What is the sound of a monarch’s death — the music and noise that commemorates the end of one regal life in preparation for the one to come?
Music plays an enormous role in British royal ceremonies, particularly funerals, like Queen Elizabeth II’s on Sept. 19, which function as both state and religious rituals. Because the British monarch is also head of the Church of England, the sounds of these events are often tied to the Anglican musical tradition, springing out of the post-English Reformation Church.
Since 1603, much of the royal funeral’s format has stayed the same, while some aspects shift to reflect the time and the monarch. The result is a striking combination of diverse works that tell both the story of the British monarchy and British music.
The rites performed in the Church of England service come from the Order of the Burial of the Dead from the Book of Common Prayer. First published in 1549, it provided services and ways of daily worship in Anglican churches. The musical portions of the liturgy offered the text that has been set by composers for funerals — royal and otherwise.
Those texts are called Funeral Sentences, collectively called the Burial Service, and are broken up into three parts: Opening Sentences, sung when the priests meet the body at the church; Graveside Sentences, for when the body is buried or interred; and the Last Sentence, sung after the priest throws earth onto the body.
During the funeral, Sentences are separated by psalms, which are read or sung, and anthems (choral works accompanied by instruments, another musical element of the Book of Common Prayer’s liturgy). In addition, royal funerals have featured outdoor processions, including wind, brass and percussion instruments in the 17th century and, in the 20th, imperial military bands.
Here is an overview of significant moments in the history of such music, from Elizabeth I to Princess Diana and the present.
Elizabeth I, 1603
Elizabeth I’s funeral, at Westminster Abbey, began the tradition of grand royal services. It was the first such ceremony to use the Anglican rites and feature its associated musical liturgy. While we do not know conclusively what was performed, illustrations and surviving accounts from musicians mention the outdoor procession featuring trumpeters and the combined choirs of the Chapel Royal and Westminster Abbey. The setting most likely used for the burial service is by Thomas Morley (1557-1602), possibly written in anticipation of the occasion and often considered the first of its kind. Morley’s setting reflects the solemnity of both the text and the occasion, and it became standard for royal funerals until the 18th century.
Mary II, 1695
Musical innovations made to the royal funeral began with Mary II and the inclusion of new music by Henry Purcell (1659-95), including one Graveside Sentence: “Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts.” Referred to as “Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary” (Z. 860), including the march and canzona also performed, Purcell’s setting of “Thou knowest, Lord” might have been composed to match Morley’s Sentences, accompanied by “flatt, mournful Trumpets” mirroring the vocal parts. Purcell’s “Funeral March” was a new, thunderous addition, opening with deep, heavy drums before the trumpets enter, both mournful and heraldic.
Anne’s funeral, at Westminster Abbey, showcases the royal funeral integrating new music into already existing settings of the Burial Service. Alongside Morley’s Opening Sentences were Funeral Sentences from the Chapel Royal organist William Croft (1678-1727). Croft’s Burial Service became the choice for royal funerals to come, and though it was written for Anne’s funeral, it was most likely not completed until 1722. He would use Purcell’s “Thou knowest, Lord” as one of the Sentences within his Burial Service, writing in his “Musica Sacra”(1724) that he “endeavoured, as near as possibly I could, to imitate that great Master and celebrated Composer.” Anne’s funeral also included a new anthem by Croft, “The Souls of the Righteous.”
The death of Caroline, the wife of George II, brought about a musical addition to the royal funeral befitting the Hanoverian queen. George commissioned a funeral anthem from George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) who had known Caroline as a child. Handel’s anthem, “The Ways of Zion Do Mourn” (HWV 264), is a monumental work that at the Westminster Abbey funeral “took up three quarter of an hour of the time,” The Grub-Street Journal described, and employed almost 200 performers. While an anthem, the various parts of the work recall the Lutheranism of Caroline and Handel, featuring quotations of that faith’s music. Notably, Mozart would use the melody of the anthem’s first chorus for his Requiem (1791).
Like so much about Victoria’s reign, her funeral was exceptionally different from that of her predecessors. Unlike previous monarchs, she requested a royal public funeral at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, and a private burial next to Prince Albert at Frogmore House, near Windsor. Because the public service prioritized the funeral as state function over the utility of burial, Croft’s Burial Service here is more an appeal to tradition rather than a liturgical and religious need. Accordingly, Purcell’s “Thou knowest, Lord” and “Man that is born of woman,” by S.S. Wesley (1810-1876),are referred to as anthems instead of Funeral Sentences, rationalizing their inclusion in the service. The end of the ceremony featured music by Gounod, Tchaikovsky, Spohr and Beethoven, wresting the funeral music from the hands of British composers.
RECENT ROYAL FUNERALS may offer insight into this tradition’s future. Princess Diana’s funeral, in 1997, featured Croft, but the anthem and procession choices embodied Diana the person: John Tavener’s “Song for Athene,” Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind,” and the second half of the “Libera me, Domine” from Verdi’s Requiem. With Tavener and Verdi, non-Protestant music and liturgy were included for the first time in a royal or state funeral; and all three works evoke a solemnity and majesty both timely and timeless.
Similarly, Prince Philip’s participation in his own funeral’s planning shows through in his choice of musical selections. Along with Croft were the hymn “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” a nod to his naval roots, and two pieces commissioned by him: Benjamin Britten’s “Jubilate Deo,” written for St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, and a setting of Psalm 104 by William Lovelady, arranged for four voices and organ. This musical flexibility shows another shift in the royal funeral tradition as it continues into the 21st century.
So, what can we expect for Elizabeth II? It has been 70 years since Britain has witnessed the sovereign’s funeral, and so much has changed in that time. Britain has entered a new era, post-Brexit, in which there may be a call to return to the music of old. But many composers have thrived in the second Elizabethan Age — as wide-ranging as Britten and Errollyn Wallen — with her coronation as a testament to musical innovation similar to Elizabeth I.
Britain’s future is unknown, and the end of Elizabeth II’s reign may be a turning point. Her funeral will sound like so many that came before. But it may also sound like the music of a new age.
Imani Danielle Mosley is an assistant professor of musicology at the University of Florida. She specializes in the music and culture of postwar Britain, Benjamin Britten, English modernism and 20th-century opera.