From one coronation to another
1953 coronation rehearsals. Viscount Montgomery with the Westminster Choir School
Lord Wallace was a chorister at the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. He shares his memories with The House
The 1953 coronation took place in another world. As a Westminster Abbey chorister I took it all for granted: the Abbey black from soot, with air raid damage not fully repaired, the bomb site outside the West End which was covered by a galleried stand for coronation spectators. Eight years after the Second World War, we’d sung at one field marshal’s funeral, and met another – Viscount Montgomery – who had “adopted” our choir school and would arrive from Switzerland (to our delight) with a cardboard box full of Tobler chocolates. Sweet rationing did not end until February 1953.
Looking back, the last coronation was profoundly English, deeply imperial and deferential. The only minister of religion not from the Church of England who played any part in the ceremony was the moderator of the Church of Scotland. The Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster watched the procession from outside; we were told that he had declined an invitation to join the congregation in the Abbey. Hundreds of hereditary peers thronged the north and south transepts, their robes and coronets brought out from where they’d been stored since before the war.
The last coronation was profoundly English, deeply imperial and deferential
As the “home team” the Abbey choristers were at the front of the choir gallery, so I could watch as successive processions brought in dignitaries from Britain’s dominions and colonies to sit below us – the Queen of Tonga instantly recognisable among so many smaller men. But by the time the Queen entered I and the other choristers were watching our choirmaster, perilously perched at the edge of the organ loft with an orchestra in front of him and 350 singers in galleries on both sides of the chancel. All those from English choirs and cathedrals were men and boys; but some of those sent from Dominion cathedrals turned out to be girls, to the consternation of those in charge of accommodation and facilities. One post-coronation recommendation was that next time it should be made clear that women were not to be included.
The Abbey was closed for months beforehand, to install the galleries that would allow it to house 8,000 participants. This gave us plenty of time to rehearse familiar and newly composed music. William Walton took us through his new Te Deum; an elderly Ralph Vaughan Williams was wheeled in by his younger wife to listen to his communion anthem. I remember the coronation music, which played a large part in the service, far better than the rest of the ceremony. As a 12-year-old I was as interested in what we would be given for dinner afterwards as the historical significance of the occasion.
The Queen took an active interest in coronation anniversaries and the services that marked them. These have reflected social and political change. At the 50th anniversary service the Cardinal Archbishop read the first lesson, with leaders of Britain’s other churches behind him in the sanctuary and representatives of Britain’s other faiths at the front of the transept. The 60th anniversary service included a procession bringing a vial of anointing oil to the high altar, designed to include representatives of public service from different parts of our national life. Naval ratings and soldiers led, with guides and scouts; I was at the back in parliamentary robes, with a High Court judge in formal dress. In front of us marched a lollipop lady in her luminous coat; and it was her picture that made the front pages the next day.
The coronation of 2023 will be designed to fit the circumstances of today’s Britain: smaller scale, a different blend of historical ritual and social representation. The music will also be a different mix of tradition and modernity – but I hope it will sound as magnificent as 70 years ago.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire, is a second bass in the Parliament Choir. In 1953 he was a treble.
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