David Starkey on coronations, royal babies and music fit for a monarch

"It remains to be seen if the current Master of the Queen’s Music will be inspired to write anything to celebrate the much-anticipated birth of William and Kate’s first child"

As a curious, excited boy of eight, I watched Elizabeth II’s coronation service on television. It was the first time I had watched television, and the first time I had heard the great music composed specifically for British monarchs over the centuries – including Hubert Parry’s I Was Glad, William Walton’s Crown Imperial, Ralph Vaughan William’s arrangement of All People That on Earth Do Dwell and, greatest of them all, George Frideric Handel’s Zadok the Priest. The same music rang out again during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations last year, and more recently still to mark the 60th anniversary of the coronation.


Yet it was only in the 20th century that this fixed repertory of royal music became a recurring feature. In earlier eras, the expectation was generally that the favoured composers of the day would create new musical settings for most, if not all, significant royal occasions. The text of Zadok the Priest has been heard at English coronations since Anglo-Saxon times. A forgotten, and frankly forgettable, musical setting by Henry Lawes survives from the coronation of Charles II in 1661.

Babies & Birthdays

It remains to be seen if the current Master of the Queen’s Music, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, will be inspired to write anything to celebrate the much-anticipated birth of William and Kate’s first child. In 1948 Michael Tippett wrote Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles (who arrived in November of that year), and Elgar wrote a Nursery Suite to mark the birth of Princess Margaret in 1930. The recording of the latter was attended by our current Queen – then a princess of four years old.

There’s a rather older tradition of music being written for the birthdays of adult royalty. Henry Purcell wrote a series of birthday odes for Mary II. This was music as a bouquet of flowers: as beautiful and, it was intended, as fleeting – written for the celebrations of a single day, and for the pleasure of a single person. These occasions brought forth from Purcell some of his most glorious and enduring music, such as Come Ye Sons of Art and Now Does the Glorious Day Appear.

Once again, however, it was Handel who created the most spectacular music in this category. Eternal Source of Light Divine was written long before he became a naturalised citizen of Great Britain, and the most famous composer in the land; in 1714 he was merely a young German seeking patronage in London, and eager to make his mark on the court of Queen Anne. He wrote in a deliberately English style: setting words by the sentimental poet Ambrose Philips (the original “Namby Pamby”), and writing for a male counter-tenor from the monarch’s personal choir, the Chapel Royal, accompanied by a melancholy trumpet. The melodic genius has led the piece to be appropriated by great sopranos – most recently at last year’s opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympics, where it was sung by Elin Manahan Thomas.

Romance & Weddings

Before the 20th century, royal weddings were nothing like the great national jamborees we witnessed for William and Kate, or Charles and Diana. The first to be treated as a public spectacle was that of the future George VI to Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in 1923; they left Westminster Abbey to the strains of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March. There has been little music of note written specifically for such events, though the ever-loyal Purcell and Handel both composed pieces for minor royal nuptials.

Surely the most romantic music in royal history was given by Albert, Prince Consort, as an engagement gift to Queen Victoria. He presented her with a collection of his own compositions called Lieder und Romanzen (Songs and Ballads). Throughout their married life, Victoria and Albert would make music together – sometimes taking it in turns to sing to each other, sometimes singing duets. Theirs was a passionate relationship – and sharing these moments of intense music-making only deepened it. They were such fond music lovers that as well as having various pianos in Buckingham Palace and Osborne House, they even had one installed on their royal yacht.

Kings & Queens

Coronation anthems are meant to lift the service from beyond the context of Westminster Abbey on a particular day, to a celestial scale; the king on earth is assimilated with the king in heaven. The earliest anthems to survive date back to the reigns of James I and Charles I, and are typical of sacred choral music of their time; they have none of the pomp we now expect, no trumpets or drums – those were not yet deemed appropriate for a sacred rite.

When Handel composed for George II’s coronation in 1727, however, Westminster Abbey was no longer just a royal church; it was to be the grandest of concert halls. Handel supplemented the choirs of Westminster Abbey and the Chapel Royal with professional singers from his Italian opera company, and brought in an extraordinary 160 instrumentalists. The most famous of Handel’s four anthems for the occasion, Zadok the Priest, soon headed the programme of countless concerts, and for several decades following it served much of the purpose of the yet-to-be- written national anthem. With its resounding, repeated acclamations of “God Save the King!” it was perfect for the role – if only it hadn’t been so damned difficult to sing.

Another contender for the status of “alternative national anthem” owes its existence to the crowning of monarchy. Elgar’s Land of Hope and Glory (with words by AC Benson) was originally part of his Coronation Ode of 1902. It was supposed to be premiered, in the presence of Edward VII, at the Royal Opera House on the night before his Coronation. Just before the big day, however, the King was taken ill with life-threatening appendicitis, and underwent an emergency operation; the royal gala was cancelled. Happily this didn’t stop the song from becoming, almost at once, the popular favourite it remains to this day.

Jubilees are another remarkably recent addition to standard royal ceremony. The first concerted efforts at a national celebration of a monarch’s time on the throne were for Victoria’s Golden and Diamond Jubilees. On 22 June 1897, St Paul’s Cathedral was the setting for the musical centrepiece of the latter. The Queen didn’t actually go inside. She didn’t even get out of her carriage, because the effort was too great. Instead she stayed seated as a 500-strong choir sang to her from the cathedral steps – accompanied by a full orchestra and two military bands.

Victoria’s Jubilee was also marked by an official hymn, sung at every church across the land. The music was by Sir Arthur Sullivan – whom the Victorians regarded as a major composer, not just the man who supplied the tunes for amusing lyrics by WS Gilbert. O King of Kings was heard again in churches last year, for Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. The words about a “queenly throne” endowed with “sixty years of blessing” were relevant once more.

Deaths & Funerals

The early 18th-century composer William Croft is largely forgotten now, except for his Burial Sentences, which have long been a standard at state funerals. They were probably created for Queen Anne, and were heard, for instance, at the Queen Mother’s service in 2002. Handel’s heart-rending The Ways of Zion Do Mourn was written on the unexpectedly early death of Queen Caroline in 1737, and provided the theme for Mozart’s Requiem Mass. And as we remember all too clearly, the death of the princess who would never have become queen prompted the creation of the best selling “royal” music in history – Elton John’s reworked version of Candle in the Wind.

For me the most poignant music of all is a simple march composed by Purcell for another tragically early death, that of Queen Mary II in 1695. It is written for four slide trumpets, and would have been heard – accompanied by a military drum – as her funeral procession slowly approached Westminster Abbey, watched by vast crowds of subjects, genuinely distraught at losing their monarch at the age of 32. The flat, hollow sound of the trumpets represent the majesty, and finality, of death. And it also serves as an epitaph for the composer himself; within months of composing it, he too was dead, aged just 36.


David Starkey’s Music and Monarchy is on Saturday at 8:10pm on BBC2.