Music has always been great propaganda, but over the centuries Britain’s royalty have turned it into an art form.

Lie back and think of England… and chances are the soundtrack will come courtesy of Handel, Elgar, Parry and their ilk. It’s very possible the music will have a royal connection too, either written for or intimately linked with a “Royal Event”. The current residents of Buckingham Palace are not noted for their intense musicality, so just how did this relationship between music and monarchy come about?

Medieval Monarchs…
Musically backward in coming forward

Despite a genealogy going back to Alfred the Great (871- 899), it was a slow and modest start for Britain’s royals. Successful propaganda needs to reach its target audience and in the medieval period that audience was hard to define and even harder to gather together for mass messaging. The monarchy tended not to commission works but instead relied on the established church to promote the royal interest as part of the general message of suffering and salvation.

There were one or two notably musical monarchs in the first centuries of the last millennium. Richard the Lionheart has left us some pretty respectable compositions, and he is probably the earliest English king to be name-checked in the chanson Etas Auri Reditur (The Golden Age Returns), which celebrates his coronation in 1189. It is unlikely, however, that works like these were sung at large, public ceremonials.

As was so often the case, it took foreign wars to really get royal propaganda music out of the intimate realm of the troubadours and into the wider world. Edward III (1327-1377) was also a tuneful soul and his Order of the Garter was a hub of musical taste. He’s frequently documented commanding music, as in 1350 when he’s recorded calling for pipers to accompany his friend Sir John Chandos who was regaling the assembly with the latest popular German ditty. The Hundred Years War needed justification and there are surviving motets and carols that do just that. “Let the wars of the French cease,” proclaims the polyphonic Singularis Laudis Digna, and “let there be honour to Edward, the king proved in battle”.

The greatest medieval musical hit, of course, is the Agincourt Carol, written to trumpet the victory of Henry V – another reportedly musical king – over the French in 1415.

Owre Kynge went forth to Normandy 
With grace and myght of chyvalry 
Ther God for hym wrought mervelusly; 
Wherefore Englonde may call and cry; 
Deo gratias Anglia redde pro victoria! 
(Give thanks to God, England, for victory!)

It’s no accident that William Walton seized on it for his score to Olivier’s film of Henry V – an epic wartime propaganda exercise. This was exactly the kind of stirring stuff that the Victorians and their heirs seized upon for patriotic effect in the last two centuries.

With his tenuous claim to a throne that his father had usurped, Henry V was a classic case of a king in need of PR. It seems surprising therefore that the Tudors, an equally dodgy dynasty beginning with Henry VII in 1485, produced so little propaganda music. Despite the compositional skills of Henry VIII (although he probably didn’t write Greensleeves), and Elizabeth I (known to be proficient on the virginals), most of the material produced during this period was focussed on a bigger battle, the need to promote a change of religion.

The Jacobeans…
Bringing out the musical big guns

A German visitor in the late 16th century wrote: “The English are vastly fond of great noises that fill the ear, such as the firing of cannon, drums and the ringing of bells.” With the Church of England firmly bedded in, the Jacobean monarchs had more time to think about matters musical. James I got the century off to a good start in 1603 with Tomkins’s Be Strong and of a Good Courage as the centrepiece of his coronation, inaugurating a tradition of coronation anthems that has continued to the present day. Composers like Orlando Gibbons led the way in celebrating Royal Events ranging from a fawning send-off prior to a trip to Scotland (Great King of Gods) to a welcome delivery from “the snares of Death” (O All True Faithful Hearts). The unexpected demise of Henry, Prince of Wales in 1612 drew multiple settings of the Lamentations of David.

Charles I was a generous patron of the arts as well as a skilled gambist. John Playford writes: “Charles I…could play his part exactly well on the Bass-Viol, especially of those Incomparable Fancies of Mr Coprario to the Organ”. In an “oh, to be a fly on the wall” moment it’s likely that this domestic consort would have involved Gibbons himself on the organ while another player could well have been William Lawes, a staunch Royalist, who was to be “casually shot” by a Parliamentarian defending his king at the Battle of Rowton Heath in 1645.

The Civil War put paid to much in the way of celebratory Royal Events for a while except for some small scale tributes on the deaths of Archbishop Laud and the Earl of Strafford composed by the loyal Thomas Tomkins. His most famous Sad Pavan: for these Distracted Times was written following the execution of the king in 1649.

The Restoration was to change all that, and for the first time it began to feel that music might play a role in dynastic ambition. Sadly Charles II’s coronation was not a good example – as poor old Samuel Pepys noted with characteristic candour, there was “so great a noise, that I could make but little of the Musique; and endeed, it was lost to everybody. But I had so great a list to pisse, that I went out a little while before the King had done all his ceremonies…” Charles’ chief composer was undoubtedly John Blow, who furnished court ceremonial with anthems and at least one masque, Venus and Adonis, in which the King’s mistress Moll Davis (“the most impertinent slut in the world”, according to Pepys) played Venus, with her daughter Lady Mary Tudor taking on the role of Cupid.

Things stepped up a gear with the arrival of Henry Purcell (1659-1695). Taken up by the ageing monarch he was put to work composing “Welcome Songs”, obsequious celebrations of the return to London of the royal personage. A typical piece of musical toadyism is The Summer’s Absence Unconcerned We Bear, written to say welcome home after a trip to Newmarket and the races. Both Blow and Purcell graced the coronation of James II with anthems, while during his brief reign, the Catholic king and queen were lauded as demi-gods: “Sound the trumpet, beat the drum, Caesar and Urania come”. Purcell’s greatest achievement in the field was undoubtedly the series of Birthday Odes that he wrote for James’ successor, Queen Mary, of which Come Ye Sons of Art, Away is a fine example. The composer had a genuine soft spot for the monarch and graced her funeral in 1695 with some of his most profoundly moving music.

Queen Anne was lucky enough to have music composed by two greats. Purcell eulogised her engagement to the Prince of Denmark while a birthday ode and a Te Deum celebrating the Peace of Utrecht was written by that doyen of Royal Events, the German – born George Frideric Handel. And it was his music for his Hanoverian patrons George I and II that took the concept of music and the monarchy to the next level.

Handel and Hanover – the music that defined a dynasty Handel had settled in London in 1712 and his first major commission for George I was the famous Water Music, written to be played on a commandeered City Livery barge floating up the Thames with the tide from Whitehall to Chelsea. Far from making political hay, this was very much a pleasure cruise for the King and certain “Persons of Quality”, according to the Daily Courant.

With the accession of George II the real propaganda exercises began, kicked off with a bang in the form of the most splendid musical coronation imaginable. Works by Gibbons, Purcell and Blow flanked Handel’s four magnificent Coronation Anthems including, of course, Zadok the Priest. The reign also saw his Dettingen Te Deum celebrate the last time a British monarch would personally lead his troops into battle while the Occasional Oratorio commemorated the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Handel’s last royal commission was another big bang: the famous Music for the Royal Fireworks, written to mark the end of the War of Austrian Succession in 1749. A tricky gig, he had to satisfy a capricious monarch who “hoped there would be no fiddles.” In the end the fireworks went off at the wrong time with rockets falling among the spectators, setting the pavilion on fire, and causing two deaths in the crowd. A musical triumph perhaps, but a right royal PR disaster.

The Hanoverians were also private patrons. George II’s son, Frederick, Prince of Wales was a keen musician and was painted playing trios with his royal sisters (above). No less a singer than Farinelli wrote of how “we are always together, he playing the cello and I singing”, and Arne’s Alfred, the patriotic masque that includes Rule Britannia, was first performed for the young royals at Cliveden in 1740. The long reign of George III was tainted with periods of insanity (his musical legacy more likely reflected in Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King), but he did get an annual New Year’s Ode out of William Boyce. His son, the Prince Regent was more interested in wine and women, than song. These later Hanoverians preferred to rest on Britain’s musical laurels and enjoy the fruits of their predecessors, Handel in particular. There was plenty of public patriotism expressed in music, but it began to happen at subscription concerts, increasingly paid for by the rising middle classes. It wasn’t until the accession of Queen Victoria that the British royals became once again a significant source of musical patronage.

A long life with plenty of music

The Victorians were nothing if not keen to advertise their commercial and military exploits through public ceremony and celebration. Victoria herself (pictured), and especially Prince Albert, were keen amateur pianists and singers. From 1842 they struck up a particularly close relationship with Felix Mendelssohn and many private soirees ensued. Alas, Mendelssohn’s premature death in 1847 put paid to any prospective royal commissions.

There were plenty of these required, however, to commemorate wars, weddings, birthdays and the inevitable ticking off of the decades of Victoria’s rule. That the music for these events, commissioned from the likes of MacFarren, Mackenzie, Goring, George Martin and even Arthur Sullivan, is not better known is a sad reflection on 20th-century attitudes towards Victorian music in general. There was also a snobbish tendency to supplant the home grown with preferred foreign fare, hence the inclusion of music by Lemmens and the march from Lohengrin at the Golden Jubilee celebrations in 1887. And, of course, there was still plenty of Handel to fall back on. Notable large-scale commissions from British composers did still occur, Sir Arthur Sullivan’s Boer War Te Deum being a prime example, but it wasn’t until the emergence of the three giants of British pomp and circumstance that what we think of as the musical accompaniment to “what the British do best” really took off.

The coronation of Edward VII in 1902 was an international affair. Given the size of the British Empire and the number of foreign dignitaries expected it was important to put on a good show. Elgar bagged the biggest commission after scoring a hit with his Imperial March at Queen Victoria’s 1897 Diamond Jubilee and he came up trumps with his tub-thumping Coronation Ode, incorporating as it did his popular Land of Hope and Glory tune. Lyrics like “Britain, ask of thyself, and see that thy sons be strong,” sent out clear signals to would-be aggressors. The real knockout, though, was Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s memorable anthem I Was Glad, used at every coronation since and at least two royal weddings. Elgar also knocked up a march for George V’s coronation in 1911 while Stanford wrote a substantial orchestral Gloria (reused for George VI in 1937).

The House of Windsor…
Music to keep “the firm” afloat

The start of the present monarch’s reign, as well as that of her father, were graced with music from a golden age of British composers. For his short notice coronation George VI got a Flourish from Vaughan Williams with a Festival Te Deum thrown in as well as Walton’s bombastic Crown Imperial, originally intended for his brother, Edward VIII, a piece which almost “out-Elgars” Elgar.

Elizabeth II fared even better scoring a pompous Coronation March from Bax, Vaughan Williams’ latest arrangement of the Old Hundredth, anthems by Dyson and Howells, and not only Walton’s Orb and Sceptre, but also his grandiloquent Coronation Te Deum. Britten’s opera Gloriana was the only notable flop of the 1953 season, the young Queen reportedly finding little sympathy in the portrayal of her illustrious predecessor as a vain, capricious and vindictive figure – and bald into the bargain.

Queen Elizabeth II opens Snape Maltings with composer Benjamin Britten

Over the course of the new Elizabethan era, whoever has had the dubious honour to be Master of the Queen’s Music (it’s currently Judith Weir) has dutifully trotted out the required laudatory offerings. Sir Arthur Bliss, for example, wrote A Welcome Song to words by C Day Lewis for the return of the Queen and Prince Philip from a Commonwealth Tour (soprano solo sung by a young Joan Sutherland). “Behind the salutes and the speeches…Philip, Philip, what have you seen?” goes the deferential text. One shudders to think what the famously indiscreet Philip might have replied. The monarchy has sometimes fared better in the hands of the nation’s artistic institutions – the BBC, for instance, commissioned Tippett to write his perky Birthday Suite for Prince Charles back in 1948.

Like the later Hanoverian period, the 21st century has felt a lean time as far as new music for the monarchy goes. The tendency to fall back on what works or what is expected means that there is little room for innovation. Gone are the days when Queen Mary got 20 minutes of Purcell’s most sublime music (although he did have two months while she lay in state to get his act together). Poor old Princess Diana had to make do with Bernie Taupin changing a few lyrics for Candle in the Wind. William and Kate’s wedding was a staid affair. All that “heritage” Parry was lovely, but only left room for tiny commissions from John Rutter and Paul Mealor – hardly Zadok the Priest. We can only cross our fingers and see what the coronation of Charles III has in store.