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Music fit for a king

The cliché of Britain as “the land without music” was disproved

Our monarchs have varied greatly in their enthusiasm for music. Queen Victoria was a keen musical patron, enjoying command performances at Windsor Castle during her long period of sequestered mourning. Edward VII, by contrast, was a musical man about town, with nights out at Covent Garden central to his bon-viveur lifestyle. Commentators rued the fact that George V seemed rather less keen on music. As each of his descendants successively took to the throne, the monarchy started to gain a reputation for philistinism. 

Once again, we have a monarch with a genuine love of music

The charge was exaggerated: the late Queen could play the piano, was a regular concert goer, inaugurated the Queen’s Music Medal and was awarded two honorary degrees in music. When Benjamin Britten wrote the opera Gloriana for her Coronation, she clapped for eight minutes and declared herself “delighted and flattered”, even as other audience members became restless and (in some cases) left at the interval. Still, there is no doubting the fact that Her Majesty was a bigger fan of horses and hunting than the arts.

Now, once again, we have a monarch with a genuine love of music. The young Prince Charles learnt to play the cello, was taught music at Gordonstoun by teachers exiled from Nazi Germany, and was regularly taken to opera and ballet by the Queen Mother. It comes as no surprise that music should have played a major role in his big day — and that he should have hand-picked the works to be performed.

The King treated guests in Westminster Abbey to a pre-Coronation concert of extraordinary sumptuousness. The renowned conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner — farcically dubbed a “Dorset farmer” in a recent BBC News story — led the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque soloists in a vivacious performance of works by Bach and Bruckner. The equally eminent Sir Antonio Pappano, music director of the Royal Opera, conducted a specially convened orchestra of musicians who play in eight ensembles associated with the former Prince of Wales. The patriotic classics by Elgar, Walton and Vaughan Williams that formed the soundtrack to last year’s Jubilee were reprised, but there was also much that was fresh and novel, the King having commissioned twelve pieces to be performed across the course of the morning. New and old works sat happily side by side, Judith Weir’s music segueing smoothly into Holst’s. Radio 3 broadcast the lot. Television coverage panned away restlessly to vox pops in the Mall: a missed opportunity to capture imaginations at a time when so little classical music is heard on TV.

If a smile flickered on the lips of the otherwise solemn-looking King as he walked down the aisle, it was surely prompted by the music. Hubert Parry’s “I Was Glad”, by turns exuberant and reflective, has been used for Coronations since 1902, its duration timed precisely for this procession in this building, but on this occasion the work had particular personal resonance. In 2011 the then Prince of Wales made a deeply reflective BBC documentary about Parry’s music, saying simply, “I find it’s music that makes me feel better. 

Music unites, the message seemed to be, rather than divides

The ceremony itself was laced through with choral set pieces, conducted with confident panache by Andrew Nethsingha, Westminster Abbey’s Organist and Master of the Choristers. Even within the ceremony’s restricted format, there was something for all tastes: Tudor anthems by William Byrd, a gospel choir, Byzantine chant and more. The composers selected to write new pieces represented varied musical traditions: musical theatre, film music and contemporary classical music both light and not so light. Paul Mealor’s Coronation Kyrie — a striking Welsh-language call-to-attention sung by Sir Bryn Terfel — opened proceedings. Patrick Doyle contributed a toe-tapping Coronation March. Roxanna Panufnik’s Sanctus and Tarik O’Regan’s Agnus Dei were entirely contemporary yet seemed to capture the ancient mysticism that many viewers found such a striking feature of the occasion. 

Representation was high on the agenda, the King evidently desiring to display the many and varied musical talents of his subjects. Performers ranged in age from eight (the youngest choristers) to eighty (the Dorset farmer). Girls from Truro Cathedral and Methodist College, Belfast sang alongside the Westminster choristers — a more radical gesture than many viewers may have realised — and amongst the composers were a healthy number of women. Performers came from a variety of different national and racial backgrounds, and all four of the home nations (and their languages) were represented, as was the Commonwealth. Music unites, the message seemed to be, rather than divides. 

The sheer quantity of music in the Abbey was staggering — some 48 pieces — as were the standards of performance. Everything was impeccably sung, played and choreographed, despite the logistical challenges of coordinating musical forces positioned in remote parts of the Abbey. At a time when other aspects of British life sometimes feel as if they are barely functioning, it was poignant and heartening to be reminded that we remain world-leading when it comes to the arts. The cliché of Britain as “the land without music”, famously uttered by a snobbish German critic, was vigorously disproved, when every musician in the Abbey — not to mention scores of military musicians playing trombones and tubas whilst mounted on skittish horses — seemed almost insanely talented. The mood was positively ecstatic by the time it came to Handel’s Zadok the Priest, sung at the most sacred moment of the King’s anointing. 

All this comes against the backdrop of troubled times for music, with a government largely hostile to the arts and music education. Even those organisations founded to foster the arts — the Arts Council and the BBC — are inflicting vicious cuts on leading opera companies and orchestras. The King, self-evidently, cannot be seen to meddle in politics, but this careful showcasing of an awful lot of music, and lavish patronage of new music in particular, does seem symbolic. We must hope to goodness that a monarch this enthusiastic about the arts can exert soft power and pull some strings behind the scenes. Our musical world is at the top of its game, yet in great peril. Your Majesty, we need you.

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