The longevity of the British monarchy is currently in the spotlight, with the official birthday of the 90-year-old Queen Elizabeth II being marked tomorrow and Prince Philip, her husband, celebrating his 95th birthday today, 10 June. The royal ceremonial displays for which Britain has become renowned rely to a large extent on the grandeur of the music prepared for these events. This puts one in mind of those holders of the royally granted title Master of the King’s/Queen’s Music(k)—the anachronistic final letter was dropped on the appointment of Edward Elgar to the position in 1924. So let’s devote this week’s blog to profiling a few of those royally recognised musicians and hearing some extracts from their music.
Established by Charles I in 1626, the post is currently held by Judith Weir, who receives an annual stipend of £15,000 and very little else by way of expectations attached to the position. She was appointed in 2014 for a fixed term of ten years—the second incumbent to be engaged on this arrangement—and while having no fixed duties, she has said that she’ll use the influence the role carries to encourage as many singers, instrumentalists and composers to achieve their musical potential, not least children. Although she’s the first female to hold the title, she is still Master of the Queen’s Music, and not a Mistress of all she surveys. Here’s part of her Illuminare, Jerusalem (8.557965), based on the text of a 15th-century Scottish poem. It was written for the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge and first performed at their world-famous Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve, 1985.
Trawling through past holders of the post, we find that not all of them were composers or even distinguished musicians, and many have certainly not lived on as household names. An exception is Judith Weir’s immediate predecessor, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (Max), who contributed to his nation’s reputation for eccentricity by being a republican who accepted the appointment to a royal household. He was subsequently won over, we are told, by Queen Elizabeth’s monarchic charm. Max also held the post for a stipulated decade, from 2004-2014, and put in an unassuming appearance at the 2011 Royal Wedding of William and Kate with his Farewell to Stromness (8.572408), one of his most familiar pieces with its gentle evocation of the old whaling port on the Scottish Orkney Islands; the composer himself is the pianist on this recording.
Anyone familiar with the music used at past coronations could be forgiven for assuming that the composers of some of the items performed were actually holders of the royal appointment. Not so. Think of the immensely popular anthem I was glad when they said unto me (8.572104) by Sir Hubert Parry. Composed in 1902 for the coronation of Edward VII, it has since become a traditional feature of coronation services. And it even made an appearance at the 2011 wedding of William and Kate; also at that of Charles and Diana in 1981. The Master of the King’s Music at the time of the first performance of Parry’s anthem, however, was Sir Walter Parratt, an organist, academic and accomplished chess player who served under three monarchs but hardly left a huge musical imprint on history.
Edward VII’s coronation was adorned not only with Parry’s tremendous anthem, but also by Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 (8.554161), which the composer adapted for the occasion. But Elgar had to wait another 23 years, until he was 68, before he was appointed Master of the King’s Music by George V which, listening to this extract from his famous march, came not a moment too soon.
William Walton’s Crown Imperial (8.555869), first performed at the coronation of George VI in 1937, is another piece that seems to exude the hand of a Master of the King’s Music (and it led to the commission of Orb and Sceptre (9.80308) for the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953). But Walton was apparently relieved not to be invited to take up the title on the death of Sir Arthur Bliss in 1975. It went instead, controversially, to a non-Briton, the Australian composer Malcolm Williamson, raising establishment eyebrows that said “told you so” when Williamson failed to finish a work intended to mark the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. The resultant royal displeasure cast a long shadow. To let in a little light, here’s a movement from his English Eccentrics Choral Suite (8.557783). Titled A Traveller, it’s about a mysterious woman who claimed to be Princess Caraboo of Jevasu in the East Indies but turned out to be no more than Mary Baker, a servant girl from Devonshire (sic).
If you’re an organist, there’s a piece that possibly sits in your pile of pre-service favourites titled Solemn Melody (8.225048), which was written by Henry Walford Davies, a man whom you possibly never knew held the title of Master of the King’s Music, from 1936 to 1941. To end today’s blog we say Happy Birthday to Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip while listening to part of the orchestral version of Walford Davies’ Solemn Melody.