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An English Coronation 1902-1953

Gabrieli Consort, Gabrieli Players, Paul McCreesh (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Various recording venues
Produced by Nicholas Parker
Engineered by Neil Hutchinson
Release date: May 2019
Total duration: 159 minutes 16 seconds

Among the more crazily ambitious recording projects of recent times—and one which clearly touched the hearts of its many hundreds of performers.


‘One can imagine the virtuosity required by every contributor, at every turn, to make this a reality, let alone a dazzling triumph. The documentation is comprehensive and satisfying’ (Gramophone)

‘A project delivered with McCreesh's customary attention to detail, ranging from sourcing appropriate timpani to calculated spatial effects such as the Regalia Procession heard moving through the distant cloister. It's a labour of love and sounds it … vivant the Gabrielis—not forgetting the massed 250 young singers of their outreach 'Gabrieli Roar' (BBC Music Magazine)

‘The performances are excellent, the recording spectacularly good and I found the experience utterly convincing. It's a remarkable achievement’ (BBC Record Review)

‘You’ll find 21 trumpets here, variously blasting through fanfares and other regal finery in heart-lifting music by Elgar, Parry, Vaughan Williams, Walton and company, vigorously dispatched by performers who at their peak number almost a thousand. Set down mostly in the atmospheric acoustic of Ely Cathedral, with period instruments involved, this is an astonishing recording.’ (The Times)

‘This is a truly exciting release. In using that word I’m not just referring to the big, set-piece musical items. The smaller-scale pieces are just as thrilling to hear, but in a different fashion. But what makes this album particularly exciting is, firstly, the sense of history and tradition that is so vividly conveyed and, secondly, the fact that so many young musicians—clearly very talented—have been involved’ (MusicWeb International)

‘Paul McCreesh and Gabrieli bring the history, ceremony and liturgy of these extraordinary events to life … the result is a joyful celebration of five centuries of choral music, performed with the same vast forces as were heard at the coronation services. Alongside an orchestra of rare early-twentieth century instruments, an extended Gabrieli Consort is amplified by the energetic sound and fresh faces of several hundred young singers from Gabrieli’s choral training programme Gabrieli Roar’ (Presto Classical)
There can be few ceremonies as spectacular as an English coronation. Over the centuries a rich liturgy and ceremonial rite have been adorned with an impressive musical repertoire. The four twentieth-century coronations (Edward VII in 1902, George V in 1911, George VI in 1937 and Elizabeth II in 1953) were lavish occasions. Both Roy Strong (Coronation, HarperCollins Publishers 2005) and Matthias Range (Music and Ceremonial at British Coronations, Cambridge University Press 2012) characterize these ceremonies as ‘the marriage of tradition and innovation’. Musically this is reflected in numerous commissioned pieces, alongside a desire to celebrate the glories of British music of the past.

Westminster Abbey was closed for several months whilst carpenters erected huge galleries to accommodate the nearly 8,000 invited guests, as well as a large, raised podium under the crossing, known as the ‘Theatre’. Music and ceremony were slavishly rehearsed over many days. Large choirs of around 400 voices (including almost 200 choirboys) were assembled from all over the country, along with a few representatives of the foreign ‘Dominions’, and placed in special galleries around the choir stalls, led by three sub-conductors. Orchestras comprising the finest musicians in the land occupied the organ gallery above the screen, while massed military trumpets punctuated the ceremony with fanfares, and occasionally joined the concerted music. All four coronations are particularly well documented. Novello published vocal scores of all the music and every musician was listed in The Musical Times. Additionally, the BBC recorded the 1937 coronation for radio and that of 1953 for television.

This recording is a selection of the very best music from all these ceremonies, assembled into a fine liturgical structure. For the ‘new’ music of the first half of the twentieth century, the aim has been to assimilate period style, including the use of instruments of the time, but it has not been felt appropriate to try to recreate mid-twentieth-century performance style for earlier music. Likewise, Gordon Jacob’s arrangements of Parry and Handel, deemed suitable in 1937 and 1953, have been abandoned in favour of Parry’s original orchestration and, for Handel, a more generic twenty-first-century ‘baroque’ style, including natural trumpets, albeit with a rather impressive romantic organ at the heart of the ensemble. The various renaissance and baroque anthems and motets included are not necessarily performed at the pitches nor in the voice configurations heard in the coronations; nor is any attempt made to emulate the clipped ecclesiastical spoken style of the period, so memorably preserved on recordings of 1937 and 1953.

The reconstruction largely follows the 1937 Order of Service. It has been necessary to omit some short sections of the three-and-a-half-hour service—all parts without music—and it has been assumed that a King is to be crowned, although the monarch is not addressed directly by name in the many prayers and acclamations. In the Parry anthem I was glad this has necessitated minor adjustments to the text of the ‘Vivats’. The National Anthem, performed here in a new version, is of course addressed to our current Queen.

The music started well before the arrival of the King and Queen, which marked the beginning of the coronation service proper. The assembling dignitaries were entertained with at least an hour of marches and interludes; in the earlier coronations foreign royalty were sometimes welcomed with music of their own countrymen (Gounod, Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns and Wagner, amongst others), but the emphasis always remained on British orchestral and organ music. The recording starts with Elgar’s Coronation March of 1911; arguably his finest march, it is a very long way from the expected world of ‘Pomp and Circumstance’. The piece is almost a symphonic movement, and the opening theme is in triple time! Elgar’s biographer, Michael Kennedy, describes it as 'the greatest of Elgar’s "laureate" works … a march written for an abbey, not the streets of London, sombre and stately, and suggesting in some of its sections heroic tragedy. The orchestration is brilliant, but the undertones are often melancholy … as if the dead King was being remembered while the new one was crowned.'

The King’s Herald by Howells follows, written for the 1937 coronation. It is a brilliant orchestral showpiece reworking the first movement of his suite for brass band, Pageantry. Although Howells is best known today for his liturgical music, in the 1930s he was much acclaimed as a composer of orchestral works.

The Regalia Procession, which has left the Jerusalem Chamber, is heard at a distance as it moves around the cloister. The choirs of Westminster Abbey and the Chapel Royal sing the hymn Rejoice today with one accord to the melody of Luther’s famous chorale Ein feste Burg, in J S Bach’s harmony, accompanied by trumpets and trombones. The procession enters the church via the south transept and a small group of singers assembles on the steps of the Henry VII Chapel for the singing of the Litany. Originally placed after the Recognition, the Litany was moved to a position before the arrival of the monarchs in 1902, when the King’s illness required a curtailment in the length of the service. The setting is by Thomas Tallis, performed at all four twentieth-century coronations. The version recorded is from 1902, after the edition in William Boyce’s Cathedral Music of 1760, scored for male voices, with the omission of some verses. It is preceded by a short motet of invocation by Charles Wood, O most merciful, the first vocal music sung entirely within the Abbey. After the Litany, the clergy and choirs process towards the West door, singing Isaac Watts’s famous hymn O God, our help in ages past to William Croft’s tune St Anne. Frederick Bridge, who devised the musical programme for 1902 and 1911, describes the scene:

'Then, supported by two trumpets and three trombones, the procession was resumed … at the last verse, as the singers, comprising the Abbey and Chapel Royal choirs, neared the great West Door, the hymn was taken up by the coronation choir and the vast congregation, producing an unrehearsed climax of overwhelming majesty which will never be forgotten by those present.'

Parry’s fine setting of the Te Deum for the 1911 coronation quotes this hymn tune, as does David Matthews in his Recessional at the end of this recording. As is customary, the organists were expected to provide musical ‘cover’ as the congregations assembled and during the short movements between sections of the rite. Whilst much of this was improvised on the spur of the moment, Parry’s magnificent Chorale Fantasia on O God, our help in ages past is played here, followed by Elgar’s much loved Pomp and Circumstance March No 1 as the more senior members of the royal family arrive in the Abbey.

The entrance of the King and Queen is heralded by the first of seven fanfares composed by Ernest Bullock for the 1953 coronation, based on two thematic fragments from Parry’s anthem I was glad. The Crowning fanfare is based on the tune of the well-known music hall song Where did you get that hat? and must have raised a smile amongst the musicians. The last fanfare, at the end of the Homage, includes additional orchestral brass and organ, and incorporates the Scottish hymn tune Montrose.

Parry’s I was glad is surely the finest and most loved ceremonial anthem in the British repertoire, and was first heard in 1902. Its genius is in the perfect synthesis of the musical and the theatrical, especially in its original form. A cursory look at the vocal score for 1902, and an early printer’s copy, makes the plan clear: the opening pages are marked ‘Abbey choir’, who sing in procession from the West door and are answered antiphonally by the ‘General choir’, joining together only at the phrase ‘that is at unity with itself ’. Parry then incorporates the traditional ‘Vivat’ shouts given to the scholars of Westminster School, as the King and Queen enter the Theatre. The famous opening bars, with thrilling trumpet and horn motif, date from the 1911 revisions. The version recorded here incorporates this later opening and some minor changes in orchestration from 1911, but otherwise follows the form of 1902, including a second fanfare in the ‘Vivats’. Parts for additional trumpets in the final bars, presumably fanfare trumpets, are pencilled into the 1911 autograph score and are included here. The first performance suffered an unfortunate mishap when the cue was given before the arrival of the monarch, necessitating a long organ improvisation and a restart—mercifully before the days of radio and television!

Then follow the Recognition and Acclamations, the Oath (the only time the monarch is heard to speak), and the Presentation of the Holy Bible. The first part of the Communion Service begins with Elgar’s second contribution to the 1911 coronation, the most exquisite miniature O hearken Thou. The ‘traditional’ version has a second verse of text, very clumsily set, but it seems this was never officially sanctioned by the composer and is omitted here, following the original score. Although this work was heard at the Offertory in 1911, it is performed here as the Introit where, in 1902, Sullivan’s setting of the same text had been used. Another perfect miniature, Purcell’s Hear my prayer is sung as a Gradual motet; it was in fact a Homage anthem in 1937. The Creed is given in Vaughan Williams’ expansive setting from the Mass in G minor, reworked into English by Maurice Jacobson in 1953.

At the solemn Anointing the Archbishop intones the ancient hymn, Veni Creator Spiritus, sung in accompanied plainsong, arranged for choirs and orchestra by Ernest Bullock in 1937. It is followed by Handel’s most famous coronation anthem, Zadok the Priest, written for George ii in 1727 and performed at every coronation since. At the Crowning the monarch is greeted by bells, repeated acclamations, a fanfare and Walter Parratt’s short Confortare (1902 and 1911), for voices and brass.

As the Lords Spiritual and Temporal pay their homage, anthems are sung. For the 1902 and 1911 coronations Frederick Bridge wrote two extended Homage anthems, but for 1937 and 1953, as here, a group of anthems was performed instead. Rejoice in the Lord alway (1953) was long attributed to Redford, although it is in fact anonymous. Byrd’s I will not leave you comfortless (1953) is a reworking in English of the Latin motet Non vos relinquam orphanos from the Gradualia of 1607. The first part of Gibbons’s O clap your hands was heard at two coronations (1937 and 1953); here both parts are sung, and at the original (lower) pitch. Finally Samuel Sebastian Wesley’s much-loved anthem Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace follows, with the original organ accompaniment as heard in 1953, rather than the orchestral arrangement given in 1937.

The Communion Service resumes with the Offertory, during which Vaughan Williams’s well-known setting of the ‘Old Hundredth’ Psalm All people that on earth do dwell (1953) is sung. Commissioned to allow for congregational participation, it incorporates an earlier version by John Dowland; with its stirring fanfares for ‘all available trumpets’, it has been heard at many a royal occasion since. The Sanctus is again by Vaughan Williams, in the ‘Englished’ version of the Mass in G minor (1953), who also supplies a beautiful Communion motet, O taste and see (1953). As befitting such an intimate moment—the Communion was not broadcast in 1937 or 1953—the motet is as delicate as the ‘Old Hundredth’ is flamboyant. The Lord’s Prayer is intoned in the old Reformation plainsong of Merbecke, and the Gloria is sung in Stanford’s ‘Coronation’ setting in B flat, (1911, 1937 and 1953). This is a particularly fine work in ceremonial style, with vigorous outer sections and a more delicate, Brahmsian middle section for smaller forces and a solo soprano. The blessing follows, with a ‘threefold’ Amen by Gibbons taken from the anthem Great King of Gods and used at all four twentieth-century coronations.

The Te Deum was originally placed at the centre of the ritual, after the Crowning, but was moved to the end of the service in 1911, where it became the musical climax of the ceremony. There are four fine settings from which to choose: Stanford (1902), Parry (1911), Vaughan Williams (1937) and Walton (1953), but it is the last which stands out for sheer brilliance and theatrical elan. Walton seems to have enjoyed the commission, writing thus: 'I’ve got cracking on the Te Deum … lots of countertenors and little boys Holy-holying, not to mention all the Queen’s Trumpeters and Side drummers. There is an important and indispensable organ part. I think it’s all going to be rather splendid!'

The work was greeted by The Times critic Frank Howes as ‘shatteringly apt’. With its massed choirs, several semi-choruses, and brilliant orchestration, Walton’s setting is as much a classic of ceremonial music as Parry’s anthem written at the start of the century.

The King and Queen withdraw to St Edward’s Chapel where the King is re-robed and invested with Crown, Orb and Sceptre, during which the organ would improvise, often on well-known British hymn tunes. On the reappearance of the King the National Anthem is sung, marking the start of the final Recess. For this recording, in place of the organ improvisation, David Matthews was commissioned to write a reflective orchestral piece to lead into a new arrangement of the National Anthem. The organ begins the work, after which many themes are presented: the final trumpet call from the end of Walton’s Coronation Te Deum, the opening of Parry’s I was glad, and the hymn tunes St Anne and ‘Old Hundredth’, all heard earlier in the service. The organ contributes several fortissimo interjections, and there are also parts for six of the fanfare trumpeters, initially heard at a distance. The anthem itself starts with a solemn introduction on orchestral brass, and the first verse is given to a chamber choir with strings. The second verse is a glorious paean, as full orchestra, organ, bells, choir, descant sopranos and two groups of massed fanfare trumpets combine with the congregation—on this recording, almost 1,000 performers—in a spectacular explosion of sound!

The congregation then leaves to one of the most loved of British marches, Walton’s Crown Imperial, first performed in 1937 and included again in 1953.

Paul McCreesh © 2018

The early twentieth century was a time of rapid and varied evolution of timpani, as the new requirement for swift tuning changes led to the development of various mechanical tuning systems. One of these was the ‘chain timpani’, developed in the USA; the four timpani on this recording are modern replicas by Lefima (Germany) with goat skins, but with a smoother and quieter rubber belt replacing the sometimes noisy and unreliable chain system.

The side drums and tenor drums heard in the orchestra and fanfare ensemble are from the early- and mid-twentieth century, a mixture of brass and wood shells, all with calf skins and gut snares. The bass drum of c1920 is a typical British military band wooden, rope-tension drum, of 30" diameter with calf skins. The tambourines and sleigh bells, of unknown provenance, are of around the same date.

The metallic percussion instruments—triangles, cymbals and gongs—are generally modern copies of older style instruments, as metal originals tend to deteriorate over time. The crotales and large tubular bells used in David Matthews’s new work are modern instruments, though the fine glockenspiel by Deagan of Chicago dates from 1910.

The stringed instruments on this recording are strung and set up in a style appropriate to the first half of the twentieth century. Typically, orchestral stringed instruments would use gut upper strings, and wound gut on lower strings; steel upper strings only became more widely used in the second half of the century.

The splendid organ of Ely Cathedral was built by Harrison & Harrison in 1908, incorporating some pipework from earlier 1851 and 1867 instruments by Hill and Son. Although it was further modified in 1975 and 2000, many aspects still resonate with the grand organ at Westminster Abbey—likewise a Harrison & Harrison rebuild of an earlier Hill instrument. The Ely organ provides much the same tonal colour, dignity and drama as that at Westminster Abbey.

Fanfare Trumpets
The fanfare trumpets are based on Lt Col Hector Adkins’s design developed for the 1937 coronation and in use until the very end of the century. The instruments are elongated trumpets and valved trombones in which much of the valve tubing is placed at the back of the instrument, so that each is the same length, giving perfect symmetry and allowing for the visual splendour of banners.

Recording 'An English Coronation'
In order to recreate the atmosphere of a vast and elaborate ceremony in a building filled with several thousand people, this recording has been deliberately edited to preserve a high level of ambient noise within the mix. A few moments have been left unedited for a truly ‘honest’ and characterful sound, and indeed some tracks were in any case recorded live.

The listener might imagine being an important royal guest, seated towards the front of the Choir area, very near to the ‘Theatre’ by the central crossing of Westminster Abbey. The Regalia Procession will therefore be heard from the distance, in the cloister, and the smaller choir will be heard in constantly changing perspective during the second hymn, as it moves through the larger choir to the West end, returning in procession down the Nave during the opening section of Parry’s I was glad. The Litany, likewise, sounds slightly distant, whilst the large choral and orchestral pieces, and the massed fanfare trumpets and drums, are relatively near. The prayers and readings are assumed to have been amplified, as they were in 1937 and 1953, and the standing, sitting and kneeling of the congregation are heard during the acclamations and elsewhere.

A coronation ceremony is nothing if not a spectacular quasi-theatrical event: this recording aims to present this glorious music and liturgy in a rich and colourful sonic perspective.

Paul McCreesh © 2018

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