Throughout the centuries, monarchs have made their mark on our musical history. From royal commissions, including those for coronations (such as Handel’s Zadok the Priest, written for George II in 1727), weddings and funerals (including Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary), to works by monarchs themselves (Greensleeves, allegedly by Henry VIII), the royal families of the world have left us a rich musical legacy.
So, as the longest-ever reigning British monarch celebrates her official 90th birthday, we take a look at the music that has been inspired by, and written for, Queen Elizabeth II through our exclusive Apple Music playlist, which you'll find below, along with notes to accompany your listening.
Walton - Coronation March, ‘Orb and Sceptre’
Walton’s ‘Orb and Sceptre’, inspired by Elgar’s equally grandiose Pomp and Circumstance Marches, was written for the Queen’s coronation in 1953. Its joyous exuberance and swagger set the scene for the day of celebrations, performed before the official service at Westminster Abbey. It was performed alongside the Crown Imperial march that Walton composed for the coronation of King George VI – Elizabeth’s father – in 1937. Its title refers to the Orb and Sceptre that are presented to the monarch during the coronation ceremony.
Elgar - Nursery Suite
Elgar met the Queen and her sister Margaret as young children, and wrote this suite for them as one of his final compositions, based on sketches he himself had done as a child. Consisting of seven movements and a coda, the piece is focussed around the nursery theme, with some of the suites named after toys, such as ‘the serious doll’ and ‘the wagon’. It was one of the first pieces of orchestral music to premiere in a recording studio rather than a concert hall, and was later put to choreography and made into a ballet that was performed in 1932 at Sadler's Wells Theatre. It was later re-choreographed for a new ballet in celebration of the Queen's 60th birthday gala at the Royal Opera House.
Bax – Morning Song, ‘Maytime in Sussex’
Arnold Bax, then Master of the King’s Music, wrote his Morning Song in 1947 to celebrate the then-Princess’s 21st birthday. Subtitled ‘Maytime in Sussex’, this delightful work for piano and orchestra skips along in true springtime fashion.
Howells - Behold, O god Our Defender
When looking back at the list of composers who were invited to compose works for the Queen’s coronation, it is a veritable a roll call of great 20th-century British composers. Herbert Howells wrote this quiet and reflective introit on Christmas Day 1952. On the day of the Coronation it signalled the start of the solemn ceremony that transformed a Princess into a Queen.
Britten – Gloriana Dances
Britten composed his opera Gloriana for the Royal Opera House’s celebration of the Queen’s coronation in 1953. It tells the story of the life of the Queen’s predecessor, Elizabeth I, who was given the nickname ‘Gloriana’ by the 16th-century poet Edmund Spenser. Though the opera was a critical failure, and rarely performed today, a series of Courtly Dances celebrating the Queen’s virtues are often performed as a concert piece.
Vaughan Williams - O Taste and See
Vaughan Williams was commissioned to write this new motet for the coronation by the director of music of Westminster Abbey, William McKie (see below). It is still regularly sung today. However, this was not Vaughan Williams’s only contribution to the ceremony. He also persuaded McKie to include a hymn with which the congregation could join in, complete with fanfare accompaniment – written by him. Though this may not seem like a controversial idea today, it was considered such a breach of tradition that it had to be approved by the Queen herself before McKie would agree to it. Luckily she agreed, and The Old Hundred (‘All people that on earth do dwell’) has since become one of the countries best-loved hymns.
Bax - Fanfare for the Wedding of Princess Elizabeth
Bax held the position of Master of the King’s Music from 1942, and during this time Princess Elizabeth married Prince Philip of Greece in 1947. This piece was played as she processed in through Westminster Abbey to begin the service. Its concluding bars lead obviously into Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, which ended the ceremony.
‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ was sung to the tune of Crimond at Princess Elizabeth’s wedding to Prince Philip. She had been taught a descant by a lady-in-waiting Lady Margaret Egerton but the music for it could not be found, so she and Egerton sang it to William McKie to transcribe.
McKie - We wait for thy loving Kindness
McKie also contributed one of his own compositions to the proceedings. ‘We wait for thy loving Kindness’ is a beautifully simple anthem, a welcome reflective relief perhaps from the pomp that surrounds such royal occasions.
Hymn - Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven
Based on Psalm 103, this Christian hymn has long been a favourite of the Royal Family, in particular Queen Elizabeth II and her father King George VI. It also featured at the wedding of Elizabeth and Prince Philip in 1947.
Regimental March Milanollo
Another firm favourite of the Queen, this march was written by 19th-century German composer Johann Valentin Hamm for the Italian violinist virtuoso sisters and child prodigies Teresa and Maria Milanollo. It was later adopted as a regimental march for the Coldstream Guards, and consequently also by other regiments including the Life Guards.
Britten’s God Save the Queen arr.
The origin of the tune of ‘God Save the Queen’ is unknown, but its first known hearing was in 1745. It is a tune that has been used by about 140 composers in their works, with Beethoven even composing a set of seven piano variations around the theme. Britten arranged it in 1961 for the Leeds Festival, and his version is played annually at the Last Night of the Proms.