Queen Elizabeth II reigned for 70 years. Sources inside the BBC report that the rolling television coverage of her life and times is planned to continue just as long. What follows is a monarchical playlist to help those inside and outside the UK make sense of this momentous event through music.
Benjamin Britten: “Gloriana” (1953)
Benjamin Britten composed “Gloriana” for the 1953 coronation celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II. William Plomer’s text was based on Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex: A Tragic History (1928). As the title implies, it tells the story of Elizabeth I’s relationship with the Earl of Essex, and his journey from courtier to traitor.
“Human beings, no doubt,” Strachey writes, “would cease to be human beings unless they were inconsistent; but the inconsistency of the Elizabethans exceeds the limits permitted to man. Their elements fly off from one another wildly; we seize them; we struggle hard to shake them together into a single compound, and the retort bursts.”
In “Gloriana” the Queen is figured ambivalently—she is a sensitive and sympathetic figure, but also prone to vacillation, vanity, as well as self-reproach. In this respect she follows other characters across Britten’s operas as an equivocal authority figure: Captain Vere in “Billy Budd” —who must also decide whether to condemn a man to death—or Spencer Coyle in “Owen Wingrave,” the conflicted instructor to the title character.
That Britten gives all these characters complex reveries with which audiences are invited to empathize suggests that he saw the conflict fundamental in human hearts as an essential virtue in leaders, whatever their failings. The blanket post-mortem adulation of the Monarchy and the individuals who stand for it is the antithesis of this attitude. The English National Opera will be mounting a concert staging of “Gloriana” in December. Will Charles III be there?
Peter Maxwell Davies: “Eight Songs for a Mad King” (1969)
Peter Maxwell Davies covered a vast musical terrain during his career, appearing as both experimentalist outsider (along with Harrison Birtwistle) and, later, establishment insider as Master of the Queen’s Music. His 1969 music-theater piece, “Eight Songs for a Mad King” was written for the Pierrot Players and experimental vocalist Roy Hart (subsequently put on record in an iconic performance from Julius Eastman). The reciter plays King George III, who sings—though that is something of an oversimplification—a text by Randolph Stow. The text depicts the collapse of George III’s selfhood, witnessed by musicians in birdcages: violin, clarinet, flute, cello, keyboards, and percussion.
George III apparently once alighted from a coach to go and talk to a tree, thinking it was Frederick the Great of Prussia. Charles III, a keen environmentalist, has been known to talk to the trees as well—apparently a phenomenon that is more prevalent the posher you are.
Though they live lives of unimaginable Bond-villain style privilege, even the Royal Family and their acolytes can’t be wholly sheltered from the slings and arrows of mental ill-health, as Harry and Meghan made fairly clear in their tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey about the culture of “the firm” and its impact on their (and others’) wellbeing. The roles they are required to play surely entail some degree of psychic distress.
What is remarkable about “Eight Songs for a Mad King” is the fragility of its central figure, and the tenderness with which the piece handles his collapsing sense of self, which seem in part related to the self-annihilating delusions of grandiosity entailed in the monarchist imagination. There are many spotlight moments: the eked out falsetto when the King riffs on “Comfort ye, my people,” from Handel’s “Messiah,” before a manic jazz band breakdown; the heartbreaking sequence, exquisitely typeset in the score, where he tries to talk to the birds (in the form of solo flute).
Most remarkable is the conclusion of the piece, with its grotesque, ritualistic pageantry. By the end, the King’s consciousness itself has checked out. The reciter solemnly intones, turning to the third person: “The king is dead… He will die howling.” He is led out by the bass drum, shrieking that line over and over, yet more wildly, as he leaves the auditorium.
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Judith Weir: “King Harald’s Saga” (1979)
The current Master (sic?) of the Queen’s (sic?) Music is composer Judith Weir, born to a Scottish family in England. In the role, Weir has tended not to compose pieces marking specific royal occasions; though this past June saw a new anthem for the Platinum Jubilee. Presumably she will be hard at work on something for Charles III’s coronation when it comes around.
Judith Weir’s 1979 opera “King Harald’s Saga” (after the life of Haraldr Sigurðarson, a.k.a Harald Hardrada) is among the shortest and sparest in the repertory: solo soprano, no instrumentalists, a length of no more than ten minutes.
It tells the story, after the verse saga by Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson, of Harald’s ill-advised attempts to land in England and seize the throne, where he eventually met defeat at The Battle of Stamford Bridge. The soloist ventriloquizes Harald’s two wives, his sages, a chorus of soldiers, and Harald himself; Weir wittily subtitles it a “Grand opera in three acts.” The size of its themes and the importance of its characters are inversely proportional to its length and forces.
Henry Purcell/Wendy Carlos: “Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary” Z.860 (1695/1971)
Purcell rather specialized in music for regnal demise, not least in the famous chaconne that concludes his opera “Dido and Aeneas,” “When I am laid in earth.” Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral is scheduled for September 19, and there can be no doubt that considerable thought will have gone into its choreography and music. She will be the first monarch buried in Westminster Abbey since 1760.
The Queen’s funeral procession will pass through Parliament Square from Westminster to the Abbey. When Mary II was buried there in 169,5 her “Chariot”—a specially-built hearse—was ushered into the great vaulting spaces of the church by the four trumpets, drums, and subsequently voices of Purcell’s “Sentences and Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary,” setting words from the Book of Common Prayer.
But never mind trendy period reconstructions of Purcell’s music—the queen needs a modern, contemporary sound for this epic ritual on internment: the futurist melancholy of Wendy Carlos’ electronic version for the opening titles of Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.”
Justinian Tamusuza: “On the Way of the Cross” (1992)
Maya Jasanoff’s article in the New York Times that came out the day of the late Queen’s demise —“Mourn the Queen, Not Her Empire”—ruffled the fulsome plumage of much of the online British commentariat. Jasanoff had committed the ultimate transgression, which was to mention the history of the British Empire and imply that the monarchy, as its ultimate legitimating symbol, might be held minimally culpable for its actions. Not cricket!
Queen Elizabeth II’s reign oversaw the end of the British Empire’s direct control over its territories. This was not, to put it mildly, always handled with the greatest skill or beneficence. One could turn to the internment camps, tortures, and executions of members of the Mau-Mau uprising in Kenya (among others), or the systematic attempt by Mi5 and Special Branch to destroy compromising files and records of colonial crimes.
Ugandan-born composer Justinian Tamusuza’s work conjoins ethnomusicology with contemporary compositional practice, and his music draws heterogeneously on Béla Bartók, Steve Reich, John Adams, as well as the multi-ethnic musical and cultural tapestry represented in Uganda, which gained its formal independence in 1962.
His first string quartet, “On the Way of the Cross,” was recorded by the Kronos Quartet on their “Pieces of Africa” record. The piece is a direct response to the scramble for Africa among the competing colonial powers of 19th-century Europe. More particularly it commemorates the Uganda Martyrs: 45 Catholic and Anglican converts executed by King Mwanga II, who had grown increasingly disturbed at European incursions into and influence over the region.
The episode was a critical catalyst for increasing German and British influence; Tamusuza’s piece is a complex and challenging requiem for the manifold violences of imperialism. Though it makes use of a traditionally European form in the shape of the string quartet, its rhythms and melodic ideas are drawn from traditional Bugandan music. In this respect it is what Edward Said would see as a “contrapuntal” articulation of postcolonial experience, finding both consonance and dissonance in intertwined cultures and histories.
Jonathan Harvey: “Remember Thou, O Lord” (2003)
The whole point of constitutional monarchy—so I’m told—is to sit dispassionately above the cut-and-thrust of everyday political business, anchoring the state through its unimpeachable continuity and impartiality. Elizabeth II was well-known for her inscrutability, seldom letting on what she thought about leaving the European Union or widespread food poverty. (The Royal Family, of course, has always had plenty of scope to intercede in the business of politics.)
She was more easily drawn when it came to her views on music. Favorites included “Oklahoma!,” Fred Astaire, the songs of Dame Vera Lynn, and head-voice/ukulele virtuoso George Formby.
Goodness knows, then, what she made of Jonathan Harvey’s “Remember, O Lord,” composed for the Choir of Westminster Abbey to mark the 50th anniversary of her coronation in 2003. Harvey’s music is best known for its fusion of IRCAM-inspired electronic soundscapes with visionary, transcendental themes and orchestration; as a former chorister he was also a skilled writer for voices. “Remember, O Lord” is towards the more approachable of his output, though is considerably more acidic than what usually rings out from the choir stalls of the Abbey.
There is video recording of the performance, though she remains as enigmatic as always beneath a characteristic wide-brimmed hat, carefully scrutinizing order of service as the choristers duck and weave through Harvey’s gnarly homophony.
Charles Ives: “Variations on ‘America’” (1891/orch. 1962)
The day after Queen Elizabeth II died, I attended a performance of Richard Strauss’ “Salome” at London’s Royal Opera House. (Now there’s a dysfunctional bunch of aristocrats.) Before the curtain went up and after a solemn minute’s silence the orchestra played the national anthem.
“God Save the Queen/King” has a bovine trudge that renders it surely one of the least-inspiring national anthems. (Many have suggested Hubert Parry’s setting of William Blake’s “Jerusalem” as a rather more energizing, even subversively utopian, alternative.) It certainly doesn’t have the martial flair of “La Marseillaise,” with its heroic melodic leaps. Nor would it sound cool sung on a submarine.
The very lack of musical ability or imagination required to successfully sing it—certainly compared to “The Star Spangled Banner”—is symbolic of the atmosphere of supine complacency that has never seen the UK successfully overthrow its monarchy with Jacobin gusto. (Yet.) The opening of Benjamin Britten’s arrangement at least finds some haunted melancholy quality in it.
The accession of Charles III to the throne means that the national anthem is changing its pronouns. Charles Ives introduced his own considerable and anarchic innovations to the tune in his “Variations on ‘America,’” originally for organ and later orchestrated by William Schuman. “America (My Country, ‘Tis of Thee)” was the official U.S. anthem until the adoption of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 1931, and uses the same tune as “God Save the King” (still feels weird writing that). It’s a delightfully ambivalent expression of the intertwined histories (or “special relationship”) of the U.S. and the UK, especially in relation to the latter’s monarchy.
Mohammed Fairouz: “Tahrir” (2012)
The Suez Crisis, or Tripartite Aggression, came four years into the reign of Elizabeth II. The failure of Western powers to reestablish their control of the region dealt a powerful blow to the imperialist imaginary in the post-war period; in Britain it brought down a prime minister. It was an important signal that Britain’s role in the world had shifted, and that it could no longer call the shots as it might hope. It has arguably never recovered from the wound inflicted by the loss of its empires and the political and social changes entailed in it. Leaving Egypt also meant an exit from the world stage; Elizabeth II is a cipher for this period in British history.
The crisis has also reverberated through the twists and turns of Egyptian politics ever since, not least in the Western-backed regimes that came to power after Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose legitimacy was sundered by the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring in 2010-2011. The Emirati-American composer Mohammed Fairouz composed a clarinet concerto after the events that took place in Cairo’s Tahrir square for clarinetist David Krakauer, known for his work in avant-garde improvisation, jazz, and Klezmer. Fairouz’s concerto fuses this tradition with Arabic maqam, the series of melodic modes and tunings, including microtones, that is the foundation of that improvisatory tradition.
G.F. Handel/@abby-carterarchiehench: “Coronation Anthem: Zadok the Motherfucking Priest (Club Edit)” (1722/2019)
Last week Vice reported that drug dealers in the UK are offering discounts on their products as a mark of respect for the late Queen. Get sorted for gear before the Coronation Anthem drops: Handel wouldn’t want you to waste a public holiday.
God Save the King.
Bonus Track: David Bryan and Joe DiPietro: “This is how your people dance” from “Diana: The Musical” (2019)
A significant recent artistic intervention that provides critical insights into the life of the now-King of England Charles III, seen through the experiences of the People’s Princess, Lady Diana Spencer.
“Feel the groove / even Royals need to move.” ¶
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