Friday, April 29; viewed online on The Royal Channel on YouTube.
Even as a little girl, I never imagined myself as a princess. My mother neither pushed nor discouraged fairy tale daydreams, but whatever effect Disney had on me was easily undone by my own contrary, suspicious nature and my early and abiding interest in historical drama and classical mythology, neither of which makes being a princess look like a dependable route to happily-ever-afters. My favorite Halloween costume was a pioneer girl dress that Mom made me during my Laura Ingalls Wilder phase. I remember laughing at a classmate who thought it was better to be a princess than a ruling queen, and I had nothing but contempt (an attitude I now consider rather unfair) for poor Sara Crewe of A Little Princess.
This is all to say that, if anything, I feel a bit sorry for Kate Middleton, with whom I wouldn’t trade places for anything in the world. I certainly had no inclination to wake up at 4 a.m. to watch her irrevocably consign herself to a life in a well-appointed glass prison as national symbol and tabloid fodder.
I do, however, have a nostalgic fondness for traditional, high church weddings. Back when I was an organist, I played for dozens of ceremonies and eventually planned my own, pillaging from the hymnals and liturgies of several denominations, and those experiences gave me both a love of religious music (ironic given my distrust of religion) and an appreciation for the subtleties with which one makes a formal service one’s own. Given that, I suppose it was inevitable that I’d eventually be sucked in to watching the royal wedding online, princess aversion notwithstanding. I might not be one to swoon over fairy tale weddings, but I’ll happily coo over a boys’ choir singing hymn descants. We all have our weaknesses.
The Anglican Book of Common Prayer—used, of course, as befits the wedding of the future Supreme Governor of the Church of England—has moments of true poetry, even if it is uncomfortably fixated on the idea of marriage as being principally a childbearing endeavor. (I took the BCP’s blessing of the marriage for my own wedding but cut the optional paragraph on baby-making.) The “Dearly beloved” invocation is genuinely beautiful, particularly when intoned with such an appealing English accent. William and Kate used the traditional vows but supposedly wrote their own prayer for their union, and to my (perhaps ungenerous) surprise, it was quite nice, marked by brevity, humility, and a commitment to service.
As for the music, William and Kate clearly were hampered somewhat by England’s lackluster musical heritage (oh, the perils of nationalism!). England must have used up all its cultural mojo on literature and theater because not one composer rises above the second tier, if that. I mean, nowhere but at a wedding of British royalty would one ever hear so much music by C.H.H. Parry—pleasant enough but bombastic, especially his setting of William Blake’s naïvely jingoistic poem “Jerusalem.”
One musical tradition England does have going for it, though, is the Anglican boys’ choir, with its distinctive, pure sound. The Choir of Westminster Abbey and the Chapel Royal Choir (both boys and men) combined to sing at William and Kate’s wedding, with the trebles soaring on descants in the final verses of the hymns, making even the congregational singing sound special. The choirs also performed a newly commissioned piece by the ubiquitous John Rutter. Rutter’s works can be facile (his requiem lacks gravity even if one doesn’t do it the disservice of comparing it to other composers’ immortal settings), but his music is invariably tuneful and sweet, making the singers sound winsome and unaffected. The new anthem, “This is the day which the Lord hath made,” is classic Rutter, all but indistinguishable from most of his other anthems but very pretty—a wedding gift I would have been happy to receive, particularly as sung by the combined choirs.
The other new(-ish) anthem, by Welsh composer Paul Mealors, was a setting of “Ubi caritas.” The antiphon is traditionally used for Maundy Thursday, but the text (“Where there is charity and love, God is there”) suits many other occasions as well. In fact, at my wedding, I processed down the aisle to Maurice Duruflé’s setting of the antiphon for a cappella choir, so, yes, I practically melted when I recognized the Latin words today. The settings are quite different: Duruflé builds on the traditional Gregorian chant, and Mealors uses blurry tonal clusters reminiscent of Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre. I have to say I prefer the comparatively stark elegance of Duruflé, but Mealors’s work is shimmering and lovely in its own right, and the choirs’ performance of it was exquisite.
The music, I concede, is a perk of marrying a prince—well, that and getting to wear a gorgeous Alexander McQueen dress, designed by Sarah Burton and impeccably tailored to make you look like Grace Kelly and not your late lamented mother-in-law with her overlong shadow. That dress was incredible, too. So, okay, I still think the life of a princess must be soul-killingly stifling, but I’ll readily admit: the aesthetics are amazing.