Coronation Marches and Anthems: 10 of the best
From Handel to Howells, our guide to the best marches and anthems from coronations past
King Charles's coronation is expected to be a reflection of his role in today's society while being rooted in longstanding traditions and pageantry. But what exactly is the music associated with those traditions? Here are ten Marches and Anthems that have played a key role in coronations dating back as far as that of King George II in 1727.
Best Coronation Marches and Anthems
1. Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance Marches
With these bright and blazing marches, Elgar encapsulated the sense of self-assured militarism that helped to define early twentieth-century England. ‘I have something of the soldier in me,’ he said in a 1904 interview with The Strand. Destined to become synonymous with British pageantry, they played a key part in several coronation ceremonies, including that of George V, George VI and Elizabeth II.
Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 is best known for its trio section, adapted into the popular anthem 'Land of Hope and Glory'.
2. Parry’s I was Glad
Several composers - from Henry Purcell to William Boyce - have written musical settings of Psalm 122 for the Anglican church. There’s an obvious reason why Hubert Parry’s is the most famous: from the jubilant introductory fanfares and ecstatic first choral harmonies, this anthem bathes us in sunshine, utterly embodying the psalm’s opening line.
But Parry took a couple of goes to get it just right, originally composing for Edward VII’s coronation in 1902, then revising it, nine years later, for the crowning of George V. It was also performed, in 1953, at the coronation of Elizabeth II, as well, of course, as the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011.
3. Walton’s Crown Imperial
Widely seen as a homage to Elgar, Walton’s Crown Imperial is very much in the Pomp and Circumstance tradition: bold and punchy, with a luscious middle section sandwiched between a brisk opening and a heroic coda. Composed in 1936 for King Edward VIII, it was eventually premiered, following Edward’s abdication, at the coronation of his younger brother, George VI, with Walton later revising it for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.
4. Handel’s Zadok the Priest
Handel wrote this high-impact anthem for the coronation of King George II in 1727. It has been performed at every coronation since then, thanks to its majesty and capacity to evoke a sense of occasion. It’s based on the antiphon Unxerunt Salomenem, which describes the anointing of Solomon by the priest Zadok. Though, to be honest, the bit that everyone really wants to hear is that blazing first choral entry: ‘Zadok, the Priest!’
5. Ireland’s Epic March
It’s not as well-known as some coronation marches, but this 1942 piece is no less effective for that. Punchy and incisive, with frequent bold interjections from the brass, it was intended as a meditation on ‘some heroic action or series of actions and events of deep and lasting significance in the history of a nation or the race’ - a clear message to the allies during a period when it was not certain that the war would end in their victory. It was performed at Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation ceremony in 1953.
6. Howells’s Behold, O God our Defender
Though premiered at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, this piece is not what you would necessarily associate with state ceremony. Quiet and reflective, it is usually performed by small forces and organ accompaniment. At the coronation, however, it was sung by large combined choirs, with Howells providing a fully orchestrated score.
7. Bax Coronation March
Of what would turn out to be his last orchestral work, Bax wrote, ‘I am now engaged upon trying to write a Coronation March (funny without being vulgar!) for the Abbey service. I think the result will be that my reputation will be killed for all time. However I am old now and it does not matter.’ The result, which contains part of a tune he originally composed for a 1942 flag-waving documentary Malta GC, was heard for the first time as the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II processed out of Westminster Abbey, between two Pomp and Circumstance marches by Elgar.
8. Wesley’s Thou Wilt Keep Him in Perfect Peace
One of Samuel Wesley’s better-known works, ‘Thou Wilt Keep Him in Perfect Peace’ was composed around 1850 and reflects the culmination of the composer’s style: gentle, shamelessly Romantic, harmonically slow-moving and yet highly distinctive. Performed at Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, it is still popular today.
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9. Walton’s Orb and Sceptre
Written for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, this is the second of Walton’s two famous coronation marches, and, like the first (Crown Imperial), follows the Elgarian tradition of combining two brisk outer sections with a more expansive, stately middle section. Walton struggled to write it, believing that it would not match up to Crown Imperial. However, his critics disagreed, with some arguing that it possessed all of the same vigour, with possibly more thematic complexity.
10. Vaughan Williams’s Festal Te Deum
This majestic piece was composed for the coronation of King George VI in 1937 and, apart from the National Anthem 'God Save The King', was the final piece of music sung at the ceremony. Based on traditional melodies, such as Dives and Lazarus, it is largely modal, with a lot of unison singing from the choir. Not all critics were sold on it, with some accusing it of being derivative. Still, it served its purpose, communicating all the grandeur of the occasion.
Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.