May 27, 2020 by Joshua Stegall
In recent times, the British Royal Family has gained immense popularity in the United States. From The Crown to Downton Abbey to Princess Diana Beanie Babies, British royalty can be seen throughout American pop culture. The appeal, to a certain extent, is derived from the grandiosity and pageantry that defines the Royal Family. Royal weddings, births, and holidays create an enormous spectacle, but the pageantry is never more prominent than at a coronation, the sacred ceremony wherein the king or queen is crowned. One of the integral aspects of the ceremony itself is its music. The coronation, to a large extent, is like a concertgoing experience, and at Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, there were over thirty pieces of music performed!
Zadok the Priest – G.F. Handel
Baroque composer George Frideric Handel composed Zadok the Priest for the coronation of King George II in 1727. The glorious piece of music (which features strings, winds, and voice) has been performed at the coronation of every British Sovereign since George II. As a result, the music is perhaps the best-known coronation anthem in the repertoire. The text comes from the biblical account of the anointing of King Solomon. The coronation ceremony, which occurs at Westminster Abbey, is a sacred religious ceremony in the Church of England (which the monarch is the head of). Interestingly, the text contains the lyrics “God save the king,” and the lyrics do not change when the monarch is a female. The lyrics of the national anthem, however, do change depending on the gender of the monarch. The current national anthem is “God save the Queen,” but from 1901-1952, when the monarchs were all male, the anthem was sung “God save the King.”
March: Pomp and Circumstance (No. 1, 2, & 4) – Edward Elgar
In America, Pomp and Circumstance (No. 1) is the iconic and instantly recognizable tune performed at graduations. The nostalgic and ceremonious melody is perfectly suited for formal occasions such as graduations and coronations, both of which mark an important turning point in an individual’s life. The music was composed by beloved English composer Edward Elgar, and his marches have been used in every coronation since Edward VII’s in 1902. Additionally, the Pomp and Circumstance march was used in Disney’s Fantasia 2000 to show the procession of animals onto Noah’s Ark.
Huldingungsmarsch – Richard Wagner
The music of Richard Wagner, known for its grand, sweeping melodies and thunderously loud brass, was used in the coronations of Edward VII in 1902 and George V in 1911. During both occasions, Wagner’s music featured prominently in the programming, and works such as Introduction to Act III of Lohengrin and Kaisermarsch were also performed. The music itself is a perfect match for the regal ceremony, yet Wagner’s music has not been performed at a British coronation in over one hundred years largely due to the composer’s nationality. After waging two world wars against Germany, British society developed a distaste for all things German, and as a result, music selected for royal ceremonies favored works written by English composers. The same spirit that led to the abandoning of Wagnerian music even caused the royal family to change its name! Prior to World War I, Britain was ruled by the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, but as a PR move to downplay connection with Germany, George V selected the decidedly British sounding name, “The House of Windsor.”
Crown Imperial – William Walton
Prolific English composer William Walton produced music for orchestra, film, ballet, and chamber ensembles. In 1937, he was commissioned to compose a piece of music for the scheduled coronation of King Edward VIII. The coronation, though, never happened because Edward abdicated the throne eleven months into his reign. The coronation did continue as scheduled, but with a different monarch. First performed for the coronation of George VI, Crown Imperial, a jubilant march in C major, was also used in the 1953 coronation of Elizabeth II and the 2011 wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Although the music is quite popular, it did not receive a warm reception by critics initially. Many believed that the march was derivative of Edward Elgar’s work, and some even mockingly referred to the piece as Pomp and Circumstance No. 6.
I Vow to Thee, my Country – Gustav Holst
Gustav Holst, the seminal English composer, wrote The Planets as an orchestral suite in 1916. Each movement is evocative of a planet in the solar system. The fourth movement, Jupiter, features a gorgeous and stirring chorale-like section that grew to become perhaps the most iconic music Holst ever wrote. The music was so well-loved that in 1921 it was given lyrics and adapted into a hymn that has been used at royal coronations and weddings frequently. The music is a great fit for a coronation, and incidentally, Jupiter is named after the mythological Roman king of the gods.
Chaconne from ‘King Arthur’ – Henry Purcell
King Arthur was an opera written by venerated English composer Henry Purcell, and selections from the opera have been performed at numerous British coronations. The narrative centers around the legendary King Arthur, the “once and future king.” Arthurian legends describe the king drawing the sword from the stone and ruling with his knights of the round table. The music, which was written during the Baroque period, showcases fugues played on strings and recorders (a reed instrument popularly used in orchestras during this period). The music creates an atmosphere reminiscent of “medieval times” restaurants or renaissance festivals. The selection is ideal for the coronation because the mysticism that surrounds King Arthur still surrounds the modern monarchy (albeit to a lesser extent).