The Coronation: Meeting the Composers Behind the Music

Jack Pepper
Thursday, May 4, 2023

Jack Pepper looks ahead to the Coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla. In Part Two, we explore the contemporary music written or arranged for the ceremony and meet some of the composers…

Paul Mealor (photo: Jillian Bain Christie)
Paul Mealor (photo: Jillian Bain Christie)

This month could very well present the single biggest and most eclectic presentation of British and Commonwealth new music in decades.

All hand-picked by the monarch, 12 new pieces will feature in the Coronation: six works for orchestra, five for choir and one for organ. The composers represent the crème of British writing talent, drawn from across musical genres; between them, they have over 80 BAFTA, Oscar, Grammy, Tony, Olivier, Golden Globe and Emmy Awards.

See also:

The Coronation – Royal Music Through Time

The Coronation – Military Musicians

Andrew Lloyd Webber will contribute a new Coronation Anthem, Make A Joyful Noise, which draws on words from Psalm 98 and the writings of Solomon; it is scored for the Westminster Abbey choir and organ, Royal Air Force Fanfare trumpeters and the Coronation Orchestra. Master of The King’s Music, Judith Weir, has written an overture. Oscar-nominated film composer Patrick Doyle – whose credits include Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – has penned a Coronation March, following in the esteemed footsteps of William Walton. Nigel Hess, Roderick Williams and Shirley J Thompson have joined forces to create Be Thou My Vision – Triptych for Orchestra, inspired by one of the King’s favourite hymns. Roxanna Panufnik’s ‘Coronation Sanctus’ will showcase vibrant organ fanfares, whilst Tarik O’Regan’s contribution will come during one of the service’s more meditative moments.

In contrast, Iain Farrington’s solo organ commission has been described as ‘joyful, jazzy and dance-like’, and will draw on musical themes from the 56 countries of the Commonwealth; these global musical travels continue with Greek Orthodox music, which will feature thanks to the Byzantine Chant Ensemble in a musical tribute to the King’s late father. Alongside the new will be pieces by Byrd, Walford Davies and Parry.

There’s a fine array of performers, too: eight choirs, six conductors and two organists, to be precise. Soloists include Sir Bryn Terfel and Pretty Yende, whilst Sir Antonio Pappano will conduct a special Coronation Orchestra that will draw upon eight leading UK and Canadian orchestras, including ensembles of which The King is patron.

Meanwhile, the monarch’s friend Sir John Eliot Gardiner will conduct The Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque soloists in a special pre-service programme. That’s not to mention the choir for the main service, which will draw on the gospel group The Ascension Choir, the Choir of Westminster Abbey, the Choir of His Majesty’s Chapel Royal, and girl choristers from Belfast and Truro.

It will be quite a day for the recording industry, too. Courtesy of Decca Records, the first ever complete recording of a Coronation will be available to stream and download globally on the same day as the ceremony. The complete album will be over four hours long. It’s being produced by the multi-Grammy nominee Anna Barry, whose 500-plus recordings include albums of the 2011 and 2018 Royal Weddings.

With the world ready for a feast of spectacular performances and recordings, old and new side by side, let’s meet some of the composers behind it all…

Sir Karl Jenkins

karl jenkins

Sir Karl Jenkins

Among the most performed of living composers, Jenkins has 17 gold and platinum discs to his name. The first Welsh composer to be knighted (this in 2015), many of his works have royal connections. The Armed Man: A Mass For Peace – which has had over 3000 performances globally in the last two decades – was originally commissioned by The Royal Armouries; his setting of Laurence Binyon’s For The Fallen was premiered at The Royal British Legion’s Festival of Remembrance in 2010, in the presence of the late Queen; to commemorate her Platinum Jubilee last year, he composed and conducted This Faithful Life, with a text by poet Grahame Davies.

Jenkins’s relationship with the new monarch is likewise extensive. In 2016, the-then Prince of Wales commissioned him to write his Fanfare for Poundbury to open Poundbury Square in Dorset, built to commemorate the Queen Mother. This was Jenkins’s second commission from him, the first being a harp concerto. Over The Stone was written for the first Royal Harpist of the modern era, Catrin Finch; the tradition of this role went back to before Victorian times and as Prince of Wales, Charles revived the position. Wanting a piece to showcase the skills of the first incumbent, he made one request: that a section of the Welsh National Anthem be used in one of the movements.

I don’t wake up in the night with an idea. It always has a purpose

Karl Jenkins

Another movement is based on the Welsh folk song ‘Tros Y Garreg’, and it is a new arrangement of this segment that will be included in the Coronation; the current Royal Harpist Alis Huws will join string players to perform it. ‘I’m an oddity in the whole programme because it’s a piece from the past,’ Jenkins tells me. ‘Catrin Finch’s mother-in-law was a harp teacher of some repute, and so I created a double harp concerto that premiered in Cardiff. It’s since been played worldwide quite often, and so Catrin and I decided to adapt the concerto for single harp and one movement. “Crossing the Stone” was all about a soldier returning home from war. It’s a very Welsh piece harmonically. It will be in a new form for 2023.’

Jenkins’s music will be one of several important moments that fly the Welsh flag in the ceremony. ‘It’s the first time anything has been done at a Coronation with a Welsh connection like this, and there will be another piece in the service with a Welsh text [see Paul Mealor – below]. The new King was a strong Prince of Wales, interested in the principality; he’s fundamentally a good man who’s fun to talk to, not stiff-upper-lip. He’s a fan of many things, including Wagner – which I am too – and of the English musical canon of Elgar and Holst.’

You’d imagine the composers writing for the Coronation have to be immensely secretive, but it transpires even they are in the dark on many key details about the service! Jenkins admits he doesn’t yet know at what point his piece will be played. Indeed, he was only sent an official letter from Buckingham Palace to be told his music would be included a few weeks ago. ‘They work in very mysterious ways, and it’s gone on, piecemeal, week by week.’

How important is pressure as part of his creative process? ‘It’s the same kind of pressure whatever the commission. I used to write music for lots of commercials in the 1980s – good commercials shot by film directors like Ridley Scott, Alan Parker and Hugh Hudson, with high production values and good stories – and they were all deadlines. It had to be done by Thursday or whatever. To my mind, the great composers – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven – were jobbing composers; they wrote for the church or the court, so it wasn’t a question of inspiration floating around. It’s more a question of getting down to it, as I do. I fumble around on the piano and get some ideas going, retaining those I approve of and rejecting those I don’t; then a piece comes out of it.’

Does he believe in inspiration? ‘No. There’s the adage “90% perspiration, 10% inspiration.” It’s like good film composers: that’s all deadlines and you have to write for a certain date. I don’t wake up in the night with an idea. It always has a purpose. Sometimes an idea is ignited by a text. But a ceremonial piece is different, and in this case it doesn’t have words.’

Having mentioned adverts, is there a picture in his mind when he writes? ‘No, but a lot of people come up to me and say they see images when they listen to my music – but I don’t. I don’t start with an image as some people do; I start at the piano’.

Well, it was at the television that an eight-year-old Karl Jenkins watched the 1953 coronation of Elizabeth II, at home in Wales; family and neighbours filled their house to bursting point, all gathering around a tiny twelve-inch screen to watch the black and white images. This time round, Jenkins has a better view. He found out a few weeks ago that he has a seat at the Coronation; mind, the letter stressed, only one seat. ‘I don’t know what time I’ve got to get up in the morning, maybe six o’clock. It will take me an hour to walk. By cab I won’t get near the place as the roads will be blocked off.’ Londoners, look out: a composer knight may be wandering past to attend a Coronation near you…

Paul Mealor

paul mealor

Paul Mealor (photo: Jillian Bain Christie)

Another of the world’s most-performed living composers, Wales-born, Scotland-based Paul Mealor is likewise no stranger to writing for Royal occasions. He reached the largest audience in broadcasting history when his motet Ubi caritas was performed at the wedding of the current Prince and Princess of Wales in 2011; 2.5 billion people watched the service and the piece subsequently topped the Classical singles charts in Britain, the USA, France, Australia and New Zealand.

Mealor's Ubi caritas at the wedding of the current Prince and Princess of Wales in 2011:

Mealor went on to write for the late Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012, and met her many times whilst at church services at Crathie in Balmoral; in 2018, she personally appointed him an Officer of the Venerable Order of St John. Poignantly, the Queen herself asked Mealor to compose a Gaelic setting of Psalm 118 that was performed at the Scottish service of thanksgiving for her life. Originally approached by Scotland’s Chapel Royal, the piece was composed six years prior to the Queen’s passing; Mealor played it for her at the piano, and events would come full circle when it was sung in tribute to her at St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh last year. Mealor describes that as ‘the most touching occasion’.

Mealor admits writing for a Royal occasion is different to other commissions. ‘You are having to do something on a much grander scale than a normal premiere. But you can’t think too much about that. Whenever I’m asked to write something for a Royal occasion, I get the brief and I start writing straight away. I don’t think too long about it because I believe the more you think about the occasion, the more difficult it is to write. I feel it’s important to get some ideas down straight away.’

You have to find an ending that is very subtle, gentle and lifts people to the presence of God

Paul Mealor

Sounds simple. So, was his Coronation commission an easy piece to write? ‘Yes and no. Yes, because the brief was very specific; I knew the length, I knew the words – ‘Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy’, set in Welsh – I knew the performers, who I’ve worked with before (Sir Bryn Terfel and the choirs), and I knew what role the piece would play within the service. That makes the composing easier. The difficulty with this piece was the end, because getting a conclusion that leads into words and prayers from the Archbishop of Canterbury – having to prepare the congregation for that next step – is difficult. You have to find an ending that is very subtle, gentle and lifts people to the presence of God.’

Mealor’s contribution is a ‘Coronation Kyrie’, heard at the beginning of the ceremony; it comes at a key moment in the service when we move away from the pomp and pageantry, towards something more intimate, ‘solemn and sacred’. As the composer explains, ‘it’s the piece that transitions from the outside to the very inward.’ To do so, Mealor has blended Gregorian chant with familiar Welsh hymn tunes, to unite the ancient and the modern ‘in a gentle and really simple way that allows the congregation to prepare themselves for this very spiritual moment’.

The ’Coronation Kyrie’ will be historic for cultural as well as musical reasons: it will be the first time the Welsh language has been sung at a Coronation. This was something The King himself requested, having (at 64 years) been the longest-serving Prince of Wales.

Mealor is used to big gigs, but this will surely be the crowning glory.

Sarah Class

sarah class

Sarah Class meets King Charles III at COP26

Having grown up on a nature reserve on the Isle of Wight, the beauty and abundance of the natural world is a frequent inspiration for this BRIT and Emmy-nominated composer and singer-songwriter. An ambassador for the World Land Trust, it was a shared love of nature that led the-then Prince of Wales to commission Class’s piece Rhythm of the Earth for his Terra Carta sustainability project. The accompanying music video was premiered at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in 2021.

Sarah Class introduces Rhythm of the Earth:

The film and TV screen is perhaps the habitat most associated with Class, having scored the 1999 Hollywood drama The Weekend and David Attenborough’s Africa. A protégé of the legendary record producer George Martin, she is as at home working on a Hayley Westenra number one album as she is her own Americana release; as a listener and pianist, she has as much love for Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson as she does for Mozart’s piano concertos. Class admits, though, that, regardless of the project, ‘there is always a storytelling aspect to my work; it’s music that wants to convey something and move people. I want people to feel better.’

Class found out she was writing for the Coronation just before Christmas. She had to sit on the news for months, even keeping it a secret from her family. Some things, though, remain unknown even to the composer herself; amazingly, speaking in late April, Class had still not been told exactly where in the Coronation her piece would be performed!

For me, this felt – if not easy, it felt like a kind of heavenly download. It came straight through me and onto the page

Sarah Class

The song is a collaboration with poet Grahame Davies, and the process proved quick: ‘immediately I started to come up with ideas for a theme tune. Grahame had these great lyrics that denoted a type of rhythm in the music; I came up with the chorus and then fed it back to him. It was a lovely synergistic conversation between us.’

Davies’s lyric uses sacred imagery from the Bible. As Class explains, ‘for me, it’s all spiritual. The music itself is presenting a bridge between the angelic and the human realms. It’s about the protection of human beings, the abundance of the natural world and overcoming fears and troubles that we’re currently facing. Really, it’s about unity, love and faith. We can come together for the Coronation to celebrate.’

Speaking of unity, around 300 million people are expected to tune in to watch the Coronation… Does an event of this scale make composing easier – as you know exactly what it’s for – or can it have a paralysing effect on a creator? ‘Some of the best songs I’ve written have just happened, have just come out in one go. The theme for this piece just wrote itself, and so for me it didn’t feel daunting. There was a question in my mind at the start, that this ought to be the best music I’ve ever written. But then this theme took over and this is what I had to do. I often think you should stick with the first idea that you get. If it’s not working, you know; you get a nagging voice. But for me, this felt – if not easy, it felt like a kind of heavenly download. It came straight through me and onto the page.’ Through a series of phone voice notes, Class was able to hone her conception of the melody. She admits the quasi-cinematic nature of the Coronation event itself – the sheer filmic spectacle – was a helpful stimulus, and posed not such a dissimilar challenge to her screen projects.

Unlike the minutely detailed and specific assignments of a film cue, though, the Coronation brief was refreshingly broad. Class was asked for a three-minute piece for solo voice, and Pretty Yende’s name was mooted early on. Class had heard Yende’s voice in 2020, when she made her first independent classical crossover release, ‘Natural High’; she had been searching for an opera singer for one of the pieces, but a collaboration with Yende in the midst of lockdown didn’t work out. The Coronation, then, is a chance for Sarah to fulfil ‘my dream of working with Pretty’.

‘I don’t know whether it’s a British thing, but I think we all almost feel apologetic for trying to live our dreams. Music, for me, is all part of that. I write what’s inspiring to me, and what’s inspiring to me is this feeling of hopefulness. We all need it in our lives at the moment.’

Debbie Wiseman

debbie wiseman

Debbie Wiseman

A longstanding royal favourite, the Coronation is just one of several epic royal premieres enjoyed by this Grammy-nominated musician. She was the official composer, musical director and co-conductor of the Platinum Jubilee Celebration staged in the private grounds of Windsor Castle last May, which saw a 75-piece tri-service military orchestra joined by 100 bagpipers and drummers and a cast of thousands of humans and horses (and Tom Cruise, naturally).

Back in 2012, she was one of 10 composers to create a new ‘Water Music’, joining the likes of Anne Dudley, Gavin Greenaway and Julian Nott in writing music to accompany the Queen’s river pageant in her Diamond Jubilee year; a 15-piece band on a floating barge premiered Wiseman’s Jubilee Gigue whilst travelling from Putney to Tower Bridge. Add to these an Overture and Finale for the Queen’s 90th birthday in 2018, and a UK classical chart-topping album in 2021, ‘The Music of Kings and Queens’, and it’s safe to say Wiseman is a natural choice for the Coronation. An email just before Christmas confirmed it.

Wiseman's The Music of Kings and Queens – Elizabeth II:

Cue two new pieces. The first, Alleluia (O Clap Your Hands), is written for the Westminster Abbey choir and organist, and will be directed by Andrew Nethsingha. The second piece, Alleluia (O Sing Praises) – linked musically to the first – will be performed by an eight-piece a cappella gospel group, the Ascension Choir. In fact, the original idea had been for both pieces to be performed by the Westminster Abbey choristers, but having almost finished them a few weeks into January, Nethsingha phoned Wiseman to say that the King had expressed a wish to have a gospel choir included in the service. By royal command, Wiseman reshaped her pieces and was thrilled by the result: ‘the music seemed to lend itself very well to that style of singing. Classical and gospel are two very different styles of singing and require a different approach musically. For some reason, the melody and harmonies lent themselves very well to a gospel arrangement. The choir bring such an effortless joy to the piece; it comes very naturally to them. I was given a specific liturgical text to set and as soon as I saw it, I knew the kind of music it should be: joyful and celebratory. The singers bring that in abundance.’

It is quite liberating, because you don’t have to worry about lines of dialogue or a giant sound effect right in the middle of your big melody!

Debbie Wiseman

Her aims were to create a music that was singable and melodic, whose message was clear and concise. She was also well aware of the history of music for Coronations and the epic space of Westminster Abbey; ‘there weren’t a lot of restrictions really, it was just to make sure it felt appropriate to the service.’

Wiseman is celebrated for her film and TV work, scoring the likes of Wolf Hall, Father Brown and Lesbian Vampire Killers. I asked if she approached the Coronation commission in a similar way to a movie, given the cinematic sweep and epic theatricality of the occasion? ‘There is an element of theatre, without a doubt. But it’s not like composing for film because that music is never standalone; it’s always accompanying drama or dialogue. Yes, there will be things going on at the Coronation whilst the piece is performed, but this needed a standalone quality. That meant you can be freely melodic, which you can’t always be in film music; you have to support the drama and sometimes a melody gets in the way of that, unless it’s very subtly used or there’s a moment for it to breathe. Otherwise, you’re always having these other considerations within a film score; you’re there to complement and enhance the action, not to be centre stage.’

So, was the Coronation commission a liberating experience? ‘It is quite liberating, because you don’t have to worry about lines of dialogue or a giant sound effect right in the middle of your big melody! The music must sustain itself on its own.’

Like her fellow Coronation composers, Wiseman is not sure exactly where in the service her pieces will sit; the order of service was still to be finalised when we spoke at the end of April, and the composers expect to find out exactly when their music will be performed only on the day! It’s an early start, too: ‘you have to be there between 7.30 and 9am, but to get through security you really have to be there between 7.30 and 8am to be sensible. Then you’re in by 9am and they shut the doors, and there are a couple of hours before the service starts at 11am, which is itself two hours.’

For 12 composers, the Coronation will be a premier premiere… but snacks may be needed.

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