Music flourished in the nation during the late Queen’s reign, finds Ronald Corp


During the long reign of Queen Elizabeth, music of all types has flourished and her patronage of ‘serious’ (or ‘classical’) music has been exemplary. She appointed four Masters of the Queen’s Music, a post which stretches back to 1626 when Charles the First appointed Nicholas Lanier. Bliss took up the post in 1953 succeeding Arnold Bax and his works for royal occasions include ‘Welcome to the Queen’ written to mark the monarch’s return from her six-month tour of the Commonwealth, as well as pieces for the investiture of the Prince of Wales in 1969. Bliss was succeeded by the Australian Malcolm Williamson who was a bright, up-and-coming composer when appointed, but blotted his copybook when he failed to deliver in time his ‘Mass of Christ the King’ commissioned for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. Williamson’s later career floundered and it was decided that the next recipients should hold the post for just ten years. Maxwell Davies was appointed in 2004 and he took seriously his position as an ambassador for music. He inaugurated the Queen’s Medal for Music

In 2005. Recipients of that award include many illustrious musicians such as Charles Mackerras, Emma Kirkby, Nicola Benedetti, and composers Thea Musgrave and Oliver Knudsen. The fourth in post was the first woman to take up the appointment, Judith Weir in 2014. 

At the start of the Queen’s reign, the Arts Council of Great Britain commissioned ten composers to write short motets in her honour for a publication titled ‘A Garland for the Queen’. This was inspired by a madrigal collection, ‘The Triumphs of Oriana’ published by Thomas Morley in homage to Queen Elizabeth the First in 1601. The composers for the ‘Garland’ were all prominent figures in the musical world of the 1950s and included Tippet, Bax, Bliss, Vaughan Williams, Berkeley, Ireland, Howells, Finzi, Rawsthorne and Rubbra. Missing from the list was Walton who was asked to compose a setting of the Te Deum for the coronation and also composed the coronation march ‘Orb and Sceptre’, and Britten who was commissioned to write an opera for performance at Covent Garden. This opera ‘Gloriana’ was not a success and Britten was embarrassed by its supposed failure and never recorded it. It’s possible that the applause was muted because most of the female audience were wearing gloves, but it’s almost certain that the subject matter (the story of the affairs between Elizabeth the First and the Earl of Essex, ending with the queen signing Essex’s death warrant) seemed inappropriate for an occasion of joy and celebration. Malcolm Arnold was commissioned by Sadler’s Wells Ballet to compose a ballet, and his ‘Homage to the Queen’ with choreography by Frederick Ashton was first performed on coronation day. 

The Queen’s funeral included a nod to her 1953 coronation in Westminster Abbey with the little motet ‘O taste and see’ by Vaughan Williams. Music for the Queen’s coronation was extensive and included a ‘Coronation March’ by Bax (one of his last works), Walton’s Te Deum, together with music by Harris, Howells, Bullock and Dyson. In addition to the ‘O taste’ motet, Vaughn Williams was also represented in the ‘Garland’ as well as supplying an arrangement of the ‘Old Hundredth’.

There have been further collections like the ‘Garland’. For the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, Maxwell Davies assembled forty-five new anthems in a publication titled the ‘Choirbook for the Queen’ (2012). The rostra of composers included John Tavener, John Rutter, Richard Rodney Bennett, Judith Weir, and Roxanna Panufnik. Twelve of the works were commissions including works by Julian Philips and Judith Bingham. In that year there was also the ‘New Water Music’, commissions from eleven composers who wrote pieces to accompany the flotilla of vessels which made up the Thames Jubilee Pageant. 

Over her reign, many works great and small have also been written for the Queen, including Elgar’s ‘Nursery Suite’, which was dedicated to the Duchess of York and her daughters (Elizabeth was four years old), the anthem ‘We wait for thy loving kindness’ by William McKie for the wedding of Elizabeth to Philip, Bax’s ‘Maytime in Sussex’ for her twenty first birthday, and Bliss’s ‘A birthday greeting for Her Majesty’ (1955). The Queen also figures in Coates’s suite ‘The Three Elizabeths’ of 1944. More recent works include ‘The King shall rejoice’ by Bob Chilcott for the sixtieth anniversary of the Queen’s coronation, ‘A little birthday music’ at the proms in 2006 for the Queen’s eightieth birthday, by Peter Maxwell Davies, and Judith Weir’s ‘I love all beauteous things’ for her ninetieth birthday.

Among the concerts held at Buckingham Palace the Golden Jubilee event included vocal soloists Angela Georghiu, Roberto Alagna, Kiri Te Kanawa and Thomas Allen. The post of Official Harpist was revived in 2000 by King Charles (as Prince of Wales) and Catrin Finch the first recipient. The organ in the ballroom at Buckingham Palace was renovated in 2002 and Queen Victoria’s gold-leaf piano of 1856 was brought to the Royal Albert Hall for a Promenade concert in 2019 on which Stephen Hough played Mendelssohn’s first piano concerto. Queen Elizabeth enjoyed the sound of the bagpipes and another Victorian innovation was re-established with the appointment of a Piper to the Sovereign.

Throughout her reign, she has opened concert halls and musical establishments and her patronage of musical organisations and charities include the Royal Ballet and Help Musicians, the musicians’ charity.

The Rev Ronald Corp OBE is an acclaimed
composer and conductor, founder of the New London Orchestra, and assistant priest at St Alban’s, Holborn.