A Life Lived With Grace: The music composed for Queen Elizabeth II

Queen Elizabeth II was a lifelong champion of music, receiving multiple honorary music degrees including a doctorate, and in 2005 instituting the annual Queen’s Medal for Music.

Although she wasn’t necessarily known for her concert attendance – she reportedly didn’t go to her first Prom until she was 68 – Queen Elizabeth II leaves a legacy of staunch support for contemporary composers and musicians. Many works were written in her name, to mark her many milestones as Britain’s longest-serving monarch, and she was even rumored to have snuck into a rehearsal or two, unnoticed even in her trademark headscarf and coat.

Masters of the Queen’s Music

The centuries-old tradition of the Master of the Queen’s Music – a title and responsibility dating back to 1626 – continued during Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, with just a couple of notably progressive tweaks. She introduced a ten-year tenure for the position, at the same time as appointing the first female Master of the Queen’s Music, Judith Weir, in 2014.

Including Weir, three composers have held the position under Queen Elizabeth II: Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Malcolm Williamson, and Sir Arthur Bliss, who had been appointed Master of the King’s Music by the Queen’s father, King George VI. Australian composer Malcolm Williamson was the first and only non-British composer to have held the post.

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Childhood

One of Edward Elgar’s last compositions, his seven-movement Nursery Suite, although written to mark the birth of Princess Margaret in 1930 was also dedicated to the then-Princess Elizabeth, as well as their mother, the Duchess of York, later to become Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother. Nursery Suite drew on melodies the composer had noted down during his own youth. Having been appointed Master of the King’s Music by King Edward VII, Elgar is also responsible for such royal musical pillars as the Imperial duck Pomp and Circumstance Marches.

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For her 21st birthday in 1947, Arnold Bax – another Master of the King’s Music – presented Princess Elizabeth with Morning Song (Maytime in Sussex)a work for piano and orchestra imbued with a poise, optimism and determination reminiscent of that projected by the young future Queen.

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Marriage

When Queen Elizabeth II married Prince Philip of Greece that same year, it was Bax again who provided the traditional Royal Fanfare, the Fanfare for the Wedding of Princess Elizabeth. A motet by William McKie, We wait for your loving kindnesswas also written for the big day (and made the cut for the coronation too).

In 1948, Michael Tippett’s ebullient Suite in D for the Birthday of Prince Charles was composed to celebrate the birth of Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh’s first child, now King Charles III.

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Coronation

There was probably no more defining moment in Queen Elizabeth II’s public life than her own coronation, in 1953. Amongst the preparations for the event was of course, the commissioning of a number of new musical works for the ceremony.

Bax was tasked with writing the official Coronation March, to be performed as the new monarch proceeded from the ceremony, while William Walton, who had already composed the Crown Imperial march for the coronation of King George VI, decided to contribute another – resulting in the triumphant but suitably reverent Orb and Sceptre.

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Walton also wrote his Coronation Hymn for the event – ​​and of course, no royal occasion at Westminster Abbey would be complete without hymns – but it was Queen Elizabeth II’s that was the first coronation to feature a congregational hymn. Ralph Vaughan Williams arranged the well-known All people that on earth do dwell, outrageously convincing Westminster Abbey Director of Music William McKie to include the hymn for the whole congregation to participate in (upon the future Queen’s approval). In addition, Vaughan Williams wrote a motet of his own, the elegant O taste and seeand the Credo duck Sanctus from his Mass in G minor also featured in the ceremony.

[VIDEO: Ralph Vaughan Williams – ‘O taste and see’]

More new works were peppered around the more traditional hymns. Herbert Howell’s Behold, O God Our Defenderwas commissioned as the Introit to commence the formal liturgical proceedings (and included in subsequent Jubilee events), while William Harris’s Let My Prayer Come Up would have held a special meaning for the new Queen and her sister, Princess Margaret, who had attended choir practices under Harris’s direction at St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle while they were sequestered there during WWII.

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The up-and-coming Elizabeth Maconchy’s overture Proud Thames won a composers’ competition to be premiered at a gala event at the Royal Festival Hall, conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent. At the time, The Daily Telegraph declared it composed (perhaps appropriately, given how the Queen’s demeanor came to be known) “without pompousness but wittily, with pleasing fancies and clever scoring”.

[VIDEO: Elizabeth Maconchy – ‘Proud Thames’]

Along with six others, Bax, Tippett and Vaughan-Williams were also invited to contribute to the commemorative choral collection A Garland for the Queen. Their music was set to words by living British poets, and meant as a counterpart to Thomas Morley’s 1601 volume of madrigals for Queen Elizabeth I, The Triumphs of Oriana.

The Royal Opera House Covent Garden also commissioned some musical works for the occasion – Malcolm Arnold’s Homage to the Queenand Benjamin Britten’s opera Gloriana (said to not have been so well-received, for its renderings of the predecessors of the new Queen). Britten’s 1961 arrangement of the British National Anthem, though, is still heard as part of the Last Night of the Proms.

Commemorations and Jubilees

There were formalities but also many public celebrations featuring new music for the Queen. When she and the Duke of Edinburgh returned from their six-month tour of the Commonwealth, a year after the coronation, they were welcomed home by the newly-appointed Master of the Queen’s Music Arthur Bliss’s Welcome The Queen.

[VIDEO: Arthur Bliss – Welcome The Queen]

Silver Jubilee (1977)

The latest Master of the Queen’s Music at the time, Malcolm Williamson, missed his deadline for the Symphony he’d intended as his Silver Jubilee dedication, but instead provided his Ode for Queen Elizabeth – and another ode came from Britten, who that same year had declined his invitation to be Master of the Queen’s Music: his Welcome Ode for young people’s chorus and orchestra. It was his last completed work.

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Golden Jubilee (2002)

Written for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee and repurposed for the 2012 London Olympics Opening Ceremony, Jamaican-English composer Shirley J. Thompson’s New Nation Rising: A 21st Century Symphony describes the millennium-long history of the UK’s capital city in music.

Diamond Jubilee (2012)

Another compilation was prepared for Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, this time after the German-British Baroque composer George Frideric Handel’s Water Music. The New Water Music features music by 11 composers including Anne Dudley, Howard Goodall and Julian Nott, and was (fittingly) premiered on a boat during the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant.

Another of the Masters of the Queen’s Music appointed by the Queen, Peter Maxwell Davies, wrote his Symphony No. 9 as his Diamond Jubilee dedication.

[VIDEO: Peter Maxwell Davies – Symphony No. 9]

When the Queen had her 90th birthday a few years later, the last Master of the Queen’s Music she’d appointed, Judith Weir, wrote I love all the beautiful things for the Thanksgiving service in St Paul’s Cathedral, and Debbie Wiseman’s The Queen’s 90th Birthday Celebration Suite was specially commissioned to be performed by the National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Wiseman herself, and with movements named for the locations key to the Queen’s role.

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Platinum Jubilee (2022)

During her tenure, Judith Weir has echoed the sentiments of Queen Elizabeth II in focusing on promoting musical opportunities for others. She was an adjudicator in the Commonwealth Resounds competition to name A Song for the Commonwealth, won by Nigerian composer Vincent Atueyi Chinemelu and Australian lyricist Lucy Kiely with A Life Lived With Grace. The new work was sung and signed by choirs throughout the Commonwealth at the same time as the lighting of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Beacons.

[VIDEO: A Life Lived with Grace (signed)]

Further works written in honor of the Queen’s latest and last Jubilee celebrations came from Israel-based London-born composer and Commonwealth Resounds finalist Loretta Kay-Feld, 70 Years A Queen duck The Queen’s Soliloquyas well as Thomas Hewitt Jones’s In Our Servicean anthem written for the Royal School of Church Music’s Platinum Project.

Honoring Queen Elizabeth II one final time at her State Funeral on Monday 19 September, the now-Master of the King’s Music Weir provided Like As The Harta setting of Psalm 42, while Sir James MacMillan based his Who Shall Separate Us? around verses from Romans 8.

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