James MacMillan

In praise of the St George’s Chapel choristers

  • From Spectator Life
Image: Getty

The stark simplicity of the music performed at Prince Philip’s funeral service will have made a gentle but huge impact on the mourners, inside St George’s Chapel Windsor and on the millions watching on television around the world. Those of us who have some involvement in the world of choral music were mightily impressed at how the music was delivered, by only four choristers when the norm is a full complement of about 30 singers, adults and children. Three of the four singers were Lay Clerks of St George’s Chapel Choir (countertenor, tenor and baritone) with an added female soprano voice, conducted by James Vivian and the organ was played by Luke Bond.

The pressure of singing choral music as soloists cannot be underestimated – each voice is exposed and bare, and on this occasion broadcast live internationally, in one of the world’s most important ceremonies, the handful of musicians must have needed nerves of steel. Amazingly, they looked relaxed, and certainly in complete control.

The choice of music seemed moulded to the intimacy of the ensemble, reduced because of social distancing rules. Some of the plainer and more solemn music seemed even more beautiful in the clarity and purity of the four individual voices, especially the Funeral Sentences by William Croft, sung at Handel’s funeral in 1759 and employed in every royal funeral since, and in the even earlier works by Robert Stone (c1550) and William Smith (c1630).

The solemn simplicity of this music was also apparent in the Russian orthodox Kontakion of the Departed (in an English 19th century adaptation), reminding us perhaps of the Duke’s Orthodox origins.

Hearing the Duke’s favourite hymn Eternal Father Strong to Save (with its strong naval associations) delivered by only four singers, grabbed the attention of the listener in a new and fresh way, throwing a deep light on the text O hear us when we cry to thee For those in peril on the sea.

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Written by
James MacMillan

Sir James MacMillan CBE is a Scottish composer and conductor. He was Composer-Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic from 2000-2009 and of the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonie from 2009-2013.

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