Music

Masters of the Queen's Music: a timeline

From Edward Elgar to Judith Weir, here are the 7 composers who served Queen Elizabeth.

From Edward Elgar to Judith Weir, here are the 7 composers who served Queen Elizabeth

Over the near century of Queen Elizabeth’s life, she knew 7 different Masters of Music, 5 of whom served during her reign. (Chris Jackson)

Written by Catherine McClelland

As the longest-reigning and longest-living British monarch in history, Queen Elizabeth's legacy is far-reaching. To reflect on her life is to marvel at her many accomplishments: She served in the military as a driver and mechanic during World War II; she was a lifelong supporter of inter-faith relations and respect for all religions; she was the first British monarch to visit Ireland; she joined Facebook in 2010 and used a smart phone to text her grandchildren; she championed the corgi.

Less prominent, but important nonetheless, has been her appointment of a succession of Masters of the Queen's Music, an office instituted in 1626 by Charles I to add pomp and circumstance to royal functions like weddings, funerals, coronations and jubilees. It's an honorary appointment that continues to this day, and while there are no fixed duties, most of the 21 masters who have served the British monarchy so far have been eminent composers who have contributed new music to royal occasions.

Over the 96 years of Queen Elizabeth's life, she knew seven different Masters of Music, five of whom served during her reign. Learn about them below, in chronological order.

1924-34: Edward Elgar

When Elizabeth was born in 1926, her grandfather, George V, was king and Edward Elgar was Master of the King's Musick. Elgar had composed his famous Pomp and Circumstance marches and the Imperial March long before his appointment, but those ceremonial works proved he had the right stuff for the royal position. Elgar actually wrote very little music for the king. His main contribution was to reorganize the music library and, during his tenure, the archaic "k" was dropped from the job title. In 1931, Elgar wrote Nursery Suite dedicated to "their royal highnesses the Duchess of York, and the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose."

1934-41: Henry Walford Davies

Elgar's successor was an organist, choirmaster and educator, but Walford Davies was best known as the host of a popular BBC radio program called Music and the Ordinary Listener. His tenure as Master of the King's Music spanned the great royal upheaval — the death of King George V, the abdication of King Edward VIII and the coronation of George VI in 1937. Princess Elizabeth and her sister attended their father's coronation and heard the choir sing Davies' anthem "Confortare: Be strong and play the Man." According to the newsreel below, "they enjoyed every minute of the ceremony in round-eyed childish wonderment."

1942-52: Arnold Bax

While King Edward VIII had to give up the throne to marry the divorcee Wallis Simpson, composer Arnold Bax left his wife and two children for the pianist Harriet Cohen in 1918. For more than 20 years he maintained a relationship with her and another woman, Mary Gleaves, before he was appointed Master of the King's Music in 1942. By then Bax was semi-retired with a large catalogue of music, including seven symphonies. His royal works include fanfares for the royal wedding in 1947 and a short work for piano and orchestra for Princess Elizabeth's 21st birthday called Morning Song.

1953-75: Arthur Bliss

After Queen Elizabeth's coronation, the job title changed to Master of the Queen's Music for Arthur Bliss. Bliss was a busy composer-conductor who wrote one of the first successful film scores for Things to Come, an H.G. Wells adaptation. His other most popular works are the ballet Checkmate and the symphony Morning Heroes, dedicated to the victims of World War I. Bliss enjoyed the job of royal composer, writing for many special occasions including the investiture of the Prince of Wales in 1969.

1975-2003: Malcolm Williamson

When Bliss died in 1975, the choice of his successor was controversial. Malcolm Williamson was born in Australia, making him the first non-Brit to serve as royal composer. His range of interests was exceedingly broad. He played piano in a nightclub, converted to Catholicism, became fascinated with the music of Olivier Messiaen and learned to play the organ. He wrote little operas for young people that encouraged audience participation. He taught Scandinavian literature at an Australian university, and he wrote music that incorporated Indigenous elements and humanitarian causes.

But his tenure as Master of the Queen's Music got off to a bad start when Williamson failed to complete a symphony for the Queen's Silver Jubilee in time for the performance. The incident had a lasting effect on his career: according to Williamson's 2003 obituary in the Daily Telegraph, "when royal displeasure leaked out, he found himself cold-shouldered by the musical establishment." He was excluded from some high-profile royal occasions, such as the wedding of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana.

Williamson's outrageous behavior may have had just as much to do with the royal displeasure. There are stories of him appearing in front of the Queen in a kaftan or a silly hat, of his disregard for basic hygiene, his open bisexuality and his continual battle with alcohol.

Williamson did produce a short list of royal compositions, including the Mass of Christ the King for the Queen's Silver Jubilee and Songs for a Royal Baby for Prince Harry in 1985.

2004-14: Peter Maxwell Davies

After Williamson's dubious tenure as Master of the Queen's Music, the post was changed from a lifetime appointment to a 10-year term, according to the royal press release, "allowing more composers to take up this honorary position." Peter Maxwell Davies was quite surprised by his appointment because he felt he had the reputation for being avant-garde, maverick and anti-establishment.

In 2005, the publication Royal Insight asked Davies about his idea of a job description. He replied: "Be open to all possibilities. Make large musical gestures. Be prepared to be intimate." Davies has fulfilled the intimate part of the job by writing a Christmas carol for the Queen each year. On a larger scale, he was involved in the creation of the Queen's Medal for Music, an award given annually to someone who has had major influence on musical life in the U.K.

Davies marked the Queen's Diamond Jubilee with a musical landmark of his own, dedicating his Symphony No. 9 to the Queen. It was premiered on June 9, 2012, by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in a program that also included Benjamin Britten's National Anthem and Beethoven's Symphony No. 9.

He died in March 2016.

2014-present: Judith Weir

The first woman in the position, Judith Weir told the Guardian upon her appointment that she intended to use her influence to improve the state of music education.

"They had a great sentence in the appointment letter," she told the Guardian, "something like: 'The Queen would like the position of the Master of the Queen's Music to be for the enjoyment and openness of music in the nation.' So it's a very wide description, and they said it's absolutely up to the person who does it to make it their own."

In 2016, Weir composed "I Love all Beauteous Things" to celebrate Queen Elizabeth's 90th birthday. For the centennial of Armistice Day at Westminster Abbey on Nov. 11, 2018, Weir was commissioned to write a new anthem. "The True Light" was performed for the first time by the Choir of Westminster Abbey, as conducted by James O'Donnell, organist and Master of the Choristers.

Weir's tenure in the position extends through 2024.

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