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Choir Music ;

Why music matters at the Coronation - and beyond

British music critic Ivan Hewitt claims the forthcoming Coronation of King Charles III ‘promises to be the most musically elaborate British Coronation ever’.

Quite a bold claim, but when one reviews the recently shared programme of commissions for His Majesty’s Coronation, we can see an array of British composers have contributed to a long-serving tradition where musicians of the day welcome the new Monarch. Many of the composers commissioned will be familiar; the list includes Andrew Lloyd-Webber, Patrick Doyle, Iain Farrington, Paul Mealor, Tarik O’Regan, Roxanna Panufnik, Shirley J Thompson, Judith Weir, and Debbie Wiseman. They cover a range of contemporary classical practices, including film and television.

In 2014 Judith Weir was appointed Master of the Queen’s Music, succeeding the late Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. The Master of the (now) King’s Music is a role in the Royal Household that has existed since 1626, when Nicholas Lanier was appointed to post by King Charles I. They were responsible for directing the court orchestra and composing or commissioning music for the Monarch, as required. The role has changed somewhat, most strikingly in that the appointment is no longer for life but for 10 years. Judith Weir ends her term in 2024.

If you have ever watched a royal wedding or jubilee celebration, you can bet some of the music was written and composed especially for that occasion; Weir’s first commission in the role was a work for the 500th anniversary of Hampton Court Palace.

At King Charles III’s Coronation on May 6, we can expect a range of new orchestral and choral works, and there are many high-profile musicians contributing to the occasion including Sir Antonio Pappano and Bryn Terfel. It’s clear King Charles III’s musical choices emphasise the wealth of British classical talent, and this is typical for monarchs to champion musicians of their day.– Ivan Hewitt

While the forthcoming Coronation is tipped to be the most musically elaborate in history, the occasion comes at a challenging time for classical music in England. The current strategy of Arts Council England has seen some pronounced reduction in the funding allocated to some of our prestigious classical music organisations, most notably opera (interestingly the Master of the King’s Music, Weir, is a distinguished composer of opera). There is also a distinct absence of ‘excellence’ in the strategy; previous iterations amplified the role of the Arts Council to champion excellence in our creative industries. We see this play out in the announcement of a search to find an amateur choir to perform for the new King, an announcement that follows a new BBC classical music strategy that proposes the closure of the BBC Singers; the only professional chamber choir reaching nearly 100 years of age.

Interestingly, Weir has also been an Associate Composer of the BBC Singers (2015-2019), and recently joined over 700 composers in expressing their concern about the potential closure of the group. The selection of composers featuring in the Coronation commissions might avoid some of the bolder creatives our nations have to offer, and one wonders who will succeed Weir after her 10-years with the Monarchy ends next year.

What we do know about the Coronation is that it will undoubtedly remind us how vital music is to the life of our nation, just as the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II did last year. It is also a reminder of why we must protect the place of music in our national curriculum.

Music is part of British culture and since the 1980s, has been part of our national curriculum. The National Plan for Music Education from the Department for Education, subtitled the Power of Music, is the only subject to have a National Plan in place from the UK Government, suggesting music is a priority for children and young people too.

However, we know the subject has been in decline in our schools in recent years, (in 2021 the Joint Council for Qualifications revealed a 44% drop in the number of A-level music candidates since 2011) and access to music remains inequitable. Perhaps the Coronation might remind us that we have competing initiatives for music that undermine ambitions at a policy level (particularly when at a policy level there are competing ambitions from different departments), and that there remains more to do to ensure we continue to develop musicians who can perform at Coronations to come.

While ‘Levelling Up’ might have achieved greater balance for the distribution of public arts resources across our nations, and championed arts organisations that have previously been denied vital support, it has come at the cost of the very art form we rely on to mark these significant moments in the life of our nation.

The Coronation in May will remind us of how the majesty of music can bring our nation together but it will be a reminder too of recent policy and strategy initiatives that might make future Coronations a less sonically majestic affair.

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Steven Berryman

Steven Berryman

Visiting Research Fellow

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