The best classical music for Remembrance Sunday
A look at the music that shapes Remembrance Sunday
On 11 November 1919, King George V presided over the inaugural Remembrance Day, a year after the end of World War I. That initial ceremony of remembrance centred on a two-minute silence at 11am.
‘The first stroke of eleven produced a magical effect,’ reported The Manchester Guardian that day. ‘The tram cars glided into stillness, motors ceased to cough and fume… and the mighty-limbed dray horses hunched back upon their loads and stopped also, seeming to do it of their own volition.’
Silence remains an important part of today’s Remembrance Day, marked by the lengthy musical programme of the day, which has remained unchanged since 1930. From Elgar’s evocative Nimrod, to the British National Anthem 'God Save The King', we present a guide to the music of remembrance.
Best Remembrance Sunday music
Rule, Britannia! - Thomas Arne
One of the fixtures of the Last Night of the Proms, Rule, Britannia! is also performed at the Remembrance Day service. First heard in 1745, Thomas Arne’s patriotic piece sprang from the era of empire and naval might.
The Britannia of James Thomson and David Mallett’s poem originally referred to the Roman name for England and Wales. With its rousing chorus, it has remained popular and has popped in music by Beethoven, Wagner and Sullivan.
Heart of Oak - William Boyce
‘Heart of oak are our ships, heart of oak are our men,’ begins the refrain of William Boyce’s Heart of Oak, the official march of the UK Royal Navy. With music by Boyce (not Arne, as once thought), its text is by David Garrick, one of the renowned British actors of the 18th century.
It’s a jaunty, uplifting number, written in 1759 for Garrick’s pantomime Harlequin’s Invasion celebrating British victories against the French.
The Minstrel Boy - Thomas Moore
Poet Thomas Moore wrote this song in remembrance of his friends who fought and were killed in the Irish Rebellion of 1798. Set to the melody of an old Irish air called The Moreen, The Minstrel Boy became a popular song among the Irish soldiers who fought in the American Civil War and, later, World War I.
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Men of Harlech
Traditionally attributed to the seven-year siege of Harlech Castle in the 1460s – the longest in British history – Men of Harlech remains a patriotic Welsh anthem. The rousing tune is often played at memorial services of British Army regiments associated with Wales.
It’s used as a slow march by the Welsh Guards and is taken at a quicker tempo by the Royal Regiment of Wales.
Skye Boat Song
A slightly unlikely choice for the Remembrance Day ceremony, given that the figure whom it celebrates was once public enemy number one (if, that is, you were English and Protestant…).
The 'Skye Boat Song' lyrics, which were written by Sir Harold Boulton in the 1880s, tell of the escape of Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) to the island of Skye after the failure of the Jacobite rebellion in 1745. The tune, meanwhile, is an old Scottish air.
We named the 'Sky Boat Song' one of the best Scottish songs ever
Isle of Beauty - Thomas Haynes Bayly
This song, by English poet Thomas Haynes Bayly (1797-1839), is often credited with being the source for the now common expression: ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder,’ a line which appears mid-way through the song.
Dafydd y Garreg Wen (David of the White Rock) - David Owen
Legend has it that the composer David Owen wrote this haunting song while on his deathbed, at the age of just 29. The words are autobiographical, telling the tale of the dying composer from White Rock (the name of the farm where Owen lived).
In 1923 Dafydd y Garreg Wen became the first ever Welsh language song to be played on the BBC.
Oft in the Stilly Night - John Andrew Stevenson
A former chorister of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin and vicar-choral of St Patrick’s, Irish composer Sir John Andrew Stevenson (1761-1833) wrote a considerable amount of choral music, songs, glees and catches.
He also published dozens of ‘symphonies and accompaniments’ to poet Thomas Moore’s collection of Irish melodies, of which his simple and affecting piano accompaniment to ‘Oft in the Stilly Night’ is but one.
Flowers of the Forest - Traditional
This Scottish folk tune commemorates the defeat of James IV’s army at the Battle of Flodden in 1513. The original words are lost, but the melody was recorded in 1615. Today, the most commonly used words for 'Flowers of the Forest' are those by Jean Eliot (b1727), who originally published her text anonymously.
Her poem was believed to be the original, but Robert Burns and others suspected it was an imitation and tracked down the author along with Sir Walter Scott and Allan Ramsey. Many pipers today refuse to perform this song except at funerals and memorial services, due to the reverence in which it is held.
Nimrod - Edward Elgar
The most famous of Elgar’s Enigma Variations, written in 1899, ‘Nimrod’ is a musical depiction of the composer’s friend Augustus Jaeger. ‘Jaeger’ in German means ‘Hunter’, and Nimrod in the Bible is described as ‘the mighty hunter’ – hence the name.
Jaeger, who worked for the music publisher Novello, was a close friend of Elgar’s and a constant source of encouragement and kind words. The warmth of their friendship is reflected in this calm, reflective variation in E flat major, which (intentionally) also has a hint of the second movement of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata to it.
Dido’s Lament - Henry Purcell
While the ‘Skye Boat Song’ (see earlier) celebrates the swift journey of a boat towards its destination, Dido’s Lament is a heartbroken response to the sight of a ship disappearing away over the horizon.
The ship in question belongs to Aeneas who, after a brief fling with Dido in Carthage, is reminded to pursue his destiny and head on his way. She, left behind and utterly grief stricken, avows to kill herself. Heard at the end of 1689 opera Dido and Aeneas, the Lament, whose words begin ‘When I am laid in earth’ is arguably the most famous, and sublime, music Purcell ever wrote.
We named Dido’s Lament one of the the saddest pieces of classical music
Solemn Melody - Sir Henry Walford Davies
Best known for the hymn tune ‘God be in my head’, composer, lecturer and educator Sir Henry Walford studied composition with both Parry and Stanford at the Royal College of Music and was organist at London’s Temple Church for 21 years.
String quartets, a couple of cantatas and a 74-minute oratorio are among works now largely forgotten, although his touching Solemn Melody, scored originally for organ and strings, has endured.
He was made Master of the King’s Musick after Elgar’s death in 1934, by which time he was well-known as the presenter of the popular radio series ‘Music and the Ordinary Listener’, first aired in 1926.
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O Valiant Hearts - Charles Harris
Charles Harris (1865-1936) earned a doctorate from Oxford and served as vicar of Colwall, a small town in Herefordshire. His only lasting contribution to music was the rousing hymn tune ‘The Supreme Sacrifice’, setting the words ‘O Valiant Hearts’ by poet Sir John Stanhope Arkwright. We named it as one of the best hymns for Remembrance Sunday
The tune’s name is taken from the book The Supreme Sacrifice and other Poems in Time of War which features Arkwright’s verse.
The Last Post
One of the most universally recognisable tunes of Remembrance Day is The Last Post, a bugle call played at services across the UK and the Commonwealth, with its distinctive lingering second note.
It originally marked the end of a sentry inspection at the close of the day and its use as an act of remembrance appears to have begun in the mid 19th century.
The piece is now longer than it once was, extended from 45 seconds to 75. It is integral to the Remembrance service at the Whitehall Cenotaph.
Beethoven's Funeral March No. 1 - Johann Heinrich Walch
The majestic, elegiac tone of this brass band march has earned its place at many a state funeral, including that of King Edward VII. There’s a gentler major-key trio at the heart of an otherwise sombre, succinctly written work.
For many years misattributed to Beethoven, it’s now believed to be the handiwork of Johann Heinrich Walch (1776-1855). He was a German musician well known for his marches, which also include the Pariser Einzugsmarsch.
O God, Our Help in Ages Past - words by Isaac Watts, music by William Croft
William Croft wrote his ‘St Anne’ tune while he was organist at the Church of St Anne, Soho, but the lyrics to 'O God, Our Help in Ages Past' we know today wasn’t added until 1719.
The tune has been incorporated into works by Handel, Arthur Sullivan, and Vaughan Williams, and is still one of the best-known hymns ever written.
Another bugle call, the Reveille often follows The Last Post. While the latter reflects on the fallen, evoking sunset and the end of the earthly life, the ‘Reveille’ symbolises sunrise and resurrection.
It was traditionally used to wake military forces and its name comes from réveiller, the French word for ‘wake up’.
God Save the Queen
The national anthem of the UK takes a key role in Remembrance Day activities across the Commonwealth.
Although God Save The Queen has obscure origins – sometimes attributed to composer John Bull, c1619, or even Purcell – the first published recognisable version dates from 1744.
The anthem, when played in the presence of the Queen at the Royal Albert Hall’s Festival of Remembrance, is enriched by the Royal Albert Hall's grand organ.