As anyone who has spent any time thinking about the music for a wedding or a funeral will know, there is something of an art to planning a service. The Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, last Saturday, must have gone through some fairly drastic last-minute changes due to Covid restrictions, not least in the number of singers allowed and the make-up of those singers (usually the choir would be led by a row of trebles). But the outcome was a beautifully balanced service of music and readings which was at once solemn, majestic and intimate.
It’s also worth sparing a thought for the four singers, director of music and organist. This is no easy gig – the eyes and ears of the world are upon you, and as anyone who has performed in public in any field will be able to tell you, when you are under pressure things can go wrong. Every ‘t’ needs to be crossed, every ‘i’ dotted beforehand, to create that safety net of security that allows you to perform at your best and most relaxed. It’s a feeling that many singers in church choirs across the country will be able to relate to, as over the past few months, the pandemic has meant a reduction in the number of singers allowed at services, resulting in many choirs fielding solo singers or trios, many of whom will have been singing quite out of their comfort zone. It’s one thing performing Britten’s Jubilate Deo as part of a big choir – you know if you have a rogue moment that someone else will be there to carry the line. Being the only one responsible for a line in a choir carries a surprisingly high level of responsibility.
Which made it all the more impressive the quality of the singing from the three members of St George’s Chapel Choir and soprano Miriam Allan. When you put together a quartet such as this there is more to consider than just getting your four ‘best’ singers. Will the voices work well together? Do the voice types complement each other? Most of the singers at the funeral have sung together before in other professional choirs, which will no doubt have helped. The result was a beautifully balanced sound, but one that director James Vivian was able to let loose on several occasions, resulting in some really exciting, as well as moving singing.
And then the music, all chosen by the Duke of Edinburgh himself. Two of the pieces were pieces commissioned by the Duke: Benjamin Britten’s Jubilate in C was one of two Matins canticles he commissioned – Britten was given the instructions not to make it too dreary and drudgelike, and the result has entered the canon of church music, being performed all over the world by many choirs. In typical Britten fashion, it wears its learning lightly, and is considerably easier to sing than it might at first appear – a facet that endears it to directors of music considerably! The second piece, Psalm 104, by guitarist and composer William Lovelady, was written for the Duke’s 75th birthday, and is a dramatic piece, with considerable demands placed upon the tenor soloist.
It is perhaps not always known how many church musicians spend their time arranging and composing their own music, much of which is never published, or flows around the church ‘underground’ music scene, popping up in churches and cathedrals here and there, often in manuscript form, composed not for money, but to fill a particular space in a service, or serve a particular purpose. This was in evidence here too – as well as arranging Lovelady’s Psalm 104 for four solo voices and organ, director James Vivian also arranged the hymn, Eternal Father, strong to save. This would normally be sung con belto by the whole congregation, but Vivian’s sensitive arrangement made a virtue out of a necessity and created a much more intimate presentation of the words. One of his Vivian’s predecessors at the Chapel, Roger Judd, had done something similar with William Smith’s Responses – sung daily as part of Evensong by the choir – modifying them to fit words appropriate to a funeral service.
Take, if you will, in your mind, the prospect of singing in front of millions of people on live TV and magnify it tenfold, and your are probably approaching the magnitude of task set to Luke Bond, the organist for the service. Multiple pieces of music, multiple styles, the need to get all the notes right – and there are a lot of them – whilst barely looking at your music, because you need to be focused on the conductor, who you can only see on a small television screen. Playing the organ for any service is no easy job. Bond has prior experience in this – he played for the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle – but it cannot be overstated what a lot there is to think about and the amount of preparation (over many years) that goes into being able to accomplish such a feat. Bond is a fairly relaxed character, and his Facebook feed at the end of the day simple read ‘Thank you for all the good wishes, very kind and each one meant a lot. Deepest condolences to HM and the family.’ If anyone deserved a gin and dubonnet at the end of the day, it was organist.
Finally, a return to the start of the service, and composer William Croft’s setting of the funeral sentences. Beautiful in themselves, it seems that he something of a crisis of confidence in the midst of writing, conscious of the greatness of his predecessor Henry Purcell’s setting of the same sentences for the funeral of Queen Mary. When the music reaches the setting of ‘Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts’ Croft defers to Purcell, with a note in the manuscript along the lines of ‘Mr Purcell has written by far the best setting of these words, and I don’t presume to do better than he can – just sing his setting’!
The music sung at the funeral:
Burial Sentences, arr. William Croft
Eternal Father, Strong to Save – J. B. Dykes, William Whiting, arr. James Vivian
Jubilate in C – Benjamin Britten
Psalm 104 – William Lovelady, Sam Dyer, arr. James Vivian
The Lord’s Prayer, Music by Robert Stone