When the world focuses on London, Westminster Abbey and the memory of Britain’s longest-reigning monarch this Monday, they will turn to a different world. For two hours, the pomp and pageantry, the sacred solemnity of the State, will be accompanied by the music of one of the oldest choirs in the world. For a short time, and by no means the first time, the ears of the world will be listening to the singing of a group of young boys singing the music they have given for deceased monarchs for hundreds of years. . Much has been made over the past week of Queen Elizabeth’s timeless quality, her feat of sustainability in a changing world. On Monday, in the gargantuan space of Britain’s central Church, it will feel like time has stood still.
Two weeks ago, the boys of Westminster Abbey Choir had no idea what was about to hit them. The queen’s death will have turned their school life upside down; there is simply no such event as a royal funeral or coronation. In September they returned from summer vacation to the tiny choir school which remains the only exclusive school of its kind. They simply expected the daily routine of services – at least eight a week – attended by the usual thousands of tourists and worshippers. Aged eleven, twelve and thirteen, they did not know that the biggest concert in the world was preparing.
James O’Donnell, who led the choir for twenty-two years, will have known what to do by the time the news broke. When I was an altar boy at Westminster Abbey, there were only two things we knew how to learn: working by hand and adapting quickly. It’s the best life lesson I’ll ever hear. Within hours they would have known what music they were to sing – music that would gain an audience beyond the imagination of any other choir. Every note these boys sing will reverberate around the world – reverberate in the minds of listeners to whom Britain and its everyday troubles are nothing, to whom the world of red robes and triforium galleries is another world. These will be the tones that will envelop the British monarchy in its magical aura for decades to come. For many, they will accompany the nation’s new chapter, its new era.
The choir, a combination of triple boys and men who has been led by the country’s greatest composers like Henry Purcell and Orlando Gibbons, will have rehearsed like never before. Every rating was scrutinized, every element of the service questioned, every television angle adjusted. Yet nothing can erase the nerves the boys will feel as they enter the familiar nave of the abbey, the choir stalls where empires and dynasties have come and gone in the long passage of history. of Great Britain. They will pass by the graves of scientists and scholars, poets and politicians who shaped the world in their actions and understandings in ways we can only dimly grasp. I know they will walk in excitement, fear and wonder of the moment, of majesty and mourning. They will express in music the mystical power of the monarchy, which makes the materially insignificant death of an elderly woman, the late Queen Elizabeth II, a paramount matter of state and a truly defining event in the history of this state. For a time, the supernatural, the traditional and the hereditary will be tied together for praise in a secular, democratic and meritocratic world. The choir will remember every moment, every step and every note it sings. When they are done, when the echoes fade, when the moment passes, they will have made the music of a bygone national era and sung the new song to an uncertain future. And they will continue to do so long after current rulers, laws and legacies have been swept away.
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