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The phone call came on Christmas Eve — an unusual time for an important, and top-secret, commission. The British-American composer Tarik O’Regan had been told to expect a call on a confidential matter from an old friend, Andrew Nethsingha, then director of music at St John’s College, University of Cambridge. Perhaps Nethsingha needed a reference connected to his planned move to Westminster Abbey, where just weeks later he assumed his current role as organist and master of the choristers. Or maybe there was news of someone in trouble, O’Regan thought. So when the actual request came down the line, “I thought he was winding me up,” he recalls.
For it was during the call with Nethsingha that O’Regan learned that King Charles III had chosen him, along with a broad range of other contemporary composers, to write music for the coronation service. Once he was convinced that it wasn’t some sort of Christmas hoax, he began wondering how he had ended up on the king’s radar. There were plenty of reasons for the king to choose O’Regan, and they help us understand the new king and the monarchy he is trying to create — or at least project.
The king has long appreciated O’Regan’s music, going back to a piece of his performed at Lincoln Cathedral in 2006 as part of a celebration of a newly restored medieval stained-glass window. It was a surprise when then-Prince Charles turned up for that ceremony, even more so when he spoke to O’Regan afterward.
“What I thought was going to be an insubstantial ‘Hello, nice piece’ wasn’t,” O’Regan told New Lines, over coffee in London’s South Kensington, in between rehearsals for the upcoming performance in Westminster Abbey. The piece of music was for two choirs, and the Prince of Wales (who could have heard it only that one time, given that this was its premiere) referenced its antiphonal nature and subsequent resonances.
“This was a level of specificity I wasn’t expecting,” O’Regan remembers.
Charles had clearly been listening attentively but was also well informed.
“There’s a stereotype that, until that point, I think I’d bought into, that he was a protected, conservative privileged individual, who’s not really connected,” O’Regan says. “But then hearing him speak … well, the penny dropped.”
It wasn’t really that surprising, once O’Regan considered the prince’s life.
“I thought,” the composer recalls, “you must have seen more concerts than I’ve seen, you must have heard more types of music than I’ve heard, and if you’re paying attention at this level to all of these things, then a lot of it must be staying with you. And you must have a very broad sense of what’s out there musically.”
And that explains the breadth of the musical program over the last weekend during the lavish coronation ceremony of the king and Queen Camilla. From “Make a Joyful Noise Unto the Lord,” set to the triumphant music of Andrew Lloyd Webber (a composer familiar to so many of the country, either from school productions or his hit musicals in the West End), to the gospel Ascension Choir singing TV and film composer Debbie Wiseman’s “Alleluia” to O’Regan’s hauntingly beautiful Agnus Dei, the new music for the occasion was varied and performed by the very best musicians in the country.
“When I began to see the names getting involved,” O’Regan remembers, “I thought, purely as a musical event, this is going to be fantastic. Imagine it not a coronation but a concert at the Royal Albert Hall — you’ve got some of the greatest performers around and this broad range of music that’s going to be done — it’s going to be fabulous. So I was very excited.”
The coronation music began well before the main players arrived at the abbey for the start of the formal service on May 6. Guests were treated to almost an hour of world-class music. There were four specially commissioned pieces, music used in previous coronations (such as William Walton’s “Crown Imperial,” composed for George VI in 1937) and classical repertoire pieces by Purcell, Handel, Bach, Elgar, Holst, Vaughan Williams and others. Music threaded throughout the subsequent two-hour service, making this a truly astonishing display of the country’s talent.
O’Regan was glad about the specific part he had been assigned, the Agnus Dei, an intimate part of the service when the newly crowned king and queen would take Communion — a moment for music that is reflective and quiet. The order of service shows the coronation, broadly speaking, to be a perfectly normal Church of England Sunday service, or as O’Regan put it: “A Eucharistic service with a bit of bling.” This means that there’s a familiar shape to the whole event, and the music for each element of the service is part of an extremely long tradition of choral worship — a tradition the selection reflected, from the Byzantine chant to William Byrd’s work to Handel’s beloved “Zadok the Priest” (composed for the coronation of George II in 1727) to the 12 new commissions.
“I’ve always liked that,” O’Regan says. “There is a pure functional sense: It’s got to say these words in this way, and it’s part of the dramatic arc.” Yet composers always hope their music has a life beyond the single function: “You can also pluck it out and put it in a concert, and it has to fit both roles, the piece existing — in this case — within the walls of the abbey and outside.”
To make church music fit for its primary function, you first have to listen to the biblical words it is set to, which in the case of the Agnus Dei is the repeated: “Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us,” or in the last iteration, “Grant us thy peace.”
“You can think of it from a biblical perspective,” O’Regan explains, “or you can think of it from a more general perspective — what a time to be asking for peace. Or you can just listen to the notes and just hear it as abstract music that you may or may not like” — that is, outside the abbey walls.
This dual function of church music, for both private worship and common enjoyment, could be a metaphor for the coronation itself, in its mix of the most extravagantly public gestures combined with private moments between clergy and king — one entirely hidden behind the “anointing screen,” another the personal act of taking Communion, accompanied by the Agnus Dei.
It isn’t just musical breadth that the king’s choices show, but also his attention — seen throughout the two-hour service — to the diversity of the country. This appeared to be far more than lip service, epitomized in the smile the king exchanged with Hindu representative Lord Patel. For the first time in British history, Welsh was used in the music (a language the king learned as he prepared for his investiture as Prince of Wales) for the Kyrie (the first part of the service, the full words being: “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy”), composed by Paul Mealor and sung by bass-baritone Sir Bryn Terfel.
As reflected so clearly in his name, Tarik O’Regan’s background is itself diverse and, as a result, so are his musical influences. Growing up in London’s Croydon, he spent many of his holidays with his mother’s family in Morocco and Algeria. He remembers the cassette tape shops of the time. There were “lines and piles of tape everywhere,” places where you could ask about a particular oud player, and there would be a tape, to be listened to on long car journeys during his childhood, interspersed with his mother’s own loves, British rock-and-roll or contemporary artists such as Madonna, an eclecticism that has stayed with him.
Listening to Algerian folk music that he had heard as a child, he noticed an interesting feature.
“It’s fundamentally a music based on unison,” O’Regan says. “Everyone is more or less playing the same line, but because they’re not robots, because they’re humans, it’s very slightly displaced, very slightly out … and it creates this depth.” Oddly enough, this is also part of the traditional music of his Irish side too. “If you listen to a ceilidh band in a pub, they’re basically all playing the same melody, but it’s never quite exact, so it creates this texture and depth, which is why it can sound so resonant in the tiny dry acoustics of a pub.”
This is the approach O’Regan took for his Agnus Dei.
“I immediately had the main idea for it,” he told me, “and it really did kind of write itself over the Christmas and New Year holiday.” It begins with a simple, beautiful phrase, which “slowly breaks apart, and the organ captures the resonances — a bit like putting your foot down on the sustaining pedal of a piano. It starts picking up all the clusters of notes. And then slowly the material gets handed over to the organ, to come back together. It’s a very simple idea.”
Simple it may be, but stunningly effective, and both in structure and melody it shows a diversity of influence that the service as a whole was aiming for. No doubt the king is delighted with his Agnus Dei, which will surely live on, as so much coronation music through the centuries has done, in our musical repertoire.
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