The Chapel Choir is a professional group of twelve singers (augmented for occasions such as this) who are chosen not only for their skill at choral singing but also for a high standard of solo ability and general musicianship. They are drawn from a wide variety of musical backgrounds, and all work as full-time musicians: singers of choral music and opera, teachers, pianists, conductors and even a magazine editor.
The Choir sings Choral Matins in the Wren Chapel at the Royal Hospital Chelsea every Sunday at 11am (a service which is open to the general public), and provides the music at carol services, weddings and other events at RH. 2016 saw the Choir’s first CD release with William Vann as Director of Music: Carols from Chelsea on the SOMM label was critically acclaimed by the specialist music press and broadsheets, Gramophone commenting on the “First-class personnel” and “tension and subtlety in the performances.”
This choir's regular concerts at the Royal Hospital are always popular sell-outs: it is also available for concerts and other events outside the Royal Hospital. Read a review about their 2013 Concert Series performance.
There have been only fourteen organists since the Hospital's foundation in 1692. Of these the most prominent was Dr Charles Burney, holding the post between 1783 and his death in 1814, a period in which Enlightenment ideals had become established throughout Europe. Burney was an accomplished figure in literary and musical circles: his fame rests on his General History of Music, published between 1776 and 1789, which revealed an extraordinary breadth of knowledge, much of which was gained on extensive travels in Europe. He was an accomplished astronomer whose acquaintances included Sir Isaac Newton and William Herschel, the discoverer of Uranus. Burney himself published a pamphlet on the minor comets. He was a friend of Haydn, who stayed in the Organist's apartments at the Royal Hospital during his two major London visits, and it was through Burney's recommendation that Haydn was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Music by the University of Oxford in 1791. Frances (Fanny) Burney, was a celebrated novelist and lived here with her father until her marriage to the French exile, General Alexandre D'Arblay, in 1793.
During the 19th Century the Hospital appears to have adopted the custom of appointing women as organists. This had been prevalent in churches in the City of London during the 18th century, though the post-holders' resignation was always expected (and insisted on) in the event of their marrying. Apart from a short period in the 19th century the Royal Hospital Organists continued to live in the apartments formerly occupied by Burney, their salary being supplemented by official quotas of coal and gas during the late 19th and early 20th century. It was only in 1989 that these quarters were re-allocated.
The current Organist, William Vann, is a part-time employee of the Royal Hospital whose duties include directing the Chapel Choir and helping to administer the RHC Concerts. He is also an active professional pianist, conductor and organist, performing in prestigious U.K. venues such as Wigmore Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, St John’s, Smith Square and Sage, Gateshead and internationally in Ireland, Sweden and Nigeria. He is the recipient of numerous prizes, including the 2012 Royal Overseas League Accompanist’s Prize and the Gerald Moore Award, and is a Samling Scholar, a Young Songmaker, a Britten-Pears Young Artist and a Yeoman of the Worshipful Company of Musicians.
The original organ (installed in the very early part of the 18th Century) was built by Renatus Harris, and it is his case which still houses the current instrument. The organ was renewed in 1811 by Gray, with the addition of an octave of the then new "German Pedals".
By the 1920s it had fallen into disrepair and was replaced with a new extension organ by Compton, who also enlarged the organ case and moved it forwards.
The development of musical standards at the Royal Hospital during the 1970s revealed the limitations of the Compton organ as a serious constraint so, in consultation with the Department of the Environment, Hill, Norman & Beard installed a completely new tracker action organ in 1978, with a specification in the style of a late 19th century Hill instrument. Tonally this proved to be hugely successful, though by 2003 the action had become worn and unreliable.
In 2005, Walkers installed a brand new action and the organ was also thoroughly cleaned and overhauled. There were also a few minor tonal adjustments which included the re-ordering of the mixture stops, relocation of the swell clarion to the pedal and, to take its place, the creation of a very beautiful 4' harmonic flute. Together with the addition of three carefully voiced digital stops on the pedal, the organ has been greatly enhanced, not only for playing repertoire but also for colourful psalm accompaniment and vigorous hymn singing.
The Chelsea Pensioners have paraded at the Royal Hospital Chelsea's Founder's Day on 8 June, reviewed by His Royal Highness The Earl of Wessex.
Every year the Chelsea Pensioners are welcome guests on the Channel Islands, for a celebration of history, Liberation and reconciliation.