The Choirbook for the Queen, which has recently been launched, is a remarkable initiative, involving most of the leading Church musicians of our day and many philanthropists besides. The idea behind it is simple enough: to put together a collection of anthems (I use the word precisely) to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, with the added intention of showcasing ‘the excellence of choral writing and the continuation of the choral tradition by cathedral choirs and other choral foundations around the country’. Already in place is a plan for 80 of our cathedral and collegiate choirs to sing two of these anthems each this year, some to be broadcast on the BBC.
To encourage choirs to join in with these performances complete sets of the two volumes that make up the Choirbook have been widely distributed. The expense of such an exercise has been met principally by the Foyle Foundation, but thereafter by individuals who wanted to make sure that their local choral foundation would not miss out. The list of these individuals is long and impressive: Dame Janet Baker ensured that York Minster had copies; the Blair family did the same for Westminster Cathedral; Sir Colin Davis for Chichester Cathedral; Raymond Gubbay for King’s; Sir David Willcocks for Westminster Abbey, and so on. With Prince Charles as patron, this was a scheme that was not going to be allowed to go off at half-cock.
The list of contributing writers is impressive, too. As far as I can see, everybody who is anybody has been included except Harrison Birtwistle, Thomas Adès and Brian Ferneyhough. Otherwise, 44 composers have contributed one piece each of which 11 are new commissions, the remaining 33 items having already been published in other places, though all are of recent composition.
Before the books were made public there was a rumour that, because the Queen was head of state in many different countries with different creeds, the collection would need to reflect this diversity. In fact, what we have is quite narrowly defined: 44 British subjects setting largely English-language religious texts (five are in Latin), suitable for performance at choral evensong or other Christian celebration.
There has been no attempt to provide a spread of material for any other liturgy — no Mags and Nuncs, Mass settings, responses, psalm chants or hymns. Just anthems. As Peter Maxwell Davies, Master of the Queen’s Music, says in his foreword, the intention was ‘to celebrate the present-day “renaissance” of choral music in the Church’.
Max’s use of the word ‘renaissance’ is deliberate: there are several references here to the Eton Choirbook, which is labelled as the model for this collection. To a certain extent the comparison is meaningful: it was compiled around the year 1500 for the use of a royal foundation, and included all the leading composers of the day. However, surely no one can be hoping that its fate will repeat itself today: there is no evidence that its music got into the general stream of singing in the 16th century — the reformation would have made sure of that — and then it vanished without trace for several centuries, only to be found incomplete at the end of the 19th century. Since then, there have been sporadic performances of its exceptionally difficult music, but I suspect that sporadic performances 500 years from now is not what Max and his colleagues have in mind.
So how difficult, and how memorable is the music of the Choirbook for the Queen? Some of it is both very well written and suitable for use in the context of daily cathedral sevices, by which I mean little rehearsal with children bearing the brunt of the workload. The masterpieces have yet to declare themselves, but the pieces by Gabriel Jackson, Richard Rodney Bennett, Judith Weir and Giles Swayne among others seem set fair. Some are very straightforward and unaccompanied (Sally Beamish, Colin Matthews, James MacMillan), some have elaborate organ parts (Robert Saxton, Julian Philips), and just one or two are so difficult (Richard Baker, Cheryl Frances-Hoad) that one wonders why Birtwistle, Adès and Ferneyhough, who are famed for their difficulty, were omitted.
One other difference between this Choirbook and the one for Eton is that the earlier composers lived and died for sacred music. Conversely, as I reported in this column last month, by the beginning of the 20th century Stanford, who for many was the most adept Anglican composer there has ever been, thought that just writing Church music was not good enough, and so rather anxiously penned symphonies, concertos and operas. Many of the Choirbook for the Queen’s composers, like Max himself, have by no means restricted themselves to writing Church music — so how important really is a collection like this? Well, appreciation of sacred music of all kinds has been on the increase for decades now, which is not so true of modern symphonies and concertos.
Whether the royal genesis of this collection will result in any lasting clout for it remains to be seen, but some of its music will surely become an integral part of a great repertory.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 10, 2012