The coronation ceremony of King Charles III and Camilla, the queen consort, on Saturday has been described as a millennium-old tradition of pomp and circumstance, reaching back to Charles’s most distant forebears.
But while the service and liturgy of the coronation of English and British monarchs stretches back to the 10th century, the tradition of its sound is far more recent — and less noticed. Many of the accounts of coronations before the 19th century have been lost, and the ones that remain make very little mention of music, if at all.
The sound of the British coronation that has become so affixed in the cultural landscape is, in fact, a 20th-century invention, in a concerted effort to present the past as the present.
Charles III has commissioned new works for his coronation, adding to the rich tapestry of pieces composed for the occasion. Here is a brief history of that music, exploring the sound of the divine right of kings.
The first coronation of an English monarch that resembles what we see today was for Edgar in 973. This coronation provided the overall structure that has been filled out since the 10th century: the procession and recognition, the oath, the anointing, as well as the investiture, enthronement and homage. The coronation itself is a religious ceremony, centered around the Eucharist, and so, from 973 to 1603, the coronation ended with a Catholic mass.
In 1382, the “Liber Regalis” (“Royal Book”) was written to provide a detailed account of the coronation order of service, likely for Anne of Bohemia. The book provides the coronation text but gives no information on the music itself; coronations would have music composed specifically for them, and some works only became fixed in later centuries. The first coronation music was likely sung chants, which, starting in 1603 with the coronation of James I, were refashioned into coronation anthems now with English text.
James II, 1685
Music by more familiar composers appears with the coronation of James II. One of Henry Purcell’s settings of “I was glad” is used for the entrance anthem. Also known by its Latin name, “Laetatus sum,” the text is a setting of Psalm 122. The anthem is in two parts, beginning with a bright and lilting section in triple meter marking James’s entrance into Westminster Abbey.
As James ascended the stairs toward the Chair of Estate, the King’s Scholars from the Westminster School shouted “Vivat” (also known as the Acclamation); this was the first coronation where that tradition was present. The second section, now in minor and in duple time, acts as a solemn prayer of peace and prosperity for the monarch and the nation. The section ends with the “Gloria Patri” (“Glory be”), and it is this Purcell version that inspired the tripartite structure for C.H.H. Parry’s setting of “I was glad” in use today.
George II and Queen Caroline, 1727
George II’s coronation is perhaps best known for introducing George Frideric Handel’s coronation anthems, including “Zadok the Priest” (HWV 258), along with several others. It is unknown, however, where in the service each coronation anthem was performed. “Zadok the Priest” sets text from 1 Kings 1:38-40, text that has appeared in some form at every coronation since Edgar.
The anthem begins with a lengthy orchestral introduction, building tension up to the entrance of the choir, accompanied by pealing brass and timpani. It is believed that the introduction was written to help provide flow in the order of service, specifically giving time for the monarchs to change robes in preparation for the anointing. The anthem also includes the acclamation “God save the King! Long live the King!” — linking the anointing to the later acclamation from the Homage of the Peers, where those with hereditary titles swear fealty to the monarch.
The coronation of Queen Victoria is the first time the entire musical service is transcribed, in part because of George Smart, who was in charge of the coronation’s music. The service features the Handel coronation anthems “Zadok the Priest” and “The Queen Shall Rejoice,” as well as the Hallelujah chorus from “Messiah,” which took place after Victoria received communion. The reliance on Handel and the lack of new musical material — except for one new anthem, “This is the day,” by William Knyvett — resulted in widespread criticism of the service, with The Spectator writing that “the musical part of the service was a libel on the present state of art in this country.”
Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, 1902
It is with Edward VII’s coronation that music becomes a significant part of the service, by royal decree. Frederick Bridge, in charge of the music for the coronation, wrote that “the King was most explicit in declaring his Command that there should be no curtailment of the musical part of the service,” when cuts were being made to shorten the service because of Edward’s health.
For the first time, music was incorporated in the published order of service, including compositions performed both before and after the coronation. This featured marches by Wagner, Gounod, Saint-Saëns, Tchaikovsky and Elgar, whose “Imperial March” had been written for Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. Within the coronation service, Bridge outlined a program that would connect centuries of English church music together from Tallis to Parry, aiming to highlight Britain’s imperial might by showcasing the long centuries of its artistic power.
Bridge commissioned new coronation anthems for the service, notably “I was glad” by C.H.H. Parry and a new setting of the “Confortare” by Walter Parratt, Master of the King’s Musick. Both have since become staples in the coronation service. Parry’s setting of “I was glad” is resoundingly jubilant, opening with brass over a full orchestra in a fanfare, before giving way to the chorus’s unaccompanied entrance. Parry incorporates the vivats into the anthem; here they are sung by the choir, punctuated by brass echoes and snare drums, while excising the “Gloria Patri.” Parratt’s “Confortare” (“Be strong and play the man”) revived a text not used since the 17th century. Parratt’s arrangement takes the antiphon from recited chant to full chorus with fanfare-like brass accompaniment.
Elizabeth II and Charles III
The accession of Elizabeth II prompted the idea of a new Elizabethan age, one that would rival the artistic, cultural and military achievements of the 16th century, connecting postwar Britons with the glory of their ancestors. The coronation showcased that idea by featuring music by the premiere contemporary British composers: Ralph Vaughan Williams, Arnold Bax, Herbert Howells, Arthur Bliss, George Butterworth, Gordon Jacob, Charles Villiers Stanford, Gustav Holst, John Ireland and William Walton.
And at the most recent coronation, comparisons between Elizabeth II and Charles III are unsurprisingly being made. Composers writing music for this coronation include both expected and unexpected names, including Judith Weir, Master of the King’s Music; Tarik O’Regan; Paul Mealor; and Shirley Thompson; there will be a new coronation anthem from Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Charles III’s coronation is set to usher in the new Carolean era, in the hopes that it will reflect its namesake Charles II and his contributions to art and music. Only the coronation and time will show if this new era lives up to that promise.