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To ‘Ave’ or to hold: why certain music is banned from the civil marriage ceremony

The phone rings one Monday morning and, on the other end of the line, an anxious Bride-to-be is desperate for help. Having meticulously planned her civil marriage ceremony she has hit an unexpected obstacle with only days to go before the big day. She imagines gliding down the aisle towards her Groom whilst a choir sings a beautiful choral arrangement of Schubert’s famous Ave Maria, but there’s a hitch: the Registrar has just been in touch to point out that the text of the Ave Maria is religious and, therefore, not permitted in a civil ceremony.

As a supplier of professional choirs for weddings this scenario is all too familiar. So, why isn’t religious music allowed at a civil marriage ceremony and what can be done to give the anxious Bride a musical experience befitting the ‘best day’ of her life?

Before civil marriage was introduced on 17 August 1836, couples could only marry legally in a Church of England ceremony. The revolutionary new ‘Act for Marriages in England’ meant that a marriage could take place in any licensed venue (religious or not) with no restrictions on the choice of music.

This sounds like the type of progressive attitude to marriage you’d expect to still see represented in law today. However, just twenty years later ‘The Marriage and Registration Act 1856’ was introduced, requiring that under no circumstances ‘shall any Religious Service be used’.

Nearly 150 years later, a further Parliamentary Act has relaxed these restrictions slightly, but the wording is still ambiguous, stating that ‘proceedings may include readings, songs, or music that contain an incidental reference to a god or deity in an essentially non-religious context’. The Registrar has the authority to either approve or reject the musical content of a ceremony at their discretion, and interpretations of this latest Act can vary significantly.

On rare occasions religious music slips through the net, and choirs have been surprised to find themselves at Registry Offices performing J.S.Bach’s Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden (Praise the Lord, all ye nations), or the Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber in his version for choir that uses the text of the Agnus Dei from the Latin Mass. However, this is highly unusual and most Registrars would quickly reject these songs.

Image credit: Pixabay via CC0 Public Domain.
‘Wedding flowers’. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

So nowadays, as it was in 1856, if you want to walk down the aisle to Schubert’s Ave Maria or Mozart’s beautiful Laudate Dominum (Praise the Lord) then your best option is still to have a church wedding. However, when Classic FM invited me to provide a choir to sing both these pieces at the civil marriage of their Chairman, Lord Allen of Kensington, I was curious as to how they had managed to secure the Registrar’s agreement to including these pieces in the ceremony.

The answer lay in some careful planning and creative thinking. Lord Allen had determined with his Registrar exactly when the ‘Proceedings’ would begin and end; a typical civil marriage at a Registry Office can last just fifteen minutes with ceremonies scheduled back to back throughout the day. Lord Allen’s ceremony was at Kensington Palace, one of thousands of alternative licensed venues in the UK, which can often offer the flexibility of planning an extended civil ceremony, rarely available at a Registry Office unless a couple books a ‘double’ ceremony slot. At Lord Allen’s wedding, after the ‘Signing of the Register’ which marks the official end of the civil ceremony, the Registrar promptly left the venue so the newly married couple and their guests (still seated inside) could enjoy a ‘religious’ continuation of their celebration without any restrictions.

So, what advice is there for couples wanting a choir at their Registry Office ceremony where only non-religious music will do?

Whilst Registry Offices usually have an audio system installed for playing recorded music they are not in the business of providing live musicians and, unlike many churches, won’t have a dedicated Musical Director to answer queries and help with finding the right choir. Online Wedding Directories don’t tend to list choirs either but, for those who know what they’re looking for, there are some helpful choral directories. Two of the most popular, British Choirs on the Net and Gerontius, list choirs geographically; the latter even has a dedicated page for wedding choirs who can be hired.

This won’t be a straightforward approach for everyone and, for those needing more advice, contacting a Music Agency could be a better option. Most agencies can organise bookings very quickly and they are experienced in asking all of the right questions to make sure things run smoothly on the day, for example; how many singers will be needed and will there be room for them in the venue? Will a keyboard be required, or any amplification? Will the choir be able to sound-check in the venue ahead of the ceremony?

It’s a good idea to request sample recordings before booking, to be sure of getting a quality performance and to ensure that the choir are aware of any non-religious music choices. Not every choir will have a repertoire of appropriate songs, and they may need time to source the music and rehearse it. I advise clients to choose their music as soon as possible and to keep the Registrar regularly updated to avoid disappointment, which proposes another challenge: where can you find suggestions of choral music for civil marriages?

A few years ago I decided to build a library of appropriate songs that would be routinely approved for civil ceremonies. I had a small collection already, including Weddings for Choirs. Further online research revealed plenty of suggestions for non-religious solo voice songs and instrumental pieces listed on wedding music websites, but virtually nothing for choirs. A search for ‘Wedding CD’s’ uncovered only a single piece of unaccompanied non-religious choral music: C.V. Stanford’s beautiful setting of The Blue Bird, a poem by Mary Elizabeth Coleridge. In my view the repertoire needed expanding.

With advice from Registrars I started building a list of the most requested songs for civil ceremonies (Kissing You by Des’ree, from the movie Romeo & Juliet, topping the list) and hunted for choral versions of them, commissioning arrangements for any I couldn’t find already published. I also reached out to composers, seeking recommendations from their catalogues, and soon a lot of new music began to arrive in my in-tray.

The result was an extensive list of non-religious music appropriate for civil ceremonies, which was accompanied shortly after by an album of highlights from the list, entitled My Promise – Music for All Weddings (playlist available below), accompanied by helpful notes to aid couples making their music selections.

Similar to a church wedding, there are three main opportunities to have music during a civil marriage ceremony:

  • The Entrance
  • The Signing of the Register
  • The Exit

Registry Offices are generally much smaller than most churches, and so it’s important to programme something reasonably short for the Entrance music. I once arranged a choral version of Pachelbel’s Canon for a wedding at Hampton Court. It had a flexible middle section that could be extended if the Bride needed more time at the door for photos. Having carefully rehearsed her walking pace, we were all taken aback when she raced to her waiting Groom before we’d even reached the end of the opening line. More shocking was the Registrar’s reaction, which was to frantically signal the universal hand gesture for ‘cut’!

During the Signing of the Register some music to entertain the guests can help to avoid uncomfortable silences. Whilst the couple concentrate on their paperwork, something reflective and calming can work well here, or perhaps two contrasting pieces if the Registrar allows the time.

The exit music is another chance for a couple to put a musical stamp on their celebration, with a send-off that is both personal and uplifting. Apparently one of the most requested Exit songs for civil ceremonies is At Last!, made famous by Etta James in the 1960’s; a fitting sentiment for many couples as they set off into their married future together.

So let’s return to that desperate phone call from the anxious Bride who really can’t get married without hearing Schubert’s Ave Maria as she enters the Registry Office. It may still be possible to persuade her Registrar to allow it as having only “an incidental reference to a god or deity in a non-religious context”, so long as it be performed as originally conceived. It is actually a misconception that Schubert set it with the sacred text of the Ave Maria. In fact, it was as part of a song cycle published in 1826 and took its text from a poem by Sir Walter Scott called The Lady of the Lake. Schubert’s song, entitled Ellens dritter Gesang (Ellen’s third song) characterises Ellen Douglas, a frightened girl in hiding who makes a prayer to the Virgin Mary for help.

Featured image credit: Image by James Davey. Used with permission. 

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