Royal composers – Sir William Walton

by Ben Hogwood

As all UK-based readers of Arcana will surely know, it is a long weekend of celebrations for the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. On these pages I thought it would be a good opportunity to look at some of the music used in the service of her Coronation, which took place a year to the day after her accession to the throne.

We begin with three pieces from Sir William Walton which have become some of his best-loved works. The first, Crown Imperial, is almost instantly recognisable, a piece that brings great pomp and circumstance to a ceremony without ever spilling over into over-patriotic bluster – very English, in short. Crown Imperial was commissioned by the BBC for the coronation of George VI in 1937, and was also used in the ceremony for Elizabeth II in 1953

At the close of the ceremony the congregation heard a new piece, Orb and Sceptre, for which Walton was paid £50 by the Arts Council in October 1952. The composer was candid about the new piece. “The Orb and Sceptre I wrote for her is goodish – not as good as Crown Imperial, but I did my best.” He was being modest, for there are still some good tunes contained within, a hint of Elgar in the regal second theme, and colourful writing for brass and percussion.

In November 1952 the organist of Westminster Abbey, William Mackie, persuaded Walton to write a Te Deum for the forthcoming service. With the chance to use the Queen’s Trumpeters, the composer agreed, writing a piece fit for the occasion, using the space of Westminster Abbey to perfection with bold orchestral writing, a spicy organ part and celebratory choral writing. Lady Susanna Walton, the composer’s wife, recalls, “The actual coronation was extraordinary…the Queen’s Trumpeters, standing on the clerestory with long silver trumpets and banners, made a dramatic impact”.

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