The Queen, composers and royal memories
Across the long lifetime of Queen Elizabeth II, many composers were commissioned, honoured and supported by the Royal Family. At a time of UK mourning and commemoration for Her Majesty we recall works woven into the nation’s historical and musical fabric.
As the UK and Commonwealth mourn the death of their monarch, we look back over the past century at royal connections with musical life. From Elgar and Britten to Harrison Birtwistle and Karl Jenkins, a rich lineage of composers with works published by Boosey & Hawkes has enjoyed the Royal Family’s patronage and support for the arts. Many compositions were personally linked to Queen Elizabeth II through commissioning, while we also recall composers receiving honours at Buckingham Palace or experiencing royal meetings after performances.
As Master of the King’s Music, Edward Elgar composed one of his last works and one of the first works commissioned for the future Queen while still a child. The Nursery Suite was completed in 1931 and dedicated to the newly born Princess Margaret, her older sister Princess Elizabeth (the future Queen Elizabeth II) and the Duchess of York (the Queen Mother). It was one of the earliest orchestral works to be first performed in a recording studio rather than a concert hall.
After the death of Arnold Bax in 1953, Arthur Bliss took over the role of Master of the Queen’s Music, with his ceremonial works including music for the investiture of Prince Charles (now HM King Charles III) as Prince of Wales in 1969. Bliss’s early A Colour Symphony, exploring heraldic themes, was later adapted as a ballet entitled Royal Offering.
The composer who enjoyed perhaps the closest connection to Queen Elizabeth II was Benjamin Britten. His opera Gloriana was premiered in June 1953 at a royal gala, six days after the Queen’s coronation, but the linkage between the end of one Elizabethan age and the dawn of a second Elizabethan age proved problematic. The dignitaries at the first night were surprised to witness on stage a vain and ailing Tudor monarch dispatching her favourite, the Earl of Essex, to his death. The lukewarm response to the opera was said to be shared by the work’s dedicatee, the new Queen herself but, despite this, a friendship with Britten developed across the final decades of the composer’s life, in person and via correspondence.
The Queen opened the Snape Maltings concert hall in Aldeburgh twice: first at its inauguration in 1967 and second when rebuilt in 1970 after fire damage, when she commented that she hoped not to be asked to come back a third time. In 1975 the Queen wrote personally to the composer to ask him to accept the position of Master of the Queen’s Music, which he felt forced to turn down because of his declining health. This was one of a sequence of letters the Queen penned, starting ‘Dear Ben’, with a number of them relating to the composition of the song cycle A Birthday Hansel as a secret gift for the Queen Mother on her 75th birthday. These letters encouraged the invalided composer to pick up his pen again after heart surgery and a stroke. The songs were premiered by Peter Pears at a private house concert, with the Queen Mother writing to say how she was “absolutely thrilled and delighted by this glorious birthday gift”. In 1976, close to the end of his life, Britten was offered a life peerage: this followed his earlier Companion of Honour awarded in 1953 and his joining the select Order of Merit in 1965.
Britten’s last completed work, Welcome Ode, was written to celebrate the Queen’s visit to Ipswich during her 1977 Silver Jubilee. But by then Britten had died and the Queen had sent her personal condolences to Peter Pears, a remarkable leap beyond the protocol of the times to recognize the couple’s gay relationship. Britten’s distinctive orchestration of the National Anthem, with its striking hushed opening, has become one of the most favoured by modern audiences, heard regularly at the BBC Last Night of the Proms over recent decades.
Britten’s Gloriana receives a concert performance by English National Opera on 8 December at the London Coliseum, originally programmed for the Platinum Jubilee year but now a fitting tribute to the late Queen, marking the close of two Elizabethan ages. Martyn Brabbins conducts a cast including Christine Rice as Elizabeth I, Charles Rice, Sophie Bevan, Alexandra Oomens and Alex Otterburn.
Back in 1956 the young HK Gruber was a member of the Vienna Boys Choir, travelling to the Edinburgh Festival to perform as alto soloist in Mozart’s Requiem with the Vienna Philharmonic. Gruber recalls how “after the concert we got the announcement that we should stay because the Queen wanted to meet us. As we stood in line Her Majesty came and greeted a number of us, including kissing me on the cheek. So, even in my childhood, on tour as choir boy, my special affection for the UK and the Commonwealth was embedded.”
Supposedly on Britten’s recommendation the Master of the Queen’s Music appointment was passed in 1975 to Australian-born composer Malcolm Williamson, the first non-Briton. His contributions included an Ode for the Queen Mother, premiered at Holyroodhouse in 1980 and a Lament in memory of Lord Mountbatten following his assassination. Williamson’s fourth symphony was dedicated to the Queen in honour of the Silver Jubilee but was unperformed due to its non-completion, contributing to the composer’s troubled occupancy of the role.
In 1986 The Queen attended a gala concert within the London Symphony Orchestra’s Leonard Bernstein festival, meeting the composer backstage after the event. The programme with Bernstein on the rostrum included the Chichester Psalms with 15-year old Aled Jones as soloist, the Serenade for Violin and Orchestra with Gidon Kremer, and Symphony No.2: The Age of Anxiety with pianist Krystian Zimerman.
Following the death of Malcolm Williamson, Peter Maxwell Davies assumed the role of Master of the Queen’s Music for a fixed 10-year tenure from 2004 to 2014. This was a controversial appointment as the composer had always declared himself a republican. However, he carved a distinctive modern role, emphasising the social importance of classical music and educational access for all. He advised the Queen to create an annual Queen’s medal for music, to which she assented. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph in 2010 he stated: "I have come to realise that there is a lot to be said for the monarchy. It represents continuity, tradition and stability".
A year into the job Maxwell Davies unwittingly threatened a potential breach of royal protocol when police raided his home on the Scottish isle of Sanday in search of a deceased swan. The bird had died near his house after colliding with electrical power lines and the composer, a keen conservationist, followed advice from the RSPB to dispose of the carcass. Adopting a culinary solution he planned to transform the “breast and leg meat to make a terrine. I’ve done it before, and it really is delicious." When the police arrived with a warrant to remove the evidence, Maxwell Davies was bemused by the fuss but felt he should inform Buckingham Palace. Fortunately, he was cautioned but not charged with a felony against a protected species. Though the monarch has ownership of all swans through most of the UK, the law does not apply in the Orkney Isles, where under ancient Norse law swans are the property of the people.
Maxwell Davies was knighted in 1987 and appointed to the Order of Companions of Honour in 2014. His Farewell to Stromness was played in St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh on 12 September as the congregation awaited the arrival of the Queen’s coffin for the Scottish service of thanksgiving.
Harrison Birtwistle composed a fanfare 17 Tate Riffs for the royal opening of Tate Modern in London in 2000, attended by the Queen. Birtwistle was knighted in 1988 and made a Companion of Honour in 2001, receiving his investiture at Buckingham Palace.
The Royal Armouries commissioned Karl Jenkins to compose The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace, premiered at the Royal Albert Hall in 2000, while Over the Stone was written for Prince Charles’s royal harpist Catrin Finch in 2002. Jenkins’s setting of Laurence Binyon’s famous ode For the Fallen was premiered in the presence of the Queen at the Festival of Remembrance in London in 2010. Jenkins received an OBE in 2005, a CBE in 2010 and became the first Welsh composer to be knighted in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2015 for “services to composing and crossing musical genres”.
James MacMillan composed a Fanfare for the historic reopening of the Scottish Parliament by the Queen in 1999 after an interval of 292 years. The State Funeral of Queen Elizabeth II in London on 19 September included the first performance of a specially composed anthem by James MacMillan, Who shall separate us? The Choirs of Westminster Abbey and the Chapel Royal sang the choral work at the end of the service, conducted by James O’Donnell. Two of his works were performed at the Edinburgh service of thanksgiving for the Queen on 12 September: Offertorium for organ and the Strathclyde Motet Mitte manum tuam (Stretch forth your hand), sung by the choir of St Giles’ Cathedral. MacMillan received a CBE in 2004 and was knighted in 2015.
Image: the Queen opens Snape Maltings Concert Hall in 1967, with Benjamin Britten (photo: Peter Dunne)