Hymns and Her:  The Queen’s Funeral

Westminster Abbey, the morning before Elizabeth Windsor’s funeral. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

It was all about the Queen until it wasn’t. And it was precisely at that point that Charles didn’t sing along. When it came time for “God Save the King” at the end of his mother’s funeral in Westminster Abbey this week the newly sovereign lips were still while the thousands sang around him. The most delusional monarchists might have imagined that millions spread across his kingdom and the Commonwealth lifted their voices too.

Over the seventy years of “God Save the Queen” preceding that peaceful transfer of musical power, the Queen hadn’t sung along either. You don’t sing “Happy Birthday” when it’s your birthday. You don’t sing “God Save the King” when you’re the king.

The cameras caught the new, as yet uncrowned monarch’s eyes moistening with tears, though none were so disloyal as to fall. He was rightly moved by his mother’s death surely, but also by this massed act of his subjects singing of him, by him, for him.

Words matter, and it is music that carries them most quickly and deeply into the human soul. There is no affirmation so strong as song, especially when in the glorious architecture and acoustics of Westminster Abbey.

The new old king had been giving a good show of the singing up to that crucial point, tucking into the service’s three Victorian hymns:  the treacly pudding came first with “The day Thou gavest is ended”; then “The Lord’s my shepherd” (a favorite of the Queen); and finally, the rousing “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” These sounding relics of empire were buttressed by the fabled Abbey choir, the organ roaring antiphonally above, and a detachments of military brass unobserved by cameras until late in the proceedings when red-coated soldiers in bearskins and holding those long straight  trumpets—a reference to the glory of Rome—blasted away from atop the rood screen.

The congregation did its part too: the heads of states from around the world, the prelates from across the Christian sects; the former prime ministers, and the current one, herself new to the top spot; and the heads of states from Commonwealth and allies (needless to say no Putin, a man proud of his vocal talents; he didn’t garner an invitation even after his touching letter of condolence to Charles on the “irreparable loss” that was the Queen’s death).  The might of the last Sacred Music Superpower was on full display, nowhere more vividly then when the boy sopranos in their Tudor garb and some even with special medals—for what is a choir but a sonorous regiment?—let their last-verse descants rise up to the vaulted roof to arc and echo against the gothic stones, the brass rockets bursting in the cathedral air.

In the eternal day of this salvation, the sun will never set on this sonic empire.

Until it does. The clerics talked much of the Queen’s service to the Commonwealth and Black representatives from the former colonies were called on for readings and condolences. These appearances merely showed how fragile and foolish the pomp and pretension really are. It was the music in all its nostalgic glory that held the service together, though perhaps not the Commonwealth.  There is no more effective amnesiac than English cathedral tradition when it comes to blunting the centuries of colonial crimes, as if a sublime chorale “Amen” could make it all okay in the end.

The repertoire throughout the service was unapologetically Anglican and Old School. To fill the time and space as the all the grandees found their places and before the coffin appeared there was a full-length organ recital. The repertoire spanned ages and realms: Edwardian (Elgar, Vaughan Williams) with a touch of the first Elizabeth age (Orlando Gibbons), a shout out to the Churches of the Commonwealth (Healey Willan). Here was proof that the King of Instruments knows better how to pacify than to please.

When the heavy artillery of English church music was rolled into place, the marksmanship was unerring. The ordinance included two newly composed works. The first was a setting of Psalm 42 “Like as a Hart” by Judith Weir, the first female Master of the King’s (formerly Queen’s) Music. The anthem was lush and golden at its final cadence like the light streaming through the Abbey’s stain-glassed cut to at just the right moments by the Sky TV feed.

Sir James MacMillan’s setting of a passage from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans was more angular, but with its modernist edges eased for royal ears.  Scotland wants another referendum on its independence, and the Kingdom may well disunite under Charles III’s watch, not a result that the new king wants on his scorecard.  MacMillan is a Scot, his royal funeral music was bold and British. But these qualities only served to aggravate the Scottish question, not cement the union as cracks widen in the aftermath of the Queen’s death.

Charles loves the vocal music of Sir Hubert Parry, a mainstay of the cathedral tradition, and his resolute then rousing anthem on “My soul, there is a country” seemed also to affect the new ruler. His hands worried the grip of his sword as if trying to conjure a wish from it.  While still the Prince of Wales last year he even presented a film on Parry called The Prince and the Composer—note the order of hereditary ruler before subservient artist.

After the full battery had been discharged in the final hymn, the trumpets played the “Last Post” as the coffin was readied for recessional. It was a fitting cavalry charge for the committed horsewoman: the Call not to the Post at Royal Ascot but to the Pearly Gates. Then the Queen’s piper intoned the Scottish lament “Sleep, dearie, sleep,” a change of register that threw the preceding pomp into relief. Or was the bagpipe’s mournful buzz pure kitsch? I couldn’t really decide.

As the coffin was shouldered down the nave by the red-coated pall bearers, the organist hit it with the first non-British number in the funeral:  a Fantasia by J. S. Bach. The pieces fiercely French style summoned up thoughts of the ancien regime.  Through the television feed one surveyed anew the props of church and state and the banners of a vanished empire and realized that things were much more ancient than even the most clear eyed and eared congregants might have dared think.

After the lugubrious Bach—the German emetic deemed necessary after the lush British banquet—the organ’s mood lightened with the operatic silliness of Elgar’s Sospiri. The camera perched way up in the ceiling looked directly down at the transept, the black-clad mourners, the bishops and cardinals and canons, the brightly uniformed soldiers and choristers, and the coffin bedecked with flowers, crown, organ and scepter: slo-mo Busy Berkeley, but in glorious technicolor.

All this couldn’t distract the most glaring fact of the funeral: Charles wasn’t the only one not singing during the “God Save the King.”  Harry was silent too.

That silence was all the louder when compared to the others around his father. Queen Consort Camilla Parker-Bowles, her pale powdered skin sepulchral against her luminous black mourning dress and hat, spurred her husky alto to its most ardent efforts of the funeral. Along the row, Prince Andrew belted it out as if he had a point to prove. He’s in the royalty penalty box because of his cozy relationship with deceased sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein. Even worse for his royal fortunes, a recent book claims that Andrew lobbied the Queen before she died to get her to skip over Charles and put her grandson William on the throne.  Andrew clearly saw “God Save the King” as the televised moment to sing his way back into his brother’s good graces and those of the British public.

It could be that Harry did chime in now and again—as in the hymn’s last lines about casting off crowns of earthly glory. A malicious producer might have had the cameras cut in on the prince only when he was mute.

But maybe, as the assembled sang “Breath, O breath thy loving Spirit, into ev’ry troubled breast. Let us all in thee inherit, let us find the promised rest,” Harry’s own troubled thoughts wandered back almost exactly twenty-five years to his younger self at his mother’s funeral in the Abbey in September of 1997.

Or maybe he was already thinking of return to his estate in California and the words that the tune of his birth nation’s anthem is sung to on those Pacific shores: “My Country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty.” Those liberties include not having to hymn your dad at your grandma’s funeral.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com