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 after-the-event 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.
PS How right Sebb is to point out my failure to mention the lovely Bach chorale prelude on Schmücke dich which began the thoughtfully chosen sequence of organ pieces preceding the service, and the magisterial C minor Prelude and Fugue – still embedded in my muscle memory from my organ-playing days – which followed after the service. Unfortunately they didn’t form part of the service as broadcast (the prelude was faded out as the mourners left the chapel) so readers of the blog can’t revisit them online, and a liturgiologist would tell you, rightly or wrongly, that organ voluntaries aren’t part of a worship service as such, though I made it the custom in my Cambridge college when I was director of music to ask the congregation to remain in their places until the concluding voluntary was finished. BBC Radio 3 always broadcasts concluding voluntaries in full after choral evensongs, television channels do not. But please, sir, of course I was serious in writing what I did. And, for the record, I believe Bach to be the greatest of composers.
The lone piper, whose contribution was atmospheric and poignant, deserved mention too. My ear just wishes that bagpipes were tuned to A 440 rather than between the cracks of modern pitches! I suppose it places them in a world of their own, which is rather lovely.