Royal composers – Sir Hubert Parry: I Was Glad

by Ben Hogwood

Our brief survey of coronation music arrives at the quintessential choral anthem, Sir Hubert Parry‘s I Was Glad.

Completed in 1902, Parry’s work sets the text of Psalm 122. It was not the first setting of the psalm, with Henry Purcell and William Boyce – royal composers themselves – setting the texts for coronations of James II (1685) and George III (1761) respectively.

Parry’s is the version we hear most often today, used in the coronation of King Edward VII in its year of composition, then for the Coronation, silver, diamond and platinum jubilees of Queen Elizabeth II, not to mention the wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981, then William and Kate in 2011.

In a resplendent B flat major, the piece has it all – grand trumpet fanfares, thunderous organ lines, and thrilling choral lines that have been seized on gratefully by choral societies around Britain. Little wonder that it has been chosen for such important occasions, for in a good performance Parry’s exultant piece comfortably fills a cathedral.

Royal composers – Sir Arthur Bliss, John Ireland & Sir Arnold Bax

by Ben Hogwood

Our brief look at the music used in the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II continues with three lesser-known composers whose music was used at either end of the ceremony in 1953.

Receiving its first performance was the Processional by the new incumbent of the position Master of the Queen’s Music, Sir Arthur Bliss. Ideally timed for the ceremony (with a procession that was in total more than six miles!) its orchestral opening builds steadily until the grand entry of the organ half way through. After its central section the piece builds to a rousing conclusion, led by organ, brass and drums:

Also heard before the service was the Epic March by John Ireland. This was effectively a piece of wartime propaganda, written in 1942 to boost the spirits of a flagging nation. When asked for the piece, Ireland wrote to Sir Adrian Boult, “What I have in mind is stern and purposeful rather than jolly and complacent”. The piece was first heard on the opening night of the 1942 season of Promenade concerts, and its stoic, noble tones were wholly suitable as part of the music before the Coronation service:

As the royal party and guests departed they heard the familiar strains of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance Marches, nos. 1 & 4 respectively. Sandwiched between the two pieces was a new work by Sir Arnold Bax. The Coronation March has an unmistakably regal feel, some choice moments for the trombones, and a suitably royal chorale to finish:

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”.