Revealed: The three Jewish maestros called up by the King for his big day

Composers tell of their joy to be invited to write music for Coronation


When composer Roxanna Panufnik got a call saying that the King wanted her to compose a new work for his coronation in Westminster Abbey, she had to draw breath.

“My heart stopped,” she said. “This is the commission of all commissions.”

Ms Panufnik was one of three Jewish composers — out of a total of 12 — who were asked to contribute.

The other two were Debbie Wiseman, celebrated for her score for the TV production of Wolf Hall; and Nigel Hess, composer of the much-loved soundtrack for film Ladies in Lavender.

Mr Hess was no less blown away by the magnitude of the request. “After I got the initial call, I had to spend the next half-hour gathering myself together!” he said. “While writing, I tried to forget how public the event will be,” he added. “Otherwise, you’d become so daunted that you could become stylistically paralysed.”

He is, however, more familiar with this kind of project: in 2007 the then Prince of Wales commissioned him to write a piano concerto in memory of the Queen Mother.

Ms Wiseman has previously written pieces for Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday, her Diamond and Platinum Jubilees and for the BBC TV live coverage of her funeral last year.

Is there a secret to composing for this kind of event?

“When I write film music, I have the scenes in front of me. For this, I picture the occasion in my mind, and write almost as if I’m sitting there listening to it. I’m thinking only of the performers, the space and the mood it needs to create,” she said. “The King has absolutely shaped this programme,” she added.

“It’s very much his personal taste. It gives a snapshot of musical life in contemporary Britain, very diverse, inclusive and accessible — and it’s something to look forward to, when we’ve all had a lot of challenges.

“We’re very lucky that King Charles has always been a real supporter of the arts and music. It allows our cultural life to thrive on occasions like this where it’s on a global stage.”

The line-up for the event ranges across many genres, with pieces from the musical theatre supremo Andrew Lloyd Webber and Judith Weir, who is Master of the King’s Music.

Mr Hess’s coronation piece is part of an orchestral triptych with two other composers. Arguably, this kind of event is in his blood: his great-aunt, the pianist Dame Myra Hess, ran the legendary lunchtime concerts in the National Gallery throughout the Second World War, which the Queen Mother used to attend enthusiastically.

Jewish via her mother, Ms Panufnik said that her personal mission was to bring different faiths together in harmony and last year she wrote her first Jewish liturgical work for the
Liberal Jewish Synagogue.

“For my choral coronation piece, I had a detailed brief from Andrew Nethsingha [organist and master of the choristers at Westminster Abbey] about the length, the performers and the atmosphere it needed,” she said, “and I consulted closely with Canon Mark Birch at the Abbey about the words.

"Then I had to put all the exciting bits aside and just write it!”

Mr Hess summed it up: “It is a great honour. But you have to stay true to yourself. You have to write music that has real integrity.”

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