Happy Birthday and Happy Jubilee, Queen Elizabeth!
Although Queen Elizabeth was born April 21, 1926, her “official” birthday is marked on June 2 by the military parade called Trooping the Colour. This year the celebration will coincide with another remarkable event: her Platinum Jubilee. She becomes the first British monarch to celebrate 70 years on the throne.
The Queen acceded in 1952 upon the death of her father, George VI. The actual coronation in 1953 was a mix of centuries’ worth of traditions with an acknowledgement that the times were changing. It was the first coronation ever televised, and for most British people, the first time they had ever watched an event on television.
While the jewelry, crowns, and the order of service were based on tradition, a lot of the music was brand new. A number of prominent English composers were asked to write music for the occasion. William Walton’s Orb and Sceptre was a march performed before the actual ceremony took place. The title takes its name from the Orb (a golden ball), and the jeweled Sceptre, which are presented to the Queen during the ceremony. It is said that in writing this, Walton was inspired by Edward Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance Marches.
Herbert Howells was one of the composers invited to write music for the occasion. His Behold, O God Our Defender, was the piece that began the three-hour ceremony. Here’s the Winchester Cathedral Choir, directed by David Hill.
The “Dean” of British composers at the time of the coronation was Ralph Vaughan Williams. He was asked to write a motet for the ceremony. He chose the words of Psalm 34, Verse 8.
The BBC Music Service says that Vaughan Williams also appealed to Westminster Abbey’s Music Director, William McKie, to include a hymn in the service with which the congregation could join in singing. It was something that hadn’t been done before so it was a shocking proposal. But McKie was persuaded to bring the request to the young Queen herself. She agreed to the idea, and Vaughan Williams’s arrangement of The Old 100th, (based on Psalm 100, “All people that on earth do dwell”), a tune by 16th-century composer Louis Bourgeois, complete with Vaughan Williams’s additional fanfare, was included in the coronation ceremony. Here’s Stephen Cleobury conducting the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.
Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana was an opera which took its title from the name 16th-century poet Edmund Spencer gave to Queen Elizabeth I. It premiered at London’s Royal Opera House during the celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. The opera was not well-received and is rarely performed to this day; however, the “Courtly Dances” from the opera are regularly performed in concerts and have been recorded numerous times. Here’s the English Symphony Orchestra with William Boughton conducting.
While Britten’s Gloriana opera handed the composer one of his few critical flops, his 1961 arrangement of the 18th-century tune God Save the King, now known as God Save the Queen, has been praised ever since its premiere at the Leeds Festival. Be listening for it during the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations. Here’s the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.
As you hear cheers this week exclaiming “Long live the Queen,” keep in mind that the same thought runs through the music that ushered in her reign, whether an exuberant Coronation March or a reflective hymn for the solemn coronation ceremony itself.
CODA: Check the Royal Family Platinum Jubilee website for the most up-to-date listings of festivities.