Choirs and the Crown V

Choirs and the Crown: Anglican Choral Music and the British Monarchy
V: The Twentieth Century and Beyond

With Queen Victoria's death, we now enter the 20th century. When we think of the British Monarchy today, we think of a very high standard in terms of pageantry and ceremonial. However, as I indicated earlier, this has not been consistent through the centuries. It was Edward VII, who loved pageantry, loved putting on a show, who really did a lot to revive and even to a certain extent create this sense of absolutely precise, glorious ceremonial that we take for granted today with the British Monarchy. And this was no less true in the realm of music.

Slightly younger than Stainer and Parratt was the great composer Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (which I think is really quite a wonderful name). He was the director of the Royal College of Music and a professor at Oxford. His father wanted him to sell insurance, but that didn't go very well. What did go well was writing music, as I think you'll agree. He wrote an anthem originally for Edward VII's coronation in 1902, which has like Handel's "Zadok the Priest" become a permanent fixture at every subsequent coronation, and also a certain recent royal event that you may have heard of. This is of course "I Was Glad," the same text [Psalm 122] as the Purcell we heard earlier, but a much grander and more elaborate setting. You've probably heard this with organ; I wanted to use this particular live recording with orchestra. You may notice that the balance, which heavily favours the militarily augmented brass, is probably not what you would get on a polished studio recording, but I think that adds an extra dimension of excitement. This is a live royal event in Westminster Abbey, probably very much what this would have sounded like as the Entrance at the coronation of Edward VII in 1902.

Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918)
I Was Glad

James ODonnell/The Choirs of Westminster Abbey and the Chapel Royal
Christopher Warren-Green/London Chamber Orchestra
The Royal Wedding: The Official Album (Decca, 2011)

Sadly, Parry, who greatly admired the musical culture of Germany, was devastated by the outbreak of war between the two countries in 1914 and died as a casualty of the flu epidemic of 1918.

Another leading composer of this time was Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924), who was born in Dublin but moved to England at the age of ten and studied at Trinity College Cambridge. He later became a professor at both the Royal College of Music and Cambridge. Stanford was known for having a fiery temper which led to some quarrels with his contemporaries, including Parry, but they were always short-lived: when Parry died, Stanford dedicated a Magnificat to his memory. For the coronation of King George V in 1911 (Edward VII having died the previous year), Stanford arranged this Gloria from his Communion Service in B-flat (originally accompanied by organ) for orchestra. Remember that in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the Gloria comes at the end of the service, so this sounds very much like a finale. As a cellist I think it exhibits some wonderful writing for orchestra. This Gloria would also be sung at the coronation of George V's granddaughter 42 years later.

Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)
Gloria in Excelsis

Martin Neary/The Choir of Westminster Abbey
Music from the Coronation of HM Queen Elizabeth II (Cantoris, 1994)

Less than a year after George V died in 1936, his eldest son Edward VIII famously abdicated the throne to marry the twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson. So it fell to Edward's younger brother George VI to lead Britain through World War II, which he did quite heroically as dramatised in the recent film The King's Speech. The war took a heavy toll on the King's health, and in 1952 he died at only 56 and was succeeded by his daughter, the present Queen Elizabeth II.

The Queen's coronation on June 2, 1953 arguably represents the pinnacle of this third "Golden Age" of Anglican choral music, and certainly constituted a high point of collaboration between Monarchy and Music. We think of coronations as steeped in tradition, and they certainly are, but it's important to remember that they've also long been an opportunity to showcase new music. For this coronation, pieces were commissioned from the most eminent British and Commonwealth composers of the time, including William Harris, George Dyson, Healy Willan, and Ralph Vaughan Williams. I can't play all of them tonight, but I know that my Incarnation friends would not let me out of here without including a piece by the one and only Herbert Howells. He wrote this beautiful anthem "Behold, O God Our Defender" for the Introit of the 1953 ceremony; I think the achingly lush sonorities at the beginning, especially with orchestra, are particularly remarkable.

Herbert Howells (1892-1983)
Behold, O God Our Defender

Music from the Coronation of HM Queen Elizabeth II

The youngest composer featured in 1953 was William Walton, who was born in 1902 in Oldham. Walton's career got off to an uncertain start at the age of ten. His parents had seen an advertisement seeking choristers for Christ Church, Oxford and decided William should try out. Unfortunately the night before the audition his father spent the money for the train fare on alcohol at the pub. By the time Louisa Walton managed to borrow money from a grocer and get little William to Oxford, the auditions were over. She convinced the cathedral authorities to hear her son anyway, and since it was already obvious that he was a major talent, they let him in. (I would love to know what sort of conversation the Waltons had when Louisa returned. I'd guess the neighbours could hear it!) Walton went on to have quite a distinguished career as a composer, for which he was knighted in 1951. Having already written the march "Crown Imperial" for her father's coronation in 1937, he contributed both another march and this Te Deum for Elizabeth II's coronation. As the final piece of the service prior to the National Anthem, the Te Deum while not neglecting bombast also includes some beautiful quiet moments.

William Walton (1902-1983)
Coronation Te Deum

Music from the Coronation of HM Queen Elizabeth II

We began this evening with royal events of several centuries ago; we're going to end with one that occurred less than a month ago. That is of course the marriage on April 29 of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, now Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. With this glorious wedding the tradition of featuring the best of contemporary British composition at royal occasions continued into the new century. In addition to a commissioned anthem by John Rutter, the choir sang this beautiful motet Ubi Caritas by Paul Mealor, professor at Scotland's University of Aberdeen. Born in 1975, Mealor is only three years older than I am. This piece has two special connections to the royal couple, incorporating both Wales and Scotland: it was written at Mealor's studio on the Isle of Anglesey, where William and Catherine live, and it was premiered at their alma mater St Andrew's in November 2010. Since this piece unlike the others has only been known to the world for the past month, and is our final musical example tonight, I think it fitting that it should be the only one I will play in its entirety.

Paul Mealor (b 1975)
Ubi Caritas

The Royal Wedding: The Official Album

And with that beautiful treble solo, sung by the same boy we heard singing the Gibbons of four centuries earlier and echoing Gregorian Chant (the most ancient form of Western sacred music), we've come full circle, and conclude for tonight this story of Choirs and the Crown. Thank you very much.

Choirs and the Crown