Jhe Queen’s state funeral was an affair of musical contrasts. Outside in the streets echoed the bagpipes, the ringing bells, the massed orchestras, the solemn stampings and marches of Beethoven, Chopin and Mendelssohn, as huge processions snaked slowly through London. Inside Westminster Abbey, the pomp was tempered by reflections on long life and reign, mingled with British choral music from the 17th century to the present, sung by the Westminster Abbey Choirs and the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace, led by Abbey Music Director James O’Donnell.
As one might expect, the continuity of tradition weighed heavily on the event. The content of the Haunting Phrases, sung during the introduction of the coffin into the Abbey, has remained unchanged for royal and national funerals since the 18th century; their composer was William Croft, then abbey organist, although out of respect for his great predecessor, Henry Purcell, Croft also retained from the latter Thou Knowest, Lord, the Secrets of our Hearts, written for the funeral of Mary II in 1695.
Thereafter hymns, psalms, hymns and organ music are a matter of choice. Hymns included The Lord’s My Shepherd, I’ll Not Want, a favorite of the Queen and sung at her wedding, while Vaughan Williams’ O Taste and See was written for her coronation. One of the hymns, My Soul There Is a Country, featuring poems by Henry Vaughan, is taken from the Farewell Songs by Hubert Parry, one of the king’s favorite composers. The organ music before the service, performed by Peter Holder and Matthew Jorysz, paid homage to former masters of Kings’ or Queen’s music, including Elgar, Malcolm Williamson and Peter Maxwell Davies, while the Fantasy in C Bach’s minor, a bit offbeat from the rest of it all, formed the voluntary recession.
There was also, however, new music: a setting of part of Psalm 42, As the deer desires the streams, by Judith Weir, the king’s current master of music; and James MacMillan’s hymn That Will Sever Us from the Love of Christ. Weir’s psalm is startlingly beautiful, as the slowly changing chords and harmonies suggest the soul’s yearning for God in contemplation of eternity. MacMillan’s composition is in some ways more volatile, his anthem opening with upper vocals soaring above a sustained bass hum, before the music escalates into a sequence of ecstatic hallelujahs and comes to a standstill. on a quiet Amen. Both pieces deserve to be heard beyond their immediate context.
Of course you couldn’t fault anything else. Sacred music often sounds best when sung by choirs performing it in an ecclesiastical setting throughout the liturgical year. The Phrases were touching (hard not to be moved by the Purcell), the hymns wonderfully focused and mastered. Too much of the organ music at the start was either obscured by TV commentary or disappeared completely when the cameras cut out, although Holder’s Bach playing at the end is beautifully imposing and dark.