Spotlight on coronations
Uncover the role and significance of traditional and commissioned music within coronations throughout history.
Why is music integral to coronations? Watch Peter Holder, Sub-Organist, describe its purpose within the service in this short introduction.
Under the direction of Andrew Nethsingha, Westminster Abbey's Organist and Master of the Choristers, tradition sat side-by-side with innovation. The choirs, for the first time featuring girls, sang in English, Welsh, Gaelic and Irish. New compositions include a variety of performances, including Gospel music.
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Music has been incorporated in Christian worship for many hundreds of years. This is echoed at a coronation service, in which the music plays a central role. Most of the music sung within the service is sacred and uses Biblical texts.
In spite of the significance of the occasion, there is uncertainty surrounding the pieces of music performed at each coronation before it was clearly documented from the 20th century. Along with surviving musical scores, past orders of service provide the most accurate information about the music that was played and sung.
Since the 20th century, the music has been selected and coordinated by Westminster Abbey’s Organist and Master of the Choristers. In 1953, this responsibility fell to Sir William McKie, who directed a choir of many hundreds, singing from specially constructed galleries. Traditionally the coronation choir has been supported by military musicians, an orchestra and the Abbey’s organ.
The traditions of coronations are upheld through many of the musical choices. Since King Charles I’s coronation in 1626, monarchs have entered the Abbey to words from Psalm 122: "I was glad when they said unto me, we will go into the house of the Lord". Anthems by Henry Purcell and Sir Hubert Parry are much cherished examples. At the end of the service, the National Anthem has been sung since King George IV’s coronation in 1821, adapted only to swap the words King and Queen, as applicable.
One of the most famous pieces of music associated with coronations is George Frideric Handel’s Zadok the Priest. The text of Zadok the Priest is taken from the first Book of Kings (1:38-48) in the Bible, which describes the anointing of King Solomon. These words have been included at every coronation since King Edgar’s in 973AD, and since its composition in 1727, Handel’s work has been performed. Beyond coronations, it has featured at countless services and concerts, and is familiar to many as the inspiration for the UEFA Champions League Anthem.
Coronations present an opportunity to commission new music, often reflecting the musical style of the age. This was the case with Handel in 1727, as it was with Parry in 1902 and Sir William Walton in 1953, who wrote the march Orb and Sceptre for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
At different times of the day, or in different seasons, the light falling in the Abbey will light up something that you have walked past a million times and never seen before.