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Tunes for His and Her Royal Highnesses

An ornate crown, with a body of water and the Stockholm skyline in the background.
Gvantsa Javakhishvili

King Charles has commissioned 12 new pieces of music for his coronation service, and all by renowned British composers. The pieces include one for organ, five for choirs, and six for orchestra, all reflecting, as a Palace press release put it, the King’s “life-long love and support of music and the arts.”

The pieces written for the coronation, however, are not the first pieces to be written in honor of a king or queen. Other works, from operas to orchestral music, have been written for, or dedicated to, other royals through the centuries.

Queen Elizabeth I was honored in 1601 with a collection of 25 madrigals, written by 23 leading English composers of the day. Thomas Morley spearheaded the project, which he titled “The Triumphs of Oriana.” The one thing he asked the other composers to include was the same line in each of their songs: “Thus sang the shepherds and nymphs of Diana: long live fair Oriana.” Elizabeth had long been compared to “Oriana,” the beautiful heroine in the chivalric story Amadis de Gaul, written in the late 13th or early 14th century. Here’s a version with Grayston Burges conducting the Purcell Chorus of Voices, the Elizabethan Consort of Viols, the London Cornet & Sackbut Ensemble, and soloists.

No question, Elizabeth I would have understood immediately the connection between the character Oriana and herself in the songs. She would have accepted it as a compliment and an honor.

In 1695 Louis XIV of France was honored with music by a rarity for that era: a woman composer! Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, who was from a family of harpsichord makers and musicians, had practically grown up in the court of King Louis. In fact, when she was just five she was sightreading music and singing before royalty. King Louis and his Queen gave her the best education, and by age 18 she began composing ballets, cantatas, keyboard pieces and violin sonatas, all of which she dedicated to the King, who was said to be “delighted” by every piece she wrote. Her Sonata No. 2 in D is played here by violinist Ricardo Minasi and harpsichordist Salvatore Carchiolo.

At just 25 years old, the German composer George Frideric Handel became the Kappelmeister to the elector of Hanover, later to become King George I of England in 1714. After George I’s death, Handel was asked to write music for the coronation of George II. Of the Four Coronation Anthems, the most popular, “Zadok the Priest,” has been performed at every English coronation since. I thought you might like to hear the piece as it was performed for millions of people on TV for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953.

Handel wrote several works for King George II that are still performed frequently today, including the three Water Music Suites, written for the King’s boating party, and Music for the Royal Fireworks, celebrating the Treaty of the Aix-la-Chappelle.

In October of 1771 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote the 2-part opera, Ascanio in Alba, for the wedding of Empress Maria Theresa’s son, Archduke Ferdinand Karl, to Maria d’Este. The story is about Ascanio, the son of Venus, who is betrothed to Silvia, a nymph. Venus encourages her son to go to her in disguise to test Silvia’s virtue. Here’s Andrea Marcon conducting La Cetra Baroque Orchestra of Basel in the opera’s overture.

By the opera’s end Venus descends from the heavens and unites the young lovers.

Joseph Haydn included The Emperor’s Hymn in one of the six string quartets he wrote in 1797. The story goes that when Haydn visited London a few years earlier, he was impressed by the anthem God Save the King. Austria didn’t have a similar grand piece for its ruler and so he decided to rectify the situation. He wrote music to the poem, “God Save Emperor Franz,” which became known as The Emperor’s Hymn. The Hymn was worked into the third of the six quartets, which later became known as the “Emperor” Quartet. The Kodály Quartet plays it here.

The Emperor’s Hymn was used, sometimes with different lyrics to accommodate the names of the new emperors, from 1799, when it was first published, to 1918, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was abolished at the end of World War I.

The German-Swiss composer Joachim Raff wrote his Jubel-Overture shortly after the jubilee celebrations for England’s Queen Victoria. Even though Raff wove in the British national anthem, God Save the Queen, throughout, it was not a piece in her honor. Instead, it was written for the 25th anniversary on the throne for Prince Adolf, Duke of Nassau, in 1864. Curt Cremer conducts the Cologne Radio Orchestra.

Although Prince Adolf lost his throne just two years later (when the Duchy was annexed to Prussia after it defeated Austria in 1866), the piece in his honor has remained popular.

The “Waltz King,” as Johann Strauss II was known, wrote his Kaiser Walzer (Emperor Waltz) in 1889. He meant it as a “toast” from Austrian Emperor Franz Josef on his state visit to Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany. Here’s the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Daniel Barenboim.

Strauss originally titled the piece “Hand in Hand,” to describe the fact that it was Austria that “held out its hand” in peace to Germany. It was his music publisher, Simrock, who suggested diplomacy via a name change. By not indicating which emperor in the waltz title, each man could assume the piece was meant for him!

Edward Elgar was asked by the Covent Garden Grand Opera Syndicate to write a piece in honor of the coronation for King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra in 1902. It was supposed to be premiered at a gala the night before the actual coronation. The King himself asked Elgar to write lyrics to the Trio section of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, which he liked personally. The Finale to the 6-part Ode, “Land of Hope and Glory,” is the tune some of us know today as the “Graduation March.” Here’s Sir Alexander Gibson conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Chorus, and contralto Anne Collins.

Just a few short years later, the Ode was used again for the coronations of George V in 1911, then again for George VI in 1937, and for Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.

It’s impossible to say which, if any, of the new works for King Charles’s coronation will stand the test of time like all of these others. But perhaps one will be the anthem by Andrew Lloyd Webber, which he’s called “Make a Joyful Noise.” Based on Psalm 98, it includes choir, organ, brass, and full orchestra to, as the Palace wrote in its announcement of the commissions, “reflect this joyful occasion.”

CODA: Classical music has shown a lot of love to royalty over the centuries. It turns out the love goes both ways. The Strad, a British magazine devoted to string players, published an article in September on King Charles III’s love for classical music.

Laura Carlo is the Morning Program Host for CRB.