Saturday, 2 June 2012

Orb and Sceptre

Where's Sir William Walton when you need him? Walton was one of Britain's greatest writers for royal occasions, notching up some unforgettable hits. 

He began with the coronation of King George VI and the march Crown Imperial. This wonderful piece has everything you would want for such a piece - a sense of jubilation, swagger and nobility - and proved to be a turning point for the composer. Here he consciously (and conscientiously) took over the mantle of Britain's Master of Pomp and Circumstance from the recently deceased Sir Edward Elgar. This surprised many people, given that his previous reputation had tended towards the radical. Crown Imperial opens with a confident march tune full of the composer's trademark syncopations and contrasts this with a big, patriotic tune in the noble-lyrical vein Walton was to plough so well. The orchestration is as bright and colourful as royal pageantry itself and the march ends with a powerfully-sustained uplift. 

For our own Queen Elizabeth II Walton wrote another such march, Orb and Sceptre, which follows much the same path as Crown Imperial. Beginning with a fanfare, this piece also has a big, noble tune to swell the heart of its listeners. Its character is a little lighter and more festive than its more famous predecessor.

In the meantime, Walton has been honing his patriotic art with film scores - especially during the Second World War. Besides the legendary music for Laurence Olivier's Henry V, you can see what the composer was up to in the splendid Spitfire Prelude and Fugue extracted from the film The First of the Few. Fanfares, a noble march, a big tune, a fugue depicting the building of a spitfire, a violin solo portraying the death of the inventor of the spitfire (R.J. Mitchell) and a rousing, patriotic conclusion - it's all there!

Delightfully Walton was still around for the Queen's Silver Jubilee in 1977. Instead of writing a new work he gave the first public performance of a piece that many people already half-knew. This was the Prelude for Orchestra, otherwise known as Granada - a work written as background material for independent television but which struck such a vein of patriotism that it was natural for him to re-cycled it for a royal occasion. 

Now, hopefully, you are enjoying hearing all these tuneful, stirring pieces. Good, because there's still another one to go! Not written for a royal occasion but for a 1959 film - 'The Battle of Britain' (though in the event it was never used) - the March for "A History of the English Speaking Peoples" (the title taken from Winston Churchill's Nobel Prize-winning work) follows much the same path as Orb and Sceptre and points towards Granada too. The phrase 'a tried and tested formula' springs to mind!

Ending though with more music specifically written for a royal occasion, the Queen's coronation was graced by a choral masterpiece by William Walton - his Coronation Te Deum. Toning down the tonal and rhythmic adventurousness (jazziness!) of his famous oratorio, Belshazzar's Feast, the Te Deum is a grand, traditional piece suitable for such an occasion, making use of the space of Westminster Abbey to create rich antiphonal effects and deploying chorus, full orchestra (including harp), added brass and organ to overwhelm the listener - though there is much that is also delicate and enchanting in the piece. 

As Britain's four-day celebration of Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee begins, I thought this post might make for an enjoyable opening fanfare - A Queen's Fanfare

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