In this blog, Musicroom’s choral expert revisits his favourite musical moments from The Coronation of Their Majesties King Charles III and Queen Camilla and shares his thoughts on how old works alongside new music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Paul Mealor, Tarik O’Regan, Debbie Wiseman and Roxanna Panufnik made the ceremony memorable. As part of the blog, Iain Farrington, who wrote a new organ work for the service and arranged three of the orchestral works, gives an insider’s take on the commissioning process, and shares his experiences on the day.
The Royal Palace and Music
‘[The Palace] had lots and lots of ideas; for my piece they wanted something that represented the various songs and styles of the Commonwealth – something very lively, jazzy, non-Anglican, with world music influences; they had a huge list of examples to give me. It was quite a strict brief, but I knew I was on safe ground – this is how I write.’ – Iain Farrington
And that, in a nutshell, seems to be the thinking behind the service. Here, for the first time in ages, is a monarch who cares deeply about his music, and who had thought deeply and for a long time about what he wanted: the people, cultures, and different musical styles he wanted to have represented through music during the service. This enthusiasm and bank of ideas was then discussed with Andrew Nethsingha, the new Director of Music at Westminster Abbey, who knows a thing or two about conducting a choir and putting together a successful programme of music, and who brought his own suggestions of suitable composers, arrangers, and music for the occasion.
The Coronation: A Celebration of British Music
Watching the service on TV, I was struck by how much the really well-known stuff felt different. The impact of Parry’s
I Was Glad was extraordinary. Somewhere in my head, I must have known that it needed to be the first piece to be sung, as tradition has it that the King’s Scholars of Westminster School are the first to greet the new monarch. But hearing it in that place gave it a power that even this piece didn’t seem to have had before. And I simply wasn’t prepared for how Zadok, which, let’s face, we’ve heard a million times over the years, at that so very private moment of the anointing, would make me feel so moved.
Before we get on to the subject of commissions and new music, we should also spare a thought for William Byrd, and his two pieces – the anthem Prevent us, O Lord, and the Gloria from the Mass for Four Voices. Many reading this blog will be aware of the glorious tradition of sacred choral music we have in the UK, and how lucky we are to have it. But these two understated pieces felt to me like the best advertisement of this tradition. These are works, and works like them, that will be sung by cathedral and church choirs all over the country: Prevent us, O Lord, is just the sort of thing you’d put down on your music list for a Tuesday Evensong in Lent; the Mass for Four Voices can be sung by any cathedral choir backwards – these musicians sing this stuff week in, week out, so it felt like a particularly apt choice to have this normal, but oh-so-extraordinary music at The Coronation; a real tangible connection between the pomp and ceremony of the day and the singing you can hear on any day of the week across the UK if you pop along to Evensong.
The Coronation Commissions
Talking to friends and colleagues about the ceremony, what I came across was that this was a glorious musical coming together of many parts. As we have heard, each composer was given their relatively strict brief, and the result was an accumulation of wonderful musical details that went to provide a most satisfying musical and liturgical whole. Take Paul Mealor’s beautiful Coronation Kyrie sung in Welsh (so nice to see Bryn, too; difficult to lose if you’ve got him singing the solo, I enjoyed his increasing arm movements as he neared the climax of the piece).
Debbie Wiseman’s bookending Gospel Acclamations Alleluia (O Clap your hands) created a really nice touch with connection of similar music before (Alleluia: O Sing Praises) and after the Gospel, but in completely different styles. Tarik O’Regan’s ethereal Coronation Agnus Dei and Roxanna Panufnik’s darker Coronation Sanctus showcased these two exceptional composers’ styles and idiosyncrasies to perfection.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Coronation Anthem ‘Make a Joyful Noise’
One composer who has had his fair share of high-profile events is Andrew Lloyd Webber. Then again, there was thought and interest behind the new piece. Lloyd Webber is not typically thought of as a choral composer, and many were surprised when he got the gig, but he does represent a huge slice of the British music-loving public. Talk to a choral musician and you might get a raised eyebrow at his choice – but speaking to various members of the public a day after the event, here was a piece that really struck a chord with them.
Again, it did the job it was asked to do – it was brassy, joyful and packed a punch. And, like so many of the new works in the service, it sounded like the composer himself; the occasion hadn’t lured him into trying to write something that wasn’t him. Finally, and helpfully, it’s also quite easy to sing, so church choirs of any standard across the country will be able to perform it. Easy to turn our noses up at simple music, but just look at the lasting popularity of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s artlessly elegant O Taste and See from the last Coronation.
What was it like being at The Coronation?
How was the experience of being there? Iain Farrington says:
“It was like nothing else; wonderful top to bottom, and I am so happy to have been a part of it. We were given really good seats which was so touching – and I think speaks a lot of how important the King feels that music is to him; I am sure he had a big influence on where we were. There was such a positive spirit there between the composers; I can’t remember seeing something so joyous, we were all so chuffed to be a part of it.
The service itself was extremely beautiful, moving, and I think, personal – not to me so much about royalty as a display of the UK’s extraordinary musical talent and ability. A wonderful variety of the old and the new. And I was very moved to see the girls and boys singing together [the boys of Westminster Abbey and the Chapel Royal were joined by the girls of Truro Cathedral and of Methodist College, Belfast] for the first time at a Coronation – and there was a much fuller sound than normal, as you would expect. The Abbey wasn’t full of celebs; I hardly saw anyone I recognised, which I thought was a very good thing. It was full of ordinary people”.
Who performed at The Coronation?
Instrumentalists at The Coronation included the State Trumpeters of the Household Cavalry led by Trumpet Major Julian Sandford; Fanfare Trumpeters of the Royal Air Force led by Wing Commander Piers Morrell OBE MVO; and the Coronation Brass Ensemble led by Paul Wynne Griffiths. The Coronation Orchestra featured members of the Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and BBC National Orchestra of Wales, led by Sir Antonio Pappano.
The service was sung by the Choirs of Westminster Abbey and His Majesty’s Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace (Director of Music: Joseph McHardy), with choristers from Methodist College, Belfast (Director of Music: Ruth McCartney), and Truro Cathedral Choir (Director of Music until April 2023: Christopher Gray), and an octet from the Monteverdi Choir. The music during the service was directed by Andrew Nethsingha, Organist and Master of the Choristers, Westminster Abbey.
King’s Scholars of Westminster School were directed by Tim Garrard; the Byzantine Chant Ensemble was directed by Dr Alexander Linga; The Ascension Choir was directed by Abimbola Amoako-Gyampah; and the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists were led by Sir John Eliot Gardiner CBE. Amongst soloists were Official Royal Harpist, Alis Huws, and the voices of Pretty Yende, Bryn Terfel, and Roderick Williams. Organists who performed at the service were Matthew Jorysz, Assistant Organist, Westminster Abbey and Peter Holder, Sub-Organist, Westminster Abbey.
A Post-Coronation Lunch
Here’s a nice detail: after The Coronation, some of the composers went out for a big ol’ composers’ lunch together, organised by Roxanna Panufnik (‘We were totally knackered and really hungry’, says Farrington), and then were invited to a reception at Windsor Castle the following day to meet the King and be thanked for their involvement. ‘I think it just demonstrates the respect he has for what musicians do, and that doesn’t half mean a lot’.
– by J.W., Musicroom’s Choral Expert
Editorial Note: Other new works performed at The Coronation which are not mentioned in this blog are Crossing the Stone/Tros y Garreg by Karl Jenkins performed by Alis Huws; Sacred Fire by Sarah Class performed by Pretty Yende; Be Thou My vision; Triptych for Orchestra arranged by Nigel Hess, Roderick Williams and Shirley Thompson; Patrick Doyle’s Coronation March; and, Judith Weir’s Brighter Visions Shine Afar for orchestra.