03 May 2023
To mark the Coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla we are highlighting some of the finest examples in our collections of manuscript and printed music associated with coronations in Britain.
Music in Coronation Ceremonies
Music has formed an important part in coronation ceremonies throughout English, and later British, history. The musical selection for each coronation has varied through the centuries, with newly commissioned works and coronation anthems by prominent composers featuring alongside many other sacred and secular pieces. Not only does the music contribute to the grandeur and splendour of the ceremony as a whole, it also plays an important liturgical role in the religious service at the heart of the ceremony, with certain pieces traditionally being performed in specific parts of it.
Handel’s Coronation Anthems
Arguably the most well-known piece associated with the coronation ceremony is George Frideric Handel’s ‘Zadok the Priest’. One of a series of four anthems Handel composed for the coronation of King George II and Queen Caroline in 1727, it has been performed at every coronation since then. Handel’s autograph manuscripts of all four anthems are held in the Royal Music Library at the British Library.
‘Zadok the Priest’ is scored for SATB chorus and an orchestra consisting of strings, oboes, bassoons, trumpets, timpani and basso continuo. The words are drawn from the first Book of Kings (1 Kings 1:38-40), a text that describes the anointing of Solomon as King by the Priests Zadok and Nathan, an act mirrored in the anointing of the new monarch at the solemn heart of the coronation service itself. Handel’s anthem is fittingly performed at this moment in the proceedings.
Reproduced below is a page from Handel’s manuscript showing the opening section of the anthem with the words ‘God Save the King’. The manuscript in full can be viewed on our Digitised Manuscripts website.
You can also follow the opening pages of the manuscript together with the music below:
G.F. Handel: 'Zadok the Priest', HWV 258. Music licensed courtesy of Naxos Music. Catalogue no. 8.578072.
At King George II and Queen Caroline’s ceremony, Handel’s other coronation anthems were sung during the Recognition part of the service (‘The King shall rejoice’), the Inthronisation (‘Let thy hand be strengthened’) and the coronation of the Queen (‘My heart is inditing’). ‘My heart is inditing’ was also set to music by other composers for the crowning of a Queen Consort, such as Henry Purcell (1659-1695) who composed this anthem for the coronation of Queen Mary of Modena in 1685 and William Boyce (1711-1779) who composed the anthem for the coronation of Queen Charlotte in 1761.
Although it was not written for use in coronation ceremonies, Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ from Messiah also featured in several coronations, from that of George IV (1821) onwards.
Elgar’s Coronation music
Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) composed a number of works for the coronations of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra in 1902, and King George V and Queen Mary in 1911, although not all of them were actually performed during the coronation ceremonies. These included the Coronation Ode op. 44 composed in 1902, the Coronation March op. 65 and the anthem ‘O hearken thou’ composed in 1911. His Military Marches op. 39 (‘Pomp and Circumstance’) were also performed at the coronations of George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1937 (no.1), and Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 (nos. 1, 2 and 4), where also the Variation no.9 (‘Nimrod’) from his famous ‘Enigma’ variations op. 36, was heard before the coronation service. Shown below is the title and opening page from the autograph manuscript of Elgar’s anthem ‘O hearken thou’, in a version for voices and organ accompaniment:
The coronation of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra also included a new setting for the coronation anthem ‘I was glad’ by Sir Hubert Parry (1848-1918). An anthem based on these words is traditionally sung during the monarch’s entrance into Westminster Abbey, and has been set to music by a number of composers, including William Boyce (1711-1779) and Thomas Attwood (1765-1838). Parry’s setting has been used in every coronation since its performance at the coronation of King Edward VII (1902).
Vaughan Williams’s coronation music
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) composed his Festival Te Deum for chorus, organ and orchestra for the coronation of King George VI on 12 May 1937. It was based on traditional themes and was performed during the procession from the throne into St. Edward’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey. Shown below is the opening page of the full score in Vaughan Williams’s hand.
Vaughan Williams’s music also featured prominently in the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on 2 June 1953. The service included the ‘Creed’ and ‘Sanctus’ from his Mass in G minor (Add MS 50443-50444) originally composed in 1920-1921, and he also composed the congregational hymn ‘All people that on earth do dwell’, and the anthem for voices only ‘O taste and see’.
Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation also included William Walton’s (1902-1983) Te Deum Laudamus, for double chorus, semi-chorus, organ and orchestra, which was especially composed for her coronation. It was performed in the same position in the proceedings that Vaughan Williams’s Festival Te Deum was performed for the coronation of King George VI, during the procession into St. Edward’s Chapel. Below are reproduced the title and opening page from Walton’s autograph manuscript:
Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation additionally included the anthem 'I will not leave you comfortless’ ('Nos vos relinquam orphanos') for solo voices by William Byrd (ca. 1540-1623), whose 400th anniversary is celebrated this year. Below is a page from the soprano (cantus) part of this piece in the original Latin version ‘Non vos relinquam orphanos’:
‘God Save the King’
We also hold in our collection what is believed to be the earliest surviving manuscript of the words and music of what has since become Britain’s national anthem. Although the words and tune are anonymous, the anthem has been arranged and harmonised by numerous composers since it first became known in the mid-18th century. The arrangement shown below is in the hand of the composer Thomas Arne (1710-1778) and was sung at Drury Lane Theatre in London in 1745. The words are slightly different from the established version and include mention of the king at the time, George II. Historically, it was not uncommon for the national anthem to mention the name of the King or Queen.
Dr Loukia Drosopoulou, Curator, Music
Matthias Range, Music and Ceremonial at British Coronations: from James I to Elizabeth II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
Anselm Hughes, ‘Music of the Coronation over a Thousand Years, Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association, 79th Session, May 1953, pp. 81-100.
Janet Leeper, ‘Coronation Music’, The Contemporary Review, volume 151, January 1937, pp. 554-562.