Ronald Corp looks at the composers commissioned to write special coronation pieces
There were a few raised eyebrows when the Palace announced the twelve composers who were being commissioned to write works for the coronation of King Charles. The list was certainly diverse, and the publicity said that it reflected a range of musical styles and performers which blended ‘tradition, heritage and ceremony with new musical voices of today, reflecting the King’s life-long love and support of music and arts’. But the composer who most caught the eye was Andrew Lloyd Webber who has been commissioned to write the coronation anthem, a setting of verses from Psalm 98. Was this a sign of dumbing down or does it reflect the taste of the King himself or is it a reflection of the taste of the general public. After all the Classic FM recent Hall of Fame top three hundred most popular works includes many pieces which might not be called ‘classical’ in the strict sense of the word and it is true that Andrew Lloyd Webber himself has written at least two ‘serious’ works, his Variations for cello and orchestra composed for his brother Julian in 1978 and his Requiem of 1985. The latter includes the rather saccharine but hugely popular Pie Jesu which is often played on the radio and featured frequently in Raymond Gubbay concerts. The rest of the work is in a more challenging idiom which feels rather ‘forced’ and the work as a whole has not entered the repertory of choral societies. The same could be said of Paul McCartney’s four ‘classical’ works including Ecce cor meum. For some composers ‘serious’ composition just isn’t their ‘thing’.
It is notable how many of the other composers chosen are regulars on Classic Fm (and perhaps not on Radio 3). These include the film music composer Debbie Wiseman, who was very prominent in the late Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and another composer known for his film and television soundtracks, Nigel Hess, who was commissioned by the then Prince Charles to write a piano concerto in 2007 in memory of his grandmother. Karl Jenkins is named as another composer and his Armed Man Mass has certainly entered the repertory and has had hundreds of performances. Jenkins has found a rich, easy-on-the ear musical seam which is somewhat harmonically static but is certainly mesmerising and often dramatic.
The Scottish composer of film scores, Patrick Doyle, is writing a Coronation March, and other composers in the wider world of commercial music making who are writing pieces for the coronation include Sarah Class, whose Rhythm of the Earth was commissioned by King Charles for the recent COP26 Conference in Glasgow, and the English composer of Jamaican descent Shirley J Thompson who has composed operas and ballets as well as music for film and theatre. All of the composers mentioned so far write in a ‘popular’ and tuneful melodic style.
There is a dilemma trying to define types of music. In Handel’s day secular and sacred music sounded exactly the same. This is true in Rossini’s time too; the music he composed for his Stabat Mater for example is as jaunty on occasion as the music he wrote for comic or serious opera. Elgar likewise could write ‘serious’ music such as The Dream of Gerontius and also the ‘light’ Chanson de matin in the same musical language. But gradually music became polarised as ‘light’ or ‘serious’ with composers favouring one area or the other. The Light Programme during the 40s and 50s for example played light music by Eric Coates and Ronald Binge in direct contrast to the serious music played on the Third Programme which is now Radio 3. Classic FM perhaps enjoys the benefit of embracing both light and classical, but on the negative side it makes no effort to embrace contemporary music of a more adventurous sort and the coronation seems also to offer no place for major composers of more challenging music such as Thomas Adès, George Benjamin, Sally Beamish or Anna Clyne. Yes, Judith Weir as Master of the King’s Music is included but not James Macmillan who is presumably absent because he wrote music for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth. Absent also is John Rutter.
The more ‘serious’ composers are represented by the British/American Grammy Award winning composer Tarik O’Regan, Roxana Panafric (whose ‘Westminster Mass’ was commissioned for Westminster Cathedral on the occasion of Cardinal Hume’s seventy-fifth birthday in 1998) and Roderick Williams, who combines a career as baritone soloist and composer. Also commissioned is Paul Mealor who shot to fame when his anthem ‘Ubi caritas’ was sung at the wedding of William and Kate. The music these composers write is not going to frighten the horses but may provide a little more grit. Finally of the commissions the organist, pianist, composer and arranger Iain Farrington is writing an organ work which will include musical themes from the countries of the Commonwealth.
Handel is represented by Zadok the Priest, which has been a feature of all coronations since its first performance at the coronation of George the Second in 1727, and Parry’s I was glad with ‘vivats’ sung by the King’s Scholars of Westminster School which has been heard on various royal occasions since it’s premier at the coronation of Edward the Seventh in 1902. King Charles is a particular fan of Parry’s music. Other composers whose music featured in previous coronations are named in the press release include Byrd (marking the quatercentenary of his death in 1623), Elgar, Walford Davies, Walton and Vaughan Williams. There is plenty of music going on before the service to be sung by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists under Sir John Eliot Gardiner, and Sir Antonio Pappano will conduct the Coronation Orchestra made up of musicians drawn from orchestras of which the former Prince of Wales was patron.
Performers include Sr Bryn Terfel a singer who has managed to combine classical and cross-over repertory very successfully, Rodney Williams (his second appearance on the list) and Pretty Yende, the South African operatic soprano whose recent recital disc ‘A Journey’ won Best Recording in the International Opera Awards.
Andrew Nethsingha, appointed as successor to James O’Donnell as Organist and Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey just a few months ago directs the choirs of the Abbey augmented by the Choir of His Majesty’s Chapel Royal and choristers from the Chapel Choir of Methodist College, Belfast and from Turro Cathedral. A handpicked gospel choir will also take part in the service, and in a nod to Prince Philip, Greek orthodox music will feature sung by the Byzantine Chant Ensemble. The royal harpist Alis Huws will play and the organists will be the sub-organist of Westminster Abbey, Peter Holder and the Assistant Organist of the Abbey, Matthew Jorysz.
Looking at that list it would appear that the service is going to be a musical feast and the King is to be congratulated on commissioning twelve new pieces. At the coronation of Queen Elizabeth the music included Walton’s Te Deum, O taste and see by Vaughan Williams and music by Howells, Bax, Dyson and William Harris. That appears to be a more ‘heady’ mixture of composers than this year’s choices. Admittedly both Walton and Vaughan Williams wrote film music but they are known principally for their concert work which is presumably why they were chosen. If the Queen had wanted to invite ‘lighter’ composers of the day to write works I guess the obvious choices would have been Coates and Binge, or maybe Eric Thiman or Cecil Armstrong Gibbs. Is it reasonable to conclude that this time there is an element of dumbing down.. From recent decisions by the Arts Council and the BBC one might assume that music we might call ‘high art’ is not the flavour of today. It will be interesting to see how the musical feast plays out and hopefully the new commissions will enhance the occasion and provide performers with music to enter the repertory.
The Revd Ronald Corp OBE is a composer, conductor and priest, based at St Alban’s, Holborn. Founder and artistic director of the New London Orchestra (NLO) and the New London Children’s Choir, he has been musical director of the London Chorus since 1994, and the Highgate Choral Society. He is renowned and sought-after expert on English Light Music with an extensive discography of recordings.
[As Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall, Their Majesties were patrons of a number of musical organisations, initiatives and conservatoires including the Royal College of Music, the Philharmonia Orchestra, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Bach Choir, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House and the Welsh National Opera Orchestra, as well as (for the Queen) the National Youth Orchestra and the London Chamber Orchestra.]