Her majesty's music: The music that defined Queen Elizabeth II and her reign
Many changes took place during the 70-year reign of Queen Elizabeth II — but perhaps no changes were more pronounced than those that the music world went through.
The BBC has been documenting the queen’s love of music through an audio series called Her Majesty’s Music. The series is hosted by British-American broadcasting icon Paul Gambaccini, host of the BBC music quiz show Counterpoint among other music shows.
In the program, Paul explains the many ways in which music evolved during the queen’s lifespan and how music intersected with her life.
Queen Elizabeth II’s life in music
- Edward Elgar’s “The Waggon (Passes),” from the “Nursery Suite,” performed by the London Symphony Orchestra
This seven-movement piece was completed in 1931 when Elizabeth was just 5 years old and was written as a tribute to her, her newborn sister Margaret and the girl’s mother, the then-Duchess of York. The young Elizabeth was among a small selective audience that saw the Suite’s second-ever performance.
The composer, Englishman Edward Elgar, held the highly regarded position of Master of the King’s Music. The holder of the post would serve the monarch of the day in a plethora of ways, directing royal ensembles and composing or commissioning music. As Gambaccini put it, “the position is similar to that of poet laureate.”
- Gustav Holst’s “Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity,” from “The Planets,” performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra
The seven-movement orchestral suite was written by the English composer Gustav Holst over the course of three years starting in 1914. The most famous movement of the suite is the fourth, “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity.” “Jupiter” was a focal piece of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation on June 2, 1953, and was considered a contemporary masterpiece at the time. It has only grown in popularity since.
- Sir Cecil Spring Rice’s “I Vow To Thee, My Country,” set to the tune of Gustav Holst’s Jupiter
The tune in the middle of “Jupiter,” a melody Gustav Holst called “Thaxted,” was so popular that, with the composer’s permission, it had a poem by Sir Cecil Spring Rice set to it. Spring Rice, while a talented writer, was better known for his role in international diplomacy as a British Ambassador to Sweden, Persia (now Iran) and the United States. He was also a close friend of former President Theodore Roosevelt and served as the best man at his second wedding. Unsurprisingly, the hymn was an instant hit with the British public and royal family.
- Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “People Will Say We’re In Love,” from the musical “Oklahoma!”
The queen was also a young fan of the stage musical genre. Among her favorite musicals was the hit American show “Oklahoma!” by the influential musical duo of composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist-dramatist Oscar Hammerstein II.
The musical — and particularly the love song “People Will Say We’re In Love” — held a special meaning for the queen. At age 21, she attended the UK premiere on April 30, 1947, accompanied by her family as guests of honor. However, secretly in attendance with the family was a young man whom the future queen was courting — Philip Mountbatten, the future Prince Philip. The song held special meaning for the two.
- “God Save The Queen,” performed by Brian May
It is not difficult to work out what the significance of the royal anthem “God Save The Queen” (now “God Save The King” for the first time in seven decades — one of a number of possibly confusing changes.) However, this particular rendition is special for two reasons: It was performed by Brian May, the guitarist for the aptly-named legendary British rock band “Queen.” And, it was performed on the roof of Buckingham Palace as part of the 50th-anniversary celebrations of the queen’s reign.
Gambaccini recounted watching the queen and May converse at a meet and greet a few years later. He remembered that when being introduced to May and other famous guitarists, the queen asked the question she always — often in jest — asked celebrities she was meeting: “And what do you do?” to which May replied “I am also a guitarist and in fact I have performed on your roof!”
- Elton John’s “Your Song,” performed by John in June 2022 for the queen’s Platinum Jubilee
Gambaccini describes legendary musician Elton John as “One of several ‘commoners’ who could have a conversation with royalty without inhibition” and “perhaps her [the queen’s] favorite rockstar.” John performed many times at different events celebrating the Queen, including in June, when he performed a special rendition of his hit “Your Song” as part of her Platinum Jubilee, commemorating seven decades as the queen. It’s among the queen’s favorite modern songs.
- Duke Ellington’s “The Single Petal Of A Rose,” from “Queen’s Suite”
Duke Ellington met Queen Elizabeth II in 1958, – the early years of her reign. He was famously rather taken with her, so much so that he began sketching his aptly named “Queen’s Suite” that night. He recorded the six- piece suite in 1959 and sent a private copy to the queen. He did not allow it to be released during his lifetime. It is still not known if the queen ever listened.
- Morecambe and Wise’s “Positive Thinking,” performed by Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise
Queen Elizabeth II was known to have a keen sense of humor. It is considered to be one the reasons she maintained such popularity in the UK during her reign, in spite of torrid moments including the royal family’s treatment of Princess Diana, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle and the scandals involving Prince Andrew. Two of her favorite — and indeed the UK’s favorite — comedians were the double act of Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise, known as Morecambe and Wise. As Gambaccini recounts, once when meeting the royal family once, the duo was were told by Prince Philip that their Christmas comedy special had been the cause of a dinner delay. One of their most popular comedy songs was “Positive Thinking.”
- “This Little Light Of Mine,” performed by Ladysmith Black Mambazo
The Queen’s reign was not without controversy. The monarch failed to apologize for the historical atrocities committed by the British Empire, helmed by the royal family through the previous centuries. She also faced criticism for her failure to condemn the Apartheid regime of South Africa until it was the dying days of the leadership there.
However, the queen did develop a close relationship with the nation’s first post-Apartheid president, the legendary leader of the resistance Nelson Mandela. The queen also appreciated the beautiful music of the nation and was delighted to have South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo sing as part of her birthday celebration concert in 2018. They sang the song “This Little Light Of Mine.”
- Barry, Bricusse and Newley’s “Goldfinger,” from the movie “Goldfinger,” – performed by Dame Shirley Bassey
Another totemic figure in UK culture is the super spy that spawned a huge franchise: James Bond. There have been many iterations of the suave, smart speaking British spy — who himself has caused much controversy in recent years for the blatantly misogynistic undertones to his character — and to match there have been many iconic theme songs. No James Bond opening credit song may be more famous than the song ‘“Goldfinger” taken from the hit film of the same name. The singer was Welsh icon Shirley Bassey, who performed for the queen on many occassions and in 1999 was made a aDame by Queen Elizabeth II in 1999. and who performed for the queen on many occasions.
As for the Queen’s relationship with James Bond, she was featured as part of a stunt performed at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics by the most recent actor to play the spy, Daniel Craig. We aren’t going to ruin it for you. Check out the video!
- George Frideric Handel’s “Zadok The Priest”
The final piece of this list is the one that has featured at every coronation since that of King George II in 1727. The piece was composed by German composer George Frideric Handel, who moved to London and received multiple commissions from the King before and after his coronation.
The piece is now considered a staple of the UK list of national anthems and will be heard soon again at King Charles III’s coronation.
More of the music that meant so much to Queen Elizabeth II can be found on Gambaccini’s radio series Her Majesty’s Music.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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