Coronation Blues: Handel Hearkens

George Frideric Handel memorial, Westminster Abbey. Louis Robilliac, 1762.

Not only the living were listening in Westminster Abbey last Saturday. The dead heard the music too. Among the legion of once famous, wealthy, and powerful entombed there, none was bigger of girth and of glory than George Frideric Handel.

All through the coronation, Handel’s statue cocked a curious ear and occasionally wagged a disapproving marble finger at the sonic goings-on. In his last years Handel was blind, but from his perch on the transept wall his stone effigy had a good view of the procession and King Charles as he slouched down the nave towards the high altar and the goal of his already long life.

Did the Handelian foot that crossed the invisible plane of his memorial’s niche indicate that he wanted to dance to some of the jazzier compositions heard before and during the service, or did it suggest that he was ready to kick the main musical offender of the morning in the arse if he should pass by? This was none other than Friend-of-Chaz, Andrew Lloyd Webber. He penned the latest coronation anthem, “Make a Joyful Noise” that, in its radiant banality, only confirmed Handel’s “Zadok the Priest” as the realm’s one true musical monarch. Charles purports to appreciate High Art, but he shed a shameless, sentimental tear at Webber’s unctuous, post-anointing eruption of schlock. It was a tear that dissolved any and all claims to Royal taste.

Since his death in 1759 Handel has resided in Poets’ Corner in the south transept of the Abbey alongside later arrivals such as to Charles Dickens and other greats of British culture. 3,000 people attended the composer’s funeral, nearly a thousand more than Charles allowed into the same venue on Saturday.

At the front of the south transept the royals were arrayed in carefully curated hierarchies—from the prodigal through the perverse and to the felonious. In the middle-left of the Windsor scrum, Prince Andrew was wedged against a giant column in the vain hope that the pillar might provide a camouflaging shadow or at least allow his inky cloak to blend in with the darkened ancient stone. Wearing a morning coat adorned with a modest row of military medals, Prince Harry had tripped back from sunny California to take his place in the same row as his defrocked, debauched uncle, two back from front-and-center Prince William and Princess Kate in their bright imperial colors.

When the time came they all sang, Harry making up for his tight-lipped non-participation in the “God Save the King” at his grandmother’s funeral last September. Handel hummed along, though he doesn’t much love Victorian hymns.

Twelve new commissions and various other firsts (girl choristers!) were meant to reflect the modern, reformist mindset of the enlightened, if politically powerless king. He holds strong aesthetic views and is notoriously unafraid of mounting his bully pulpit and airing them. The music composed under his coronation auspices included works aimed at advertising coherence-in-diversity in an increasingly disunited United Kingdom. Thus the Welsh at last had their day with the folk tune Tros y Garreg (“Crossing the Stone”) set by Sir Karl Jenkins (with harp solo played by Royal harpist Alis Huw) and a coronation Kyrie by Paul Mealor sung in Welsh by Bryn Terfel.

While women were given choral and solo roles and composed some of the music, the performing forces were still predominantly male. But Judith Weir is the first woman to occupy the centuries-old post of Master of the King’s Music. She contributed a billowing, if unadventurous anthem, “Brighter Visions Shine Afar,” heard early on in the proceedings. Having a woman in charge would have perhaps been one of the strangest developments to Handel, who, during his lifetime, battled Italian divas, taught princesses royal, and claimed many supporters among the great English Ladies of the day. But we we can imagine him graciously accepting Weir’s recognition even as he would have ranked his own music far above than hers. Surely a woman in charge of the king’s music would have been easier for him to accept than the dismal royalisms of Lloyd-Webber.

More astounding to Handel than serving a woman music master and suffering the plague of Lord Webber was that the entire coronation began with the music of J. S. Bach, his eternal rival for the Baroque laurels.

Aside from Handel and Bach and a few others, Saturday’s music was homegrown, from Byrd to Elgar to Weir. England has been disparaged, especially by Germans as the “Country without Music.” That the island nation’s greatest musician was Handel, a German immigrant, proved the point. He was made a British subject by an Act of Parliament signed in early 1727 by the aged king, George I, also a German. This change of citizenship made it possible (or at least more palatable) for Handel to be commissioned to compose four coronation anthems when George II was crowned in Westminster Abbey later that year.

The most famous of those anthems, “Zadok the Priest” has been heard at every coronation since and again on Saturday during the anointing, the most sacred ritual of the service—sacred if you believe, like Charles, in the Divine Right of Kings.

Even if Handel’s music retains his preeminent role in the coronation, what must he have thought of his contemporary Bach getting right at the outset a mini-concert of some fifteen minutes worth of rousing choruses from the Magnificat, the Christmas Oratorio, and a New Year’s Day Cantata? (These can be heard here starting at 11:58)

These Bach numbers were served up by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, another friend of King Charles. A world-renowned conductor who has recorded all of Bach’s cantatas and other major works, Gardiner styles himself a Dorset farmer and shares with the new sovereign a love of organic agriculture. Gardiner has also written a fascinating and original book on Bach called Music in the Castle of Heaven, whose weaker moments are those colored by his more rustic views, as when he discusses the prolific procreating of the Bachs: “female partners with well-attested musical pedigrees [were selected] … what in farming circles is known as ‘breeding up.’” Although these outrageously misogynistic aren’t exactly welcome in modern Bach biography, they illuminate the approach adopted by the Windsors in choosing Diana Spencer from the morganatic herd.

Fresh from West Country, Gardiner rode his German baroque warhorses into a full lather. They gasped and sweated and occasionally stumbled as their strains hurtled round the Abbey.

If was to be done, thought Handel over in Poets Corner, let it be done quickly and Gardiner obligated. The hubbub from the voices of heads-of-states, rag-tag royals, sheikhs, and hangers-on were not cheering on the racing Bachian beast.

Handel smiled. His Zadok would later rise up once again as an object of towering mystery and global veneration, while Bach’s hits had been reduced to background music.

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