Note: this post may fill up with more footage as time goes by 🙂
Ofcourse, all eyes are on London these past few days as Queen Elizabeth II celebrates her 60 years on the throne. As a choir fan, I was especially looking forward to today, when the Queen celebrated a service of thanksgiving at St. Paul’s Cathedral with lots of great music. I’ll just run through the Order of Service to give my thoughts on the performances.
Taking part were ofcourse the Choir of St. Paul’s Cathedral along with the Choir of Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal, directed by Andrew Carwood. They were joined by the Diamond Choir, a mixed choir of choristers aged 10 to 13 selected from cathedrals across the United Kingdom to sing The Call of Wisdom, an anthem by Will Todd, specially commissioned for the occasion. The singers were accompanied by the magnificent organ of St. Paul’s, played by Simon Johnson, as well as the Wren Brass Ensemble for the hymns Old 100th (All people that on Earth do dwell) and Cwm Rhondda (Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer).
As the Queen moved into the cathedral in procession, the choirs sang the magnificent Te Deum in G by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Grand and majestic in the opening section, full of subdued awe and wonder in the closing part. A fitting way to mark the trasition from the boisterous crowds on the streets to the more reverent and calm atmosphere inside.
The Old 100th is one of Britain’s most famous hymns and festively adorned with trumpets in the last verse.
The setting by Alan Gray of the last seven verses of Psalm 96 made for some thin, floating organ sounds and a strong contrast between the trebles and male voices. As a fan of Anglican psalm chant, I thought this piece was over way too quickly 😉
I also want to mention the sermon by Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, as I thought it was such a nice message for the young people and the choristers. Dr. Williams expressed his hope that this extended Bank Holiday weekend full of celebration might encourage a rebirth of a spirit of dedication for the common good.
After the archbishop’s inspiring words, the choirs sang Charles Wood’ anthem O thou the central orb, a very dynamic piece, with wonderful treble lines and a short but firm solo part for the lower male voices. As with the Psalm, the contrast between the trebles and the basses was striking and colourful.
The hymn O praise ye the Lord by Charles Hubert Parry, which followed the litany of prayer by representatives both young and old from all over the Commonwealth, has a nice and recognizable tune but did not make much impression on me, as I thought the entire service was more formal and subdued than truly spectacular.
However, I was full of anticipation for the next piece on the programme, the commissioned anthem The Call of Wisdom by Will Todd with words by Michael Hampel, canon at St. Paul’s, based on the service’s Old Testament reading from the Book of Proverbs. Earlier today, on the steps of the cathedral, Todd had told a BBC reporter that as he had been composing, his 8-year-old daughter Petra had walked in and said she liked the tune he had written, and was still singing it hours after. That for him was a sign he was onto somthing good and so he continued with it. Indeed, The Call of Wisdom is memorable mostly for its lovely simple melody rather than its wow-factor.
It starts off really quiet, maybe even a cappella (although it started off, I thought, with a few soft notes by the organ) and builds up with every verse. The chorus has a very strong focus on the lines “I am here, I am with you”, with strong melodic shifts and some higher notes. During the third verse a countermelody is introduced, but without much frills. One or two verses later (I can’t remember exactly) there is a wonderful short jump way up high during the “I am here” part, which is about all the stuntwork Todd pulls off. All throughout, the organ plays very soft and floating, until it reaches the climax, with a full choir sound and full blowing, almost roaring, organ pipes. It ends on a soft fade, just as it started.
This one-off choir may not have given me the fireworks I had been hoping for, like the Ubi caritas by Paul Mealor at Will & Kate’s wedding last year, but I have to hand it to them that their pronunciation was excellent throughout, even in the more complex parts.
Despite the anthem’s lack of grandeur, I kind of like the unexpected choice for Todd as he is a young composer trying out new things (he is also known as a jazz composer). Incidentally, this weekend also marks the release of Todd’s new album on Signum Records, aptly called The Call of Wisdom, featuring a newly scored four-part version of its title piece, sung by the renowned professional choir Tenebrae.
The final hymn, Guide Me o Thou Great Redeemer, with trumpets and wonderful clear, high organ sounds finally brought true festivity in the cathedral, in my opinion at least. The Queen herself joined in singing as well, as did Will and Kate with broad smiles on their faces. And even with a congregation of 2,000 we could still hear the choir trebles on top of it all, thanks to the BBC 😉
My phone rang just as the national anthem started and I also didn’t catch the music after the service, sadly (neither did the BBC really properly broadcast any of the organ and brass music before the service). But altogether it was a nice and interesting celebration, which hopefully Prince Philip enjoyed from his hospital bed as well…
Download the official Order of Service here.
P.S.: And here’s what started it all – the coronation on 2 June 1953. Included in this short clip are parts of Parry’s I was glad (with the shouts of “Vivat Regina!”) and Handel’s Zadok the Priest, sung by the combined choirs of Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal and St. George’s Chapel in Windsor – numbering 182 trebles, 37 male altos, 62 tenors, and 67 basses in total. Together with a full orchestra, the total number of musicians was 480.