If you’ve witnessed a royal occasion on the television (or been lucky enough to attend one), it’s likely that at least some of the music was written especially for it. And it’s equally likely that some of it was composed by the Master of the Queens Music.
The role, which almost exclusively given to a composer, has existed for over 400 years and while the particulars of it will have changed, the basic premise endures. The Master of the Queen’s (or King’s) Music is in the service of the royal household, to provide musical comment for special royal occasions, or events of national importance. Think of it as the musical equivalent of the poet laureate.
Today those given the honor hold the post for ten years, though it was a life-long title for those serving in the role right up until 2004.
Have there been any memorable Masters? Here’s seven of the most notable…
Nicholas Lanier (1588-1666)
A composer, singer, lutenist, scenographer and painter of French Huguenot origin, Nicholas Lanier was the first musician to hold the title of Master of the King’s Music – serving both Charles I and II. He was appointed to the role in 1618, having first served as a royal lutenist and – as a connoisseur of the arts – he was instrumental in convincing the King to bring the Flemish painter Van Dyck to England. Lanier spent the Commonwealth period living in the Netherlands, after losing his role in 1649, when Charles I was deposed, but returned to resume duties to Charles II in 1660. Highly impressed by the new Italian music he heard on his many travels, he was one of the first English composers to introduce monody and recitative to England, helping to contribute to the development of the English Baroque style.
William Boyce (1711-1779)
Though his music is seldom performed today, Boyce was a prolific composer of his day, acquainted with Handel, Arne, Gluck, Bach, Abel and the young Mozart – all of whom admired his work. Brought up in London, he served as an organist at the Oxford Chapel, as a conductor at the Three Choirs Festival, and as a composer, writing music for venues including the Drury Lane Theater and the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, before landing a plum job as composer to the Chapel Royal. He was appointed Master of the King’s Musick in 1757. Though he later went deaf, he continued to compose, cementing a reputation as one of the foremost church music composers of his time. Following his death in 1779, the composer Charles Wesley (1757-1834) said of him, ‘a more modest man than Dr. Boyce I have never known. I never heard him speak a vain or ill-natured word, either to exalt himself or deprecate another.’
Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
it wasn’t until elgar was 67, in 1924, that he was appointed Master of the King’s Musick, by which time he had already occupied the position in the public’s mind for several years, and written most of his ‘royal music’, including the Imperial March (1897), the first four Pomp and Circumstance Marches (1901-1907) and the Coronation Ode (1901). Still, he used his tenure-during which the title of the post was changed to Master of King’s Music (dropping the ‘k’ from ‘Musick’)-to write one more Pomp and Circumstance March (1930) and his Nursery Suite (1931), dedicated to ‘their Royal Highnesses Princess Elizabeth and Margaret Rose.’ He also made sure that the Royal Music Library was well ordered. By the time he died, ten years later, there were few who would have considered as Elgar as anything other than – as his biographer Basil Maine put it – ‘first musician of the land.’
Arthur Bliss (1891-1975)
A pillar of British musical life, Arthur Bliss worked in the Overseas Music Service of the BBC and was the BBC’s Director of Music before being appointed Master of the Queen’s Music in 1953 – the year of the Queen’s Coronation. His first duty in the role was to compose the Processional for the Coronation – a daunting responsibility, but one that the composer, who wrote quickly and with facility-took in his stride. He went on to discharge his other duties with similar professionalism, producing music for state occasions ranging from the birth of a royal child to the funeral of Winston Churchill. He wrote his final cantata, Shield of Faith, celebrating 5000 years of St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, the year before his death in 1975.
Malcolm Williamson (1931-2003)
Some were surprised in 1975, when the Australian composer Malcolm Williamson was appointed master of the Queen’s music. Not only were there other more seemingly obvious candidates, among them Benjamin Britten, Michael Tippett and Malcolm Arnold, but Williamson was also the first non-Briton to hold the post. A former nightclub pianist who, in 1952, converted to Roman Catholicism, Williamson was a colorful character. In 1977 he caused controversy by failing to complete his ‘Jubilee Symphony’ for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, and he was outspoken in his criticism of his composer colleagues. As for his music: influenced as it was by everything from twelve-tone technique, to jazz and popular music, it was often criticised for its lack of discipline. Yet there was no denying the fertility of Williamson’s imagination, and over the course of his tenure, he wrote several works for the Royal Family, including the Jubilee Hymn (1977)feeling Lament in Memory of Lord Mountbatten of Burma (1980), feeling Ode to Queen Elizabeth (1980) and his Songs for a Royal Baby (1985).
Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-2016)
When Sir Peter Maxwell Davies was appointed Master in 2004 the terms of the role was changed, changing the tenure from a lifetime position to a ten-year position. Despite being a republican for most of his life, he embraced the role wholeheartedly, giving lectures decrying the decline of classical music provision in schools, and advising the Queen to create an annual Queen’s medal for music, to which she agreed. In fact, he was one of the most hard-working composers of all time, producing a staggering amount of work in a variety of styles over his career , from the violently experimental Eight Songs for a Mad King to light orchestral works, many of them drawing on the folk music of Orkney, where he lived for the latter part of his life.
Judith Weir (b1954)
Weir was announced as Master of the Queen’s Music in July 2014 and has two years remaining in the role. A prolific composer of opera, orchestral and choral works, she – like her predecessor Peter Maxwell Davies – has placed music education at the heart of her work in this prestigious role. every first commission came in 2015, to mark the 500th anniversary of Hampton Court Palace, and her tenure has seen her compose music for Her Majesty’s 90th birthday (in 2016), plus a number of works for community groups. She also composed a special commemorative piece to mark the centenary of the 1918 Armisitice. Her successor will be announced in 2024.