Royal Wedding Music

Would the existence of a Royal Channel streaming state events in all their pomp and circumstance to a worldwide audience via YouTube have saved the British Empire?  Would the blaze of red uniforms, the glitter of Anglican gold, and the blinding white of the wedding dress and its wearer’s morganatic teeth have kept the diverse subjects true to the Imperial Crown?

The official claim that the nuptial musical choices were made by the bridal couple should not be believed. This crucial aspect of the ceremony was micromanaged by the Windsor elders and their handlers.  In the Internet Age the Royal brand needs vigorous defining, defending, and marketing.  As one will soon be able to hear on Decca Records’ The Royal Wedding: The Official Album, to be released within two weeks, the hoary musical numbers of the ceremony are hardly of the younger generation.

Rumors that Elton John, the famous friend of the groom’s late mother, whose lament he sang only sixteen years ago just a few feet from where he sat this morning, would perform proved illusory.  The camera nonetheless gaped at Sir Elton, who was seen to fumble with his program and be leagues from his musical comfort zone during the hymns.  Still relatively fresh from the great successes of his miners’ musical, Billy Elliot (more on that here next week), Sir Elton couldn’t even marshal his vocal forces for the first hymn, the Welsh classic, Cwm Rhondda, sung to the words “Guide me, O Thou Great Redeemer.” John Ford used it in his tear-jerking 1941 miners’ film, How Green Was My Valley, but Sir Elton fidgeted awkwardly as the magnificent machinery of Anglican church music dumped its tailings on him.

One might have thought him to be choked up at the memory of Princess Diana, to whom “Guide me” was offered in loving tribute, but in the closing hymn, C. H. Parry’s setting of William Blake’s Jerusalem with its vision of “England’s green and pleasant land” (despoiled, it’s true, by “dark satanic mills”), Sir Elton was equally adrift. It wasn’t that that Sir Elton didn’t know the tune, ubiquitous at weddings from the upper to middling echelons of English society and at public spectacles like the Last Night of the Proms, but that the elite English public school ethos of these melodies appeared to unnerve him.  Eton College types such as the Prime Minister, David Cameron, showed themselves to good patriotic effect in their comfortable communion with the great hymns of the imperial church.  But the real vocal hero of the morning? besides the choir? was not an Eton man, but rather Michael Middleton, the bride’s father, a former flight attendant who grew rich on his business of party favors for kids’ parties. Here’s a guy who can doubtless enliven any tots’ party with a rousing Happy Birthday.

While a few enthusiastic congregants sang their hearts out along with the Abbey choir and the London Chamber Orchestra, the royals themselves seemed utterly bored by the music they supposedly love best. They chatted through many glorious musical moments written in the first instance to validate their very existence. Even when the National Anthem erupted after the final blessing, the Windsors could hardly muster a vague interest. Elizabeth herself didn’t sing at all for that one, just as one doesn’t sing “Happy Birthday to Me.” But since her Consort looked as if he couldn’t be bothered to pitch in, why should anyone one else?

Still, many beyond the royal seats raised their voices with stalwart hymns. These were framed by equally trusted set-pieces; both processional and recessional were imperial war horses. Even more than the heart-swelling strains of Elgar, whose arrangement of Parry’s Jerusalem was chosen for the ceremony and whose surging string lines achieved still unsurpassed levels of excess, Parry’s music will send tingles down the spine of even the most hardened anti-imperialist, so uncanny is the composer’s ability to mount in sound grand tableaux of desire, fulfillment and moral certainty. The expert deployment of bass-lines marching resolutely like so many imperial troops, from the Black Watch to the Gurkhas, and the treatment of dissonance and its release as a sonic representation of struggle and victory almost instantly crumbles defenses against its seductions.

The bride processed to Parry’s “I was glad” composed first for the coronation of Edward VIII, then reused for the George V, and hear more recently at the current Queen’s Gold Jubilee?among many other occasions.  How is it that the descending bass lines below the thickening harmonies and soaring dissonances so characteristic of British music of this ilk still powers an upwelling of pride in something that no longer exists?the Empire, Britishness itself?

The Elgarian tropes of William Walton’s Crown Imperial ushered the just-married couple out of the Abbey after the slickly performed hour service had run its course. (Walton’s music for the film of Laurence Olivier’s Henry V from World War II was heard before the service.) Crown Imperial is an excellent example of how patriotic music so often flirts with camp. The piece was composed for the coronation of Edward VII in 1937, but is nonetheless trotted out when deemed necessary.  So magnificently over-the-top is music of this kind that it seems to have no doubts it can triumph over the most awkward facts of royal history.

Two newly commissioned works that appeared in the order of service. The young Welsh composer Paul Mealor wrote the motet, Ubi caritas. This contribution tried to assert a more modern idiom, but its dissonances remained discreetly unthreatening, unlikely even to raise even a bushy eyebrow of the notorious conservatively Prince Charles. The idiom projected by the Mealor motet suggested that music history stopped several decades ago. The more challenging music of the much older Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Master of the Queen’s Music, did not find its way into the service itself, though his Farewell to Stromness, uncharacteristically accessible, was heard among the prelude music. Davies was supposedly snubbed for his remarks at last year’s Remembrance Day, when he refused to wear a poppy because it would serve to condone of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The other new piece was the anthem, “This is the day which the Lord hath made,” from the pen of John Rutter, the Andrew Lloyd Webber of Anglican church music.  It was of the purest saccharine, more embarrassing in its way than all the other imperialistic sacred music combined.

When the clergy began their recessional to Parry’s “Blest pair of Sirens,” with the lush yearnings of its long introduction, I could only shake my head in amazement that this Victorian composer’s posthumous star had ascended to its highest point not only this morning between eleven and noon London time, but also throughout a broadcast empire that encompassed night and day, and over which the sun could not set.

Music plays the decisive role in any shaping such service, and this latest royal spectacle was rich in song, which consumed a good third of the broadcast’s duration. One has to admire the professionalism of the Westminster choir?as same-sex as ever?having just emerged from the rigors of Holy Week. The boys and men were flawless, unfazed at being the center of the world’s eye and ear.  Under the direction of the Abbey’s organist and choirmaster, James O’Donnell, they tossed off the Parry classics with daunting ease and elegance in front of the global audiences and the nearby royals, aristocrats, and would-be courtiers. The newly-commissioned softballs from Rutter and Mealor were hit way over the Abbey’s flying buttresses, clearing the roofs of the Houses of Parliament, and soaring over the River Thames.

As for the guest list in the Abbey itself: I haven’t seen that many white faces in careful formation outside of New York’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade processing down 5th Avenue. Commonwealth heads of state added a splash of skin color and ethnic pageantry to the proceedings as they sidled down the aisle before the ceremony to the late 19th- and early 20th-century favorites of empire and its twilight: Stanford, Elgar, and Walton. Watching the subcontinental grandees escorted in to find their seats in the Abbey to wokrs such as Vaughan Williams Fantasia on Greensleeves was not so much an exercise in cognitive dissonance, as a visual and aural symphony of monumental nostalgia. For the lengthy prelude music, skillfully miked by the technicians and producers of this minutely managed extravaganza so as slightly to obscure the fact that no one in the Abbey was listening to it, The London Chamber Orchestra trotted out a play list more conservative than the Queen’s disquietingly yellow get-up.

This was a wedding in which the most progressive cultural contribution to the festivities was made by the British prime minister’s wife, Samantha Cameron. In defiance of the sumptuary guidelines laid down in the royal invitation, she showed up without a hat. Ms. Cameron’s topless look was like an Exocet missile hurled by the Argentine navy into the Falkland Flotilla of Home Counties Headgear Dreadnoughts.  The immediate reaction of the of some scandalized fashion and political pundits was worthy of the Taliban, and showed just how nonsensical all the tiresome debates about Muslim headscarves are in the so-called liberal democracies of Western Europe.  Sam’s heat-seeking provocation was the highpoint of both the wedding and the coalition government to date.

To judge from the musical offerings for today’s royal nuptials the Empire never collapsed and the ruddy myths Anglo-exceptionalism are as robust as they ever were. Music tells it like it really is, or least wants to be: The British Royals have become reenactors, and the true source of their courage to face the ridiculousness of their jobs is the surging soundtrack of triumphalism.

David Yearsley teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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