Master of The Queen's (and The King's) Music

The post of Master of the Queen’s (or Master of the King’s) Music was created in 1626. The Master’s main duty is to direct the court orchestra and compose music for British royal occasions such as coronations, marriage, births and funerals.

From the royal post’s inception, it was a lifetime’s appointment and was only changed to move with the times in 2004 to become a 10 year tenure. The post is comparable to that of the Poet Laureate, and holders of these posts often collaborate.

Though most appointments have gone to eminent composers of their day, there have been occasions when they would commission other composers to write the music. Notable among these were Henry Purcell and George Frideric Handel.

Odes, elegies and anthems make up the majority of the Royal music archives. Sydney Chamber Choir’s A Royal Affair is a celebration of these composers’ music. It is also a testament to the power that words can wield.

Zadok the Priest, which is part of Handel’s Coronation Anthem for George II in 1727 has been performed at every subsequent coronation since. To quote Sam Allchurch, “Unlike that of his contemporary Bach, Handel’s music is in no need of a revival because it has never gone out of fashion.”

The Australian composer Malcolm Williamson was the last to hold the post as Master of Queen’s Music for life. His appointment in 1975 surprised many – being Australian, he was considered non-British by his peers. Williamson left a legacy with a substantial body of works including many sacred and secular pieces for choirs. The two works Sydney Chamber Choir are performing as part of A Royal Affair were written before his appointment, yet in many ways it shows Williamson at his best.

Since 2004, the post for the Master of Queen’s Music was fixed for a term of 10 years in order to make it more attractive to composers. The post is granted by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and entry is by recommendation.

The current Master of the Queen’s Music is Scottish composer Judith Weir, who has held the post since 2014. The appointment was a pleasant surprise to Weir, who recommended another composer, Jonathan Dove for the post. As the first female Master of the Queen’s Music, Weir is an impressive composer in her own right.

"They had a great sentence in the appointment letter," she says, "something like: 'The Queen would like the position of the master of the Queen's music to be for the enjoyment and openness of music in the nation.' So it's a very wide description, and they said it's absolutely up to the person who does it to make it their own."

Instead of composing exclusively for royal occasions, Weir writes many pieces that would be useful to many in the musical community – from professional choristers to school children and amateurs. She also uses her position to advocate and support her fellow composers. Weir is a champion when it comes to the question: what is the function that contemporary music fulfils in society?

Ria Andriani

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We hope you'll join us at 7.30pm on Saturday, 1st June for what promises to be a wonderful concert at Great Hall - University of Sydney.

Judith Wier Image by Ben Ealovega