Only on BBC Radio 3 it seems, excellent presentation and sound, for when the music started, at 9 o’clock, BBC One, Two (signed) and News were all showing the same images (!!!), not one of them inside the Abbey for the performances, opening with John Eliot Gardiner conducting exhilarating and joyful J. S. Bach with the Monteverdi Choir & English Baroque Soloists, followed by a Bruckner motet (although when I put BBC One back on it was to find JEG conducting vigorously). Then it was Bach from the organ loft, suitably solemn, played by Matthew Jorysz. Now a switch to Antonio Pappano and the squeezed-in Coronation Orchestra (but BBC One had left, then came back; choppy coverage) for the first of King Charles’s commissions, by Judith Weir, followed by some jolly Holst (‘Jupiter’, arranged Iain Farrington), then Karl Jenkins’s piece featuring Alis Huws, the Royal Harpist, and something by Sarah Class with soprano Pretty Yende – both musically so-so – and immediately overshadowed by Walton’s stirring Crown Imperial (1937 coronation music, Boult conducting back then, and for 2023 arranged by John Rutter) and a truly lovely rendition of Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on Greensleeves (a tune attributed to Henry VIII), although the following medley of melodies, credited to three arrangers, came across as anonymous, then a jazzy number for organ by Farrington livened things up, almost decadent in these hallowed surroundings! Patrick Doyle’s swaggering Coronation March impressed, as did a Purcell & Handel sequence, including the latter’s ‘The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba’ (Zadok the Priest was due to be performed during the Coronation itself, so too something new for Bryn Terfel, as well as commissioned scores from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Roxanna Panunik, maestros Gardiner and Pappano continuing), culminating in Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ (arr. Farrington), movingly done. Then it was Peter Holder’s turn at the organ… the Abbey’s bells peal out, let the crowning commence…


Robert Matthew-Walker’s editorial for the May issue of The Organ

A King is Crowned

From time immemorial, of course, music has played both a unifying and greatly significant part of the Coronation Service, and, following the traditions which have evolved in the four Coronations that have taken place since the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, prior to that on May 6th this year, the choice of music has reflected aspects of the contemporaneous musical scenes of 1902, 1911, 1937 and 1953, with new music by living composers set alongside music of earlier times – that earlier music clearly sanctioned by long usage, or which forms part of the musical understanding of many citizens, including those who are neither members of the Church of England nor indeed of any faith.

We mention the Church of England as the Coronation Service includes the Sovereign’s Anointing as Head of the Church; in today’s society, the Anglican Church may remain in situ, but is often locally  surrounded by communities whose inherent faiths are very different from those of Christendom. King Charles has long recognised the social changes which have taken place during his lifetime – certainly since his mother’s Coronation in 1953; changes which are inevitably continuing – and his laudable desire to be Defender of Faith in his own manner has perforce to embrace the defence of wider religious belief as an experienced concept.

The upshot of this is that the very texts of the various Coronation Anthems to be sung at the Coronation may need, in some instances, to reflect the concept of fideii defensor, more suitably in the commissioning of new music to celebrate the broader contemporaneous society in which the Service takes place.  

It is not an easy task – but it is not a new one, either – nor has it been confined solely to religious settings. For example, for King Edward VII’s Coronation in 1902, the great French composer Camille Saint-Saëns was commissioned to write a purely orchestral Coronation March. His Opus 117 was the result – a fine piece of music, today forgotten and unknown, but an example of the then Monarch’s intention to reach out internationally on his Enthronement. At that time, Edward Elgar was certainly the ‘coming man’ in British music, following the successes of the Enigma Variations, the Pomp and Circumstance Marches, the Cockaigne Overture and The Dream of Gerontius – but he was not permitted to compose music for the 1902 Coronation Service itself, as he was a Catholic. Elgar’s Coronation Ode was his secular contribution to the festivities, but change was wrought by Edward VII’s son, King George V, who in 1911 commanded that Elgar compose music for the Coronation itself – the composer replied with two works, the beautiful anthem ‘O Hearken Thou’ performed during the service at Westminster Abbey, and the magnificent, purely orchestral, Coronation March – a nobly contemplative work, far from the flag-waving, breezy, Pomp and Circumstance set.

That 1911 Coronation Service also saw Stanford’s superb setting of the Gloria, in B flat major, performed again in 1937 and also in 1953. But in purely musical terms, as the Coronation Service ends with the ‘glorious triumph’ of the Te Deum, the 1911 setting of the Hymnus Ambrosianus, by Sir Frederick Bridge, proved to be a very second-rate piece of music, founded almost entirely upon the chorale Ein Fest’ Burg, a tune highly unsuitable for the inherent release of tension, now that the service is almost complete, that the concluding Te Deum should bring.

That release is certainly to be found in Vaughan Williams’s Coronation Te Deum of 1937, in F major, for choir, orchestra, organ and additional brass. Thankfully, the HMV recording of the 1937 Service enables us to hear this work performed for the first time then and there, May 12th 1937, a thrilling work indeed – and very possibly a unique one, also, for the choir sings in unison (octaves) throughout. It is an exhilarating performance of a hugely exhilarating work, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, with tempos absolutely spot-on.

Boult was knighted in the 1937 Coronation Honours and was also in charge of the 1953 Coronation music in Westminster Abbey. The late Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation music was more widely-spread, with music by the Canadian composer Healey Willan, an acknowledgement of the wider post-war new Commonwealth, a magnificent choral gem from Vaughan Williams – his motet ‘O Taste and See’ – a minor masterpiece (but masterpiece it is) that ought to form part of all subsequent Coronation services, and Walton’s stunning setting of the Te Deum, for semi-choruses, large mixed choir, organ, orchestra and fanfare trumpeters.

Ideas for this thrilling setting dated from before the end of World War II, when Sir Henry Wood realised (as did many others) that Germany was going to be defeated, and he intended to plan and direct a commemorative victory concert.  He contacted Walton and asked him to consider writing a large-scale setting of the Te Deum – apparently, on the scale of Bruckner’s masterly setting of the Latin text: i.e., around 30 minutes in duration. But Wood died before the War ended, and the project came to nothing.

However, on being handed the commission for the 1953 Coronation Te Deum, Walton alreadyhad many plans and sketches ready-drafted (if not in anticipation of the Duke of Norfolk’s invitation) and the resultant work proved a truly thrilling conclusion to Her late Majesty’s Coronation, as the HMV recording demonstrates.

It is good news that Walton’s setting will conclude this year’s Service and that Parry’s immortal I Was Glad will open proceedings: we know, from an earlier excellent television programme, that His Majesty is a keen admirer of Parry’s music. We are sure that the resultant performance, with its inclusion of the Westminster Scholars’ greeting shouts of ‘Vivat’ to both new King and Queen, will set the musical scene of this unique occasion admirably.

Of course, we shall hear Handel’s Zadok the Priest – written for the Coronation in 1727 of King George II, and performed at every Coronation since – and an exceptional range of new music by living composers – one’s only concern being that so little time will elapse between the commission being offered and the Service itself – a mere six months, whereas earlier Coronations did not take place until a full eighteen months had elapsed: at least, those earlier composers had more time to consider their work. But, set alongside and book-ended, as it were, by the magnificent Parry and Walton settings, and also highlighted by Handel’s Zadok the Priest,  we trust the music for the Service itself will uphold the high tradition of artistic excellence in the service of King and Country.

Underpinning all of this music, brilliant brass and full orchestra, will be the great Westminster Abbey Harrison & Harrison organ – and the presence of the newly-appointed Organist and Master of the Choristers, Andrew Nethsingha, the Director of Music for the Coronation, will ensure that that aspect of the contribution of the musical underpinning of this truly historic event is in the best possible hands. This is written, of course, before the Coronation takes place, and at the Abbey tradition has it that a programme of suitable orchestral music is also performed surrounding the service: we have mentioned Saint-Saëns’s Coronation March of 1902, and Elgar’s of 1911 – to which may be added Walton’s Crown Imperial (1937) and Orb and Sceptre (1953), Arnold Bax’s Coronation March (1953) and Arthur Bliss’s Processional (also 1953). Seventy and more years ago, Britain possessed several composers noted for their ceremonial music, but we are confident that the new King Charles III Coronation March, by Patrick Doyle, continues in that tradition, as will all the new music – choral and orchestral – produced by the latest generations, continue to uphold the nation’s musical expression in rising to great state occasions.