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How to write music fit for a queen

Coronation portrait of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Source: Library and Archives Canada.
In 1953, 8,000 people in Westminster Abbey and millions of Britons gathered around televisions and radios, listened as 27-year-old Queen Elizabeth II was formally crowned. William Walton composed a March and a Te Deum for the occasion. Known for its expressive quality and easy assimilation of disparate influences, Walton’s music provided an appropriate glamour and vitality necessary for such an occasion.

In this Diamond Jubilee year — as the world listens once more — here’s a ‘how to’ guide to composing for a Coronation.

(1)     Be willing
Walton was in the middle of composing his opera Troilus and Cressida but was happy to set it aside to write a Coronation Te Deum and a March for Elizabeth II’s coronation. Making his excuses to the Royal Opera House for the delay in the opera, Walton wrote “T & C …had to be abandoned for some six weeks, while I indulged in an orgy of Coronation music.”

(2)     Have previous experience
Walton wrote a March — Crown Imperial — in 1937 for the coronation of the Queen’s father, George VI. The march was immediately popular; a great demonstration of Walton’s ability to write for such a ceremony, and helpful in obtaining official approval to commission him again.

(3)     Have a grand plan (and a sense of humour)
The title of Crown Imperial came from Shakespeare’s Henry V which he said had “a whole list of titles for Coronation marches.” He returned to the same play for the title of the march for Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation — Orb and Sceptre. He joked that his march for the Coronation of Prince Charles in the future would also be taken from Shakespeare, and would be entitled Bed Majestical!

(4)     Be thorough
William McKie, the Director of Music for the Coronation, was “most impressed at the thoroughness of the briefing which he [Walton] asked for. He came down to the Abbey, asked for most precise information about the size and composition of the choir and the orchestra and how they were to be placed.”

(5)     Have a sense of the theatrical (but be realistic)
“I’ve got cracking on the Te Deum. Lots of counter-tenors and little boys Holy-holying, not to mention all the Queen’s Trumpeters and sidedrum,” wrote Walton. The Queen’s Trumpeters added a sense of drama to the music, but ever the pragmatist, Walton “arranged it so that I can dispense with [the extra brass], if unpractical for any reason.”

(6)     Don’t display a hint of modesty or self-doubt
It was only in private correspondence with his editor that Walton admitted to any doubts about his music as he composed. To the commissioner and in public he declared the Coronation works “superb,” “splendid,” and “outstandingly good.”

(7)     Follow the brief
Walton was told “it would help if the chorus parts have no undue rhythmic complications.” He duly delivered a Coronation Te Deum which was “not at all difficult, no awkward intervals or rhythms and in fact should be fairly plain sailing.”

(8)     Inject a hint of controversy to ensure memorability
A Royal occasion always calls for splendour, but one of the conductors at the ceremony, Sir Adrian Boult, was shocked by the ‘pagan’ sound of Walton’s music.

Sir William Walton (1902-1983) is the composer of Coronation Te Deum and Coronation Marches, Crown Imperial and Orb and Sceptre. He was born in Oldham, Lancashire, the son of a choirmaster and a singing-teacher. He became a chorister at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, and then an undergraduate at the University. His first composition to attract attention was a piano quartet written at the age of sixteen. At Oxford he made the acquaintance of the Sitwells who gave him friendship, moral and financial support and in 1922 he collaborated with Edith in devising the entertainment Façade. Less than ten years later, Osbert prepared the text of another masterwork, Belshazzar’s Feast. From 1922 to 1927 Walton began to spend an increasing amount of time abroad, notably in Switzerland and Italy. The war years were devoted mainly to writing film and ballet scores and he became established as amongst the greatest composers for the screen.

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Recent Comments

  1. Michael Lamb

    I think it must have been because my comment was misunderstood that it has been moderated out of existence: I was querying the word “coronated” in the above, not making some obscure political point, as I surmise may have been suspected. To be more explicit, the OED has no record of it in either the ceremonial or the botanical sense since the mid-nineteenth century.

  2. Alice

    @Michael Lamb

    Sorry about that. Our spam filter is rather strong so I think your original comment is buried among those awaiting the double-check.

    The error was actually from an early edit of the piece and sneaked its way in (the first sentence went through several versions). I corrected it today when I noticed it.

    Thank you for spotting it too.

    – Blog Editor Alice

  3. [...] we put together for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in June: Composing for the Diamond Jubilee, How to Write Music Fit for a Queen, Diamonds, Royal quotations past and [...]

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