23 April 2021

Duke of Edinburgh's funeral music

I wrote a review for the Church Times of the music at the Duke of Edinburgh's funeral, but made the mistake of drawing the editor's attention to John Rutter's blog on the same subject (see previous post), with the result that today's Church Times printed only a fraction of my piece, but appended extracts from Rutter's blog as if they were part of it! Therefore, in order not to waste what I actually wrote, I'm publishing my original submission here, and hope you will enjoy it:

SERVICE MUSIC AT THE FUNERAL OF HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS THE PRINCE PHILIP, DUKE OF EDINBURGH: St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle; Saturday 17 April 2021, 3.00 p.m.

Any fear that the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral would be diminished by the imposition of Covid restrictions was quickly dispelled as the day began to unfold and it now seems generally to be agreed that these restrictions gave an added poignancy and emotional power to the proceedings.

The service music was no exception and was performed, not by the full St George’s Chapel choir of men and boys, but by just three of the lay clerks (alto Tom Lilburn, tenor Nicholas Madden and bass Simon Whiteley) with the soprano Miriam Allan taking the treble line. (Ms Allen is married to another lay clerk at Windsor, so all the singers live within the Castle walls.)

This proved to be highly successful, not least in several familiar hymns which – in this guise, and because no congregational singing was allowed – were sung very beautifully and musically. The four singers, organist Luke Bond and director of music James Vivian will not fail to have impressed and moved many millions of viewers and listeners who may not have thought themselves susceptible to Anglican church music.

So many aspects of the day were said to have been planned by the Duke himself, including the music, and it is good to remember that two of the pieces, Benjamin Britten’s Jubilate and the guitarist and composer William Lovelady’s setting of Psalm 104, were actually commissioned by him: the Britten in 1961, written for St George’s Chapel, and the Lovelady, originally a three-movement cantata in honour of the Duke’s 75th birthday in 1996, adapted for the funeral by James Vivian.

The singers perhaps relished the acoustics of the empty chapel and there was particularly fine singing from the soprano and tenor, for whom the music provided many opportunities.

In addition to the major pieces by Britten and Lovelady there was familiar music on a more intimate scale: William Croft’s setting of the Funeral Sentences, William Smith’s Lesser Litany and Robert Stone’s setting of The Lord’s Prayer. As well as James Vivian, former organists of St George’s Chapel were recalled: Roger Judd (assistant organist, 1985-2008 and acting organist, 2002-04) adapted the Smith Litany, the service ended with the Russian Kontakion of the Departed, arranged by Sir Walter Parratt (organist, 1882-1924), and the organ music before and after the service, in addition to pieces by Bach, Vierne, Whitlock and Vaughan Williams, included the Adagio espressivo movement from the Sonata in A minor by Sir William Harris (organist, 1933-61).

The intimacy of this otherwise very public occasion was enhanced, in the BBC Television transmission, by the complete absence of commentary during and immediately before the ceremony, thus allowing viewers to focus completely and without distraction on the liturgy and, especially, the music. A very special experience indeed.

GARRY HUMPHREYS

21 April 2021

 

Reprinted, without permission, from John Rutter's website:

Did they mention the music?

Reflections on a royal funeral

I have borrowed my main title from Henry Mancini’s autobiography. He was, among other musical accomplishments, the composer of many Hollywood film scores, notably the Pink Panther series and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In studio-era Hollywood, composers always worked under great pressure and often bearing heavy responsibility for the success or otherwise of a film, but by custom were excluded from its private pre-release screening attended by the studio moguls and their acolytes. As the composer, all you could do was to ask someone who had been privy to the post-screening discussions whether anyone had mentioned the music (generally not, it seems), and if so, whether the verdict was favourable.

I was reminded of this telling insight as I channel-hopped around the post-funeral TV coverage following the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral. Amid all the torrents of expert or would-be expert verbiage about the service and those attending it, I heard not one word of comment about the music which had formed such a crucial part of the funeral service, much less any commendation of the musicians who had planned and executed it with such flawless professionalism and unstinting commitment.

Was I surprised? Not really. I learned a bitter lesson as a young organist sometimes drafted in to play at weddings: not everyone loves and cares about music as you do. Being accustomed to respectful and attentive concert audiences, I was shocked at what seemed to me the rudeness and indifference of wedding congregations who fidgeted in the pews, brought howling infants with them, coughed and rustled their Orders of Service, and chattered during our lovingly rehearsed anthem accompanying the signing of the register.

But let’s return to films. If you doubt the importance of music in film, try watching the desert scenes in Lawrence of Arabia with the sound turned off, or (sorry if you’re reading this over breakfast) the shower scene in Psycho – where what is actually a rather tame piece of cinematography is made terrifying by Bernard Herrmann’s music with its much-imitated shrieking violins.

There are parallels with church music here. As with a film, music in a church service is there not for its own sake but to form part of a tapestry of words, music, action, costume, and (if you’re in St George’s Windsor or somewhere like it) scenic splendour. It’s called liturgy, and if music plays its part properly, the event is lifted heavenward, and if it does not, the whole thing can fall flat.

Unlike in a film, the music at a church service is generally not the work of a single composer, and the task of whoever plans the service – in this case with some required inclusions of music chosen by the Duke – is to make it all fit together and flow smoothly, which was triumphantly achieved at Windsor, working with the Covid constraints allowing only a solo quartet of voices rather than the full choir. If you have studied (say) the structure of a Beethoven symphony, you will know how important the key structure is in binding a whole work together. And at the funeral there was similarly meticulous planning of keys. (Skip the next bit if it doesn’t interest you.) It was all built around G, minor and major, which we were prepared for by the final pre-service organ voluntary, Vaughan Williams’s Rhosymedre Prelude in the major, leading into a subdued improvisation in the minor. William Croft’s timeless Burial Sentences followed (G minor) . . . and after the Bidding Prayer, Dykes’s beloved Eternal Father (in the related key of the subdominant major, C) – in James Vivian’s arrangement boldly leaving the first verse to an unaccompanied solo voice, rather like the lone trumpet at the start of The Godfather which makes you pay attention and listen. We stay in C major for Britten’s Jubilate written at the Duke’s request in 1961, brisk, concise and no-nonsense (qualities he would have encouraged, no doubt) . . . a return to G minor for William Lovelady’s Psalm 104 setting, its key and ground-bass structure echoing one of the greatest of all laments, Dido’s from Purcell’s opera . . . William Smith’s Responses from the early 17th century bringing a shaft of sunlight in G major, then the Russian Kontakion returning to sombre G minor, a sidestep to G minor’s relative major for the Last Post in B flat, its subdominant E flat for Reveille, and a sense of return and release with the National Anthem in G major. Beethoven couldn’t have planned it better. Non-musicians will not have been consciously aware of all this thread of careful planning, but, trust me, the funeral service wouldn’t have felt the same without it.

There were other threads of connection skilfully woven into the fabric of the service – royal, historical, and local. William Croft (1678–1727) shared the same teacher, John Blow, as his older contemporary Henry Purcell (to whom Lovelady’s Psalm 104 setting pays homage), and like him he was a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal and Organist of Westminster Abbey. Most of Croft’s music is forgotten, but his hymn tune to O God, our help in ages past is still a firm favourite and his Burial Sentences which opened the service have been sung at the funeral of every British sovereign since George II. The Russian Kontakion – brought into the Anglican repertoire in its arrangement by St George’s organist Sir Walter Parratt over a hundred years ago – reminded us of the Duke’s background in the Orthodox Church. Another St George’s organist, Sir William Harris – piano teacher to the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret – composed one of the organ preludes before the service. His friend and Windsor colleague Canon Edmund Fellowes was the first to edit William Smith’s Responses from the early seventeenth century which we heard skilfully arranged for four voices (there were five in the original) by former St George’s Assistant Organist Roger Judd.

And what of our superb quartet of voices? Tom Lilburn, Nicholas Madden, and Simon Whiteley, lay clerks in St George’s Choir, were joined by another member of the St George’s community, Miriam Allan (married to their colleague Richard Bannan, I directed the choir at their wedding) . . . Luke Bond was the impeccable organist who knew just how to match his instrument to the four voices . . . James Vivian,  St George’s Organist and Choirmaster, directed the music but did far more than that, in drawing together the threads of the tapestry to make the funeral, planned in the midst of a pandemic, the ‘austere yet eloquent’ tribute to the Duke that it was recognised to be by the Sunday Times music critic Hugh Canning. In The Spectator the eminent composer Sir James MacMillan described it as having ‘a gentle but huge impact’ on those who witnessed it.

Others better qualified than I am will, I hope, have commented on the splendid contribution to the day made by the military contingents in the Castle precincts and the two eminent clergymen leading the service, but I have given you my musician’s-eye view. So I, at least, have mentioned the music.

John