made up of 40 boys and girls, who attend many different schools, six Lay Vicars and five Choral Scholars, who perform a wide repertoire from Bach to Duke Ellington. The Father Willis organ (1898) is considered to be one of the maker's finest. The choir was recently described by the composer John Rutter as 'a peach'.
Charles Harrison (organ), Lincoln Cathedral Choir/Aric Prentice
In 1991, Salisbury became the first English Cathedral to form a separate and independent foundation for girl choristers. They sang their first service in October of that year and nowadays the weekly services are equally divided between the boy and girl choristers. As well as singing for services, broadcasts, tours and recordings, the choir takes part in the annual Southern Cathedrals Festival, a showcase of cathedral choirs from Chichester, Winchester and Salisbury.
Salisbury Cathedral Choir, Gabrieli Consort/Paul McCreesh
There has been a choir at Hereford Cathedral since the 13th century. It now sings eight services a week during term time in the building’s magnificent acoustic, accompanied by the cathedral’s celebrated Willis organ. A performance of one of Bach’s Passions is an annual feature of Holy Week, and the choir has also given several performances of the Christmas Oratorio.
Great Cathedral Anthems Vol. 9
Huw Williams (organ), The Choir of Hereford Cathedral, Roy Massey
Canterbury Cathedral Girls' Choir
The formation of Canterbury Cathedral's Girls’ Choir in 2014 was featured in a BBC documentary about the Cathedral. In addition to singing weekly services, the choir has recorded for Decca Records and Signum Classics, and has performed live on BBC and ITV television.
Christmas with Canterbury Cathedral Girls' Choir
Canterbury Cathedral Girls’ Choir
Founded in 1096 as a Benedictine community, Norwich Cathedral is characterised by its stunning Norman architecture, tall spire and large cloister. Today’s Cathedral Choir comprises 20 boy choristers who attend Norwich School, 22 girl choristers drawn from secondary schools across the city, six choral scholars and six Lay Clerks. The Cathedral’s 105-stop organ is among the largest in the country, famous for its striking case by Stephen Dykes Bower and its ‘Cymbelstern’ stop, complete with rotating star.
Christmas at Norwich
David Dunnett (organ), The Choir of Norwich Cathedral/Ashley Grote
Truro Cathedral Choir has an unbroken tradition dating back to the 1880s when services took place in a wooden shed whilst Truro Cathedral was under construction. As well as singing in seven services each week, Truro Cathedral Choir performs regular concerts and broadcasts, including regular live broadcasts on BBC Radio 3, and has made several TV appearances over recent years. Recent recordings have included single-composer discs of music by Louis Vierne, Benjamin Britten, Philip Stopford and Gabriel Jackson.
Dobrinka Tabakova: Kynance Cove, On the South Downs, and Works for Choir
Natalie Clein (cello), Truro Cathedral Choir, BBC Concert Orchestra/Joseph Wicks & Christopher Gray
The Choir of St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh is an adult choir of 30 singers, part of a choral tradition dating back to the 1870s. They sing at the two Sunday morning choral services, as well as for special civic and national occasions, such as the Installations of the Order of the Thistle. St Giles’ is also renowned for its 1992 Rieger organ.
Choir of St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh/Michael Harris (Organ), John Harris (Organ)
The Abbey's 'Schola Cantorum' is a choir of boy choristers and men who sings the weekday Evensongs in Tewkesbury Abbey. Alongside its role at the Abbey, the choir also maintains a busy schedule of concerts, tours and broadcasts. In 2018, one of the choristers was nominated BBC Radio 2 Young Chorister of the Year, and in recent years the choir has recorded exclusively for Regent records.
Carleton Etherington (organ); Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum/Benjamin Nicholas
The earliest reference to choristers at St Davids Cathedral was in 1132. Its top line of singers is unique in the UK in that it consists of girl choristers joined by lay clerks and choral scholars. The choir sings at five services each week and has recorded several CDs and broadcast many times on BBC radio and television.
Exeter Cathedral Choir leads around eight services each week during term time, maintaining a tradition that has been largely unbroken for centuries. Its busy concert programme has in recent times included Bach's St John Passion, Bernstein's Chichester Psalms, Handel’s Messiah and Bach's B Minor Mass.
Jean Price (Harp), Paul Morgan (Organ), The Choirs of Exeter Cathedral/ Andrew Millington, Stephen Tanner
The choir of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral first sang in 1960, seven years before the new Cathedral was consecrated. Since then it has sung at many important religious and civic occasions, has toured widely and broadcast regularly on the BBC. In 2008 girl choristers were admitted.
Angels, Saints and Nations Sing
James Luxton (organ) & Mathhew Searles (organ), The Liverpool Cathedral Choir/Christopher McElroy
When St Paulinus came to the North of England in AD627, he brought with him a musician, James the Deacon. James the Deacon's function was to instruct the converts in the singing of the liturgy and his work can be seen as the beginning of the choral tradition of York Minster, Europe's largest Gothic cathedral.
Since 1995, the boy choristers have been joined by a parallel girls’ group and from September 2020, the choristers have been educated at St Peter’s School, one of the oldest schools in the world.
The Choir of York Minster/Robert Sharpe; John Scott Whiteley (organ)
Regent REGCD 317
The choir is central to the cathedral’s life, singing a broad repertoire spanning many centuries and contributing to a living tradition of cathedral choral worship. The choir undertakes regular radio broadcasts, has recorded a number of CDs, and also performs in the annual Three Choirs Festival, the oldest non-competitive classical music festival in the world.
Worcester Cathedral Choir, Donald Hunt Singers/Donald Hunt (organ)
Hyperion Helios CDH 55009 Reissue (1983/88)
Since the days of King Canute (c1000), music has played an important role in the life of Ely Cathedral. Ely Cathedral's cohort of girl choristers was founded in 2006. The girls are in school years 7 to 11 at King's Ely school, and they sing cathedral services three or four times each week. They have made a number of acclaimed recordings, and are frequently heard on BBC Radio.
Ely Cathedral Choir/Paul Trepte
ASV Gaudeamus CDGAU190
The choir celebrated its 1100th birthday in 2009: boys first sang at Wells Cathedral in 909 and the full choral tradition dates back over 800 years. The choir is at the heart of the worshipping life of the Cathedral, and sings a wide repertoire of music ranging from the Renaissance period to the present day. In addition to services, broadcasts and recordings, it sings throughout the Cathedral’s 'New Music Wells Festival', an event launched in June 2008 which has premiered works from some of today’s finest composers.
Wells Cathedral Choir/Matthew Owens
Signum SIGCD 442
Guildford Cathedral Choir was formed in 1961 at the same time that the Cathedral building itself was consecrated as the newest Anglican Cathedral in the UK. The interior is light and spacious, with seamless lines to the High Altar as architect Edward Maufe intended. Girl choristers joined the choir in 2003 and, together with the boy choristers and lay clerks, sing services throughout the year every day except Wednesdays and Saturdays, often takin part in concerts, BBC radio broadcasts, diocesan visits, civic services and tours overseas.
John Mitchinson (tenor), Frederick Harvey (baritone); Guildford Cathedral Choir/Barry Rose
Classics for Pleasure CDCFP 4619 ADD (1965)