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Royal composer reflects on the queen’s close relationship with music

The death of Queen Elizabeth II set into motion a massive cascade of protocols, procedures, cultural shifts and royal changes, big and small. Overnight, we heard the British national anthem, “God Save the Queen,” updated to reflect the kingdom’s new reality, its apposite monarch tweaked in the title, its pronouns abruptly swung back to the masculine. Eagle-eyed audience members in the Royal Opera House noted that the queen’s monogram had been blacked out from the curtains before the king’s could be added.

And composer Judith Weir’s job title suddenly switched: She is now Master of the King’s Music.

Before your mind offers up the image of some dutiful squire darting between the throne and the turntable, the position of master is actually 396 years old, originating under the first King Charles in 1626 — back when music was musick.

In olde tymes, the master was charged with composing all manner of royal music, from marches and fanfares to coronation anthems and biblical settings for funerals and weddings.

Over the centuries, the function of the master as primarily a musician composing and performing for the pleasure of the sovereign has evolved into something more akin to a poet laureate — a liaison between the wide world of music and the relative vacuum of the palace.

At 68, the London-based Weir is the first woman to hold the position of master. She has only 20 predecessors, most of whom held their positions for life. John Eccles, the longest-serving master, was appointed in 1700 and worked for 35 years under four monarchs. Sir Walter Parratt’s sprawling 31-year post, for example, spanned three crowns. He was succeeded in 1924 by Edward Elgar.

Since the 2004 naming of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (which followed the 2003 death of the brash Australian composer and master Malcolm Williamson) the position has been a 10-year appointment.

Peter Maxwell Davies, British composer and ‘Master of the Queen’s Music,’ dies at 81

Weir seemed a natural fit for the tasks at hand when she was named master in 2014, with a rich history with the royals. She was awarded a CBE (a high order of British chivalry) in 1995 and the Queen’s Medal for Music in 2007. (Two years into her tenure as master, she was named president of the Royal Society of Musicians.)

Her voice as a composer also fits the bill. She has created exciting, kinetic works for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra and the London Sinfonietta. But as her choral work demonstrates, she also excels at constructing colossal columns of sound that still feel luminous and light. Her magic is her majesty.

In her primary function as master, Weir has composed a number of works for royal occasions and ceremonies. To mark the centenary of the 1918 Armistice, she composed “The True Light,” premiered by the Choir of Westminster Abbey. Most recently, for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations in June, Weir premiered “By Wisdom” — a soaring choral setting of Proverbs 3 that seizes on those verses’ momentary detour into the feminine: “Long life is in her right hand; in her left are riches and honour.”

It’s unclear which, if any, of Weir’s works will be included in the queen’s state funeral on Monday at Westminster Abbey, for which the musical program remains under strict embargo. But we do know that the choirs of Westminster Abbey and His Majesty’s Chapel Royal, St. James’s Palace will perform under James O’Donnell, the abbey’s music director, organist and master of choristers. And Weir’s way with a chorus does tend to clear a path to the divine.

What happens at Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral? Here’s what we know so far.

I caught up with Weir by phone a few days after the queen’s death to talk about her historic position, her memories of the queen and her hopes for what life under King Charles III might sound like.

Q: I imagine this possibility was on the horizon, but has the aftermath of the queen’s passing felt different from what you anticipated?

A: It has hit us all. We knew the queen was very old and would go one day, but the actual moment, that’s quite a thing. As you say, we knew it was coming, although you could never be completely prepared. But I was involved very regularly in big national occasions — nothing, I suppose, can beat this — but I had to write music or otherwise be involved in these big services. They are the way that the nation saw the queen on these big occasions, the last being her jubilee just two months ago, three months ago. So I have a bit of familiarity with the sort of things that we do.

Q: The particulars of the musical programs we’ll hear over the next few days — are those things that were selected in advance by you?

A: To be honest, the answer is no to that. I contribute to these occasions, but really the people who are at the sharp end of choosing are the music directors of the cathedrals involved. I think my job title makes me sound much more in charge than I am! But I am a composer and that’s mostly how I contribute.

Q: What does your role entail in particular?

A: I’m now in my ninth year of doing it, and in normal times each year we have at least one big event where there would be a large service or concert … and I would write a new music for that. I try to be a go-between between musicians and other people who might need my help, so that’s one thing. And there are some palace duties, particularly the medal that the queen gives out to a leading musician every year. That’s quite a thing: organizing a committee, getting the musicians together with the queen. She spent a lot of time herself with these presentations. … There are all sorts of other things. Every year I’m asked to invite a whole troupe of musical people to the queen’s garden parties. That’s quite a job.

Q: What were the old-school Masters of the King’s Music doing?

A: Well, not as much emailing! Many of them were performing musicians, that’s how it started off. Charles I, who founded the job, was very jealous of the French king, who had his violons du roi — the 24 violins of the king. It’s moved away from being a music director and conductor. Nowadays, it’s been composer for quite a long time.

Q: To what extent, when you’re composing for an occasion within the royal purview, are you taking into account the personal musical tastes of, say, the queen?

A: In my experience, the queen was great about music. She had a good musical upbringing with piano lessons, doing things like madrigal singing when she was young. She had an immense respect for musicians, and a lot of understanding. Plus, great experience, particularly of the things that concerned her, like military bands, of which we have many splendid ones in this country. And, of course, the church choirs, because she was the head of the Church of England and had immensely detailed knowledge of them. What particular music she would have liked to have heard was guesswork on my part, although we often discussed music. I think she must have liked the kinds of music they traditionally play, particularly the repertoire of choral music from the late 19th century, say [Charles Villiers] Stanford up to [Herbert] Howells. That’s the kind of repertoire that she knew well.

I didn’t and don’t feel when writing that it’s particularly to please the monarch, I think it’s more to make the occasion right, and in particular, expressive of what’s going on. I felt that strongly with my most recent commission, which was for the jubilee service, and I had the strong feeling that everybody wanted to thank the queen.

Q: Around the time of the jubilee, there was a big hubbub around a shortlist of the queen’s favorite songs that was published, and I recall being struck by what seemed to be her penchant for joy. Songs like “Oklahoma!,” “Cheek to Cheek” by Fred Astaire. Not something I assumed about the queen.

A: Yes, didn’t it include Vera Lynn’s “The White Cliffs of Dover”? That’s very interesting. Firstly, I have no idea how that list got compiled. I can certainly say I never particularly recall speaking to the queen about those titles. But I don’t think it’s implausible. I think she did have a potential for good cheer. One of the memories we all have of her is this incredible smile that would really light her up and light us up. And I don’t think it was phony — it would just subtly come up from some place. It’s often mentioned that she had a great sense of humor — quite a dry sense of humor — but I do think of her as a cheerful, good-humored person, at least some of the time.

Q: The passing of the queen is such a cultural shift. How are you approaching your role in this transitional time?

A: I think most of us have grown up with, as we knew him, Prince Charles. He actually is a most unusual lover of classical music. He was a cellist in his youth, played in college orchestra and really intensely loves classical music. He’s made some very touching statements when interviewed about his interests and has made it clear that it’s absolutely top of the list. I don’t expect there to be less interest in what we musicians do, and I’m sort of anticipating that there’s a chance for us to do even more, once he gets over the huge backlog of work he has to do.

Q: Is there any particular piece of music that we know — that we’re going to hear over and over in the coming days — that still touches you in an unexpected way?

A: It’s a sort of obvious thing to say, but William Byrd’s “O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth,” just because he named Elizabeth I in that anthem. There’s something about it that really touches me. I don’t know if anyone will sing it, but they obviously should.

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