During her 70-year long reign, Queen Elizabeth II garnered many contributions from some of the finest classical composers of our time.
Traditionally, the British monarchy has employed a composer known as the Master of the Queen’s (or King’s) Music since 1626, a position equal to that of poet laureate. However, many other composers have also written for the monarch over the years.
Accession and beginning of reign
Although the Queen ruled over large swathes of the Commonwealth, her early years were marked by the musical contributions of British composers.
Orb and Scepter by William Walton, composed in the style of the Coronation Marches, was commissioned for Queen Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne in 1952. Walton did not serve as Queen/King’s Master of Music, but was the essential composer of these marches. , who also composed Imperial Crown for the coronation of the Queen’s father, George VI.
Although both are meant to be formulaic, using the pattern set by Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance marches, there is something regal about Orb and Scepter.
Other British composers also contributed to the reign of the new monarch, the most significant being a collection called A garland for the queen. The collection was inspired by a 1601 publication of madrigals called The Triumphs of Orianawhich celebrates the reign of Elizabeth I. A notable song from this book is Dance, Clarion Air by Michael Tippett.
Since her accession in 1952, Queen Elizabeth II has appointed four composers as Queen’s Music Masters. They are Sir Arthur Bliss, Malcolm Williamson, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and Judith Weir. Their main task is to compose music for important occasions, from births, deaths and weddings to special anniversaries, including jubilees. Until 2004, this position was for life.
The Australian Master of Queen’s Music
At the time of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, Australian composer Malcolm Williamson was the Queen’s Music Master. He was the first and only non-British composer to hold this post. Unfortunately, Williamson missed his deadline to write an orchestral symphony for the Silver Jubilee. Therefore, he was never executed.
However, there was a lot of music that marked the Silver Jubilee occasion. Williamson composed a Jubilee Hymnwith lyrics by Poet Laureate John Betjeman.
Williamson’s Mass for the Feast of Christ the King was also composed the same year.
Shortly before his death, composer Benjamin Britten, who declined the job offer, dedicated his Ode of welcome to the Queen, which reads: “Written on the occasion of Her Majesty The Queen’s Silver Jubilee visit to Ipswich, United Kingdom, on 11 July 1977”.
Until his death in 2003, Williamson continued to write music for royal occasions which were largely performed for private audiences.
From 2004, the position of Master of Queen’s Music became a ten-year term and was held by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and Judith Weir, the first woman to hold the position.
Although they have an important role to play, in recent years the focus of musical contributions has become less centered on the Masters of Queen’s Music.
Maxwell Davies dedicated his Symphony No. 9 to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012. It premiered on June 9, 2012. He also oversaw the publication of the Choirbook for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, a collection of 44 contemporary choral hymns. The contribution of Maxwell Davies, Advent calendarwas based on a poem by Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury.
Maxwell Davies stepped down from office in 2014 and died in 2016.
The current Master of Queen’s Music, Judith Weier, states that “his priorities in this role are the support of music teachers in schools, amateur orchestras and choirs and rural festivals”. Her contribution to royal and important occasions includes the Queen’s 90th birthday celebrations and the commemoration of the 1918 armistice.
Weir actively prepared for the platinum jubilee. She has participated in projects such as The Commonwealth resoundswhere she was a member of the composition competition jury.
Weir said, “Listening to the shortlist was a surprisingly enjoyable experience, and the eventual winner with lyrics by Lucy Kiely (Australia) and music by Vincent Atueyi Chinemelu (Nigeria) is a lovely song.” A song for the Commonwealth accompanied the festive lighting of the beacons on June 2.
The Dionysus Ensemble is the Commonwealth Resound representation in Australia. The whole contributed New Every Morning – Natural Wonders of the Commonwealthcelebrating the beauty and richness of the environments around the Commonwealth.
Music will feature prominently in Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations this weekend, including live concerts outside Buckingham Palace.