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

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