For many people Christmas begins at a carol service at their local church and churches across the land are bursting at the seams – from school concerts to Christingles. It’s a busy time of year for choristers, particularly for the boys of Llandaff Cathedral Choir who will have sung no fewer than 17 services between Advent Sunday and Christmas Day and learnt 50 different pieces of music – not including hymns and psalms. They began with the Advent Procession, which was attended by 400 people. Then followed a live broadcast for Radio 4’s Sunday Worship programme which was listened to by about 1.5 million people. This weekend they are preparing for their biggest service of the year – the Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve, which attracts about 1,000 people and if you’re not in an hour early you’ll struggle to get a seat. Finally, there is the joyful service on Christmas Day morning, when again the Cathedral will be full.
The Cathedral Choir is unique in Wales as all the choristers are educated at the Cathedral School, in an arrangement which has been in place for nearly 150 years. There are 19 boys in the choir at the moment, aged eight to 13, and they have been rehearsing 12 mornings before school and will have another four rehearsals now that term has finished.
In charge of the rehearsals is the Director of Music, Stephen Moore. It is his job to ensure the boys can sing a huge variety of music throughout the year, often in a complicated language, and sometimes with just 20 minutes to learn before it is performed.
He says, “Christmas is a busy time for all church and cathedral choirs around the country. The choristers at Llandaff put in a lot of work to perform music to a high standard and to large congregations. It’s not all about work, of course, and they also enjoy Secret Santa, putting up the Christmas tree in the Song Room, games and fun together as they prepare for a hectic time. It’s amazing to think that these young musicians are all between the ages of 8 and 13 years of age as they put out a professional standard of music enjoyed by many people over the festive period.”
Among the choristers are brothers, Conrad and Sebastian Thorndike, from Llantrisant. Conrad is 11 and has been in the choir for three years. It’s a major commitment, he says, but one he thoroughly enjoys.
“Being a chorister takes up quite a bit of my time,” he says. “We rehearse every morning before school, apart from Wednesdays, and sing Choral Evensong after school twice a week. We also sing twice on Sundays. This week will be hectic as we will have three big services in a row – Sunday, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. We’ll be very tired after that!
“But I think being in the choir is worth the effort. Mr Moore gives us a really good musical education and it is fun. Singing is a very good way of relaxing and the choir gives us a lot of time to bond – so you make lots of friends who aren’t in your school year,” he says. “I would definitely recommend it!”
Conrad’s favourite carol is Once In Royal David City – the first verse of which is traditionally sung as a solo by one of the choristers at the Nine Lessons and Carols service, often with little notice. This year at Llandaff, the boys have the chance to audition for that solo part and Conrad has put his name in the hat, along with seven others, who are all as keen as mustard.
“I would quite like to do it,” he says, admitting that he no longer gets nervous singing in front of hundreds of people. “I like solos and it would be good to open the service this year. I also enjoy singing Hark The Herald as it has a nice descant which we can sing.”
Like all children, Conrad and Sebastian will be up early on Christmas Day but most of their presents will have to wait until after the Cathedral service to be opened.
“I love the Christmas Day service as it is joyous,” he says. “I also enjoy the Nine Lessons as it is very exciting – a sense of anticipation as we are waiting for Jesus. The atmosphere is great which, I think, makes the singing sound better. But my favourite service of the year is Good Friday because it reminds us how Jesus died for us.”
This Christmas will be nine-year-old Sebastian’s first as a fully made-up chorister. Last year he was a probationer. He’s a bit more nervous than his big brother but thinks singing in the choir is a lot of fun. His favourite carol is Ding Dong Merrily on High and like Conrad, his favourite anthem is Insane Et Vanae Curae, by Haydn.
“Its great fun,” he says. “You get to know people you wouldn’t know otherwise and it helps in schoolwork too.”
One of the perks of singing in the Cathedral Choir is having the best seats in the house for the major services. Unfortunately, this perk doesn’t extend to their parents who, like everyone else, have to arrive as early as possible to guarantee a seat where they can see their boys at the Nine Lessons and Carols service.
“I’m sure I get much more nervous watching them than they do singing!” says Conrad and Sebastian’s mum, Jeanne Thorndike. “It’s always worse for the parents! But I know they are very capable and that Mr Moore is an amazing musician who has prepared them well. So I can sit back and be very proud to see my boys singing.”
Jeanne, who was a professional opera singer herself and now teaches, admits the commitment to the choir is as much for the parents as it is for the boys.
“It is a full-time job as we have to get the boys to the rehearsals and support them all through the year. But it is worth it. The boys have come on tremendously since they became choristers, not just musically, and I can see how much they enjoy it. I also know that they can handle anything under pressure. They are up at 6am and at 6pm they are singing at Evensong, perhaps doing a solo. That’s a long day for an adult. So to know that my boys can still perform that well after such a long day fills me with pride and makes all the journeys in the car and the early morning get ups and the tiredness all worth it.”
The Cathedral Choir will be singing on Sunday at 11am and 3.30pm; on Christmas Eve at 3.30pm and on Christmas Day at 11am. All are welcome. For more information see
The choir has also produced a new CD of music from Advent To Christmas – Nadolig yn Llandaf. It is available from the Cathedral shop for £10