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Music, liturgy and spectacle at the Royal Wedding

Music / 1 Comment / April 29, 2011

Any wedding is like a Russian doll. At its heart is the couple concluding a contract, both legal and emotional. Around this is the ceremony itself, whether sacred or secular, in which the vows exchanged are amplified in meaning by the readings and music chosen to accompany them. Wrapping it all up is the dress, flowers, the reception, the honeymoon and all the countless details that comprise modern nuptials.

The wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton differs from any other only in scale. When their wedding was announced last year, I wrote that the country seemed largely indifferent; whilst it is difficult to estimate to what extent Royal Wedding fever has gripped the country at large, it is certainly true that the media, led by the BBC, has worked itself up into a frenzy of excitement.

Kate and William appear to be a nice, genuine couple who appear to be very well-adjusted given their public profile and, most importantly, genuinely in love with each other for the long term. An unashamed traditionalist, I am delighted that they have chosen to use the 1928 update of the Book of Common Prayer marriage service; it is the version that my wife and I used. The Common Worship service, which is nowadays virtually ubiquitious in Church of England, is prosaic by comparison.

The music they have chosen for their service, details of which were only published today, also promises to be inspiring. Two great Parry anthems – I was glad and Blest pair of sirens – will accompany the grand processions. The former became a staple of Coronation services in the Twentieth Century; the latter, setting an ode by Milton to music and verse, is a more intriguing choice; it’s certainly a far cry, albeit a chorally well-upholstered one, from Mendelssohn’s somewhat clichéd Wedding March. During the service itself, the choir will sing two premières: an anthem by John Rutter, This is the day which the Lord hath made and a motet by one Paul Mealor, Ubi caritas et amor.

Best known as composer in residence to Christmas, thanks not least to twee but lucrative pêchés de jeunesse such as the Shepherd’s Pipe Carol, John Rutter has latterly written more vocally challenging works, such as his Hymn to the creator of light, in memory of Herbert Howells. It will be interesting to see how his new work compares. As to the piece by Paul Mealor, it will need to be very good in order to escape the shadow cast by Maurice Duruflé’s famous setting of the same text.

The hymns, Guide me, O thou great redeemer, Love divine, all loves excelling and Jerusalem, are all classics of the genre (although some would argue that the latter is not a religious hymn, strictly speaking at all). To paraphrase Milton, then, it should indeed be a wedding of divine sounds, both voice and verse.

Westminster Abbey will be a an awe-inspiring venue for the happy couple; Kate will walk up through an avenue of trees in the nave, it seems. With thousands lining the route, broadcasters relaying the service to millions in high definition TV and audio, long horse-drawn processions flanked by regiments of soldiers and Buckingham Palace as the final destination, it really will be a fairytale day on the grandest scale possible.

Yet still at its heart are just a man and a woman standing before an altar, making simple solemn vows to each other.


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