Thanksgiving is usually a time for rejoicing. The last song performed in connection with the royal family, the National Service for the Platinum Jubilee of Thanksgiving on June 3, had a properly cheerful atmosphere, with trumpets, Barry’s massive I Was Happy anthem, and Handel’s fireworks music.
Since when does that look like now? The Thanksgiving service of Her Majesty’s life, which is about to take place at St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh, should set an even more complex tone: a quiet salutation to a life well lived, at the same time sad, gracious and tender, with a glimpse of the music the late Queen loved.
However, at the end of the service, we will hear something revolutionary in its quiet way: a Gaelic performance of the famous Scottish folk singer Karen Matheson in Psalm 118. Allegory of this. Gaelic has been systematically chased to near extinction over centuries, first by the English crown and later by the British government. An Act of Parliament in 1616 banned the teaching of ‘Irish’ – as it was then known – in primary schools in Scotland, and more than two centuries later, a report by the Secretary of State for Education stated frankly that “the Gaelic language stands unquestionably in the way of Aboriginal civilization.” who benefit from it.”
Up until that point in the service, at least, the music options are what you might expect. Of the three collective hymns, “Lord Shepherd I Won’t Want,” one of the late queen’s favorite songs. There are no less than four Chorale Preludes by J.S. Bach, the greatest master of beautiful resignation in music, along with similar reflexive organ pieces by Parry – who wasn’t always an imperial cheerleader – as well as César Franck, Louis Vierne, and others. No royal service, even as loosely and liturgically improvised as Thanksgiving, is complete without a nod to the great holy English composers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There are short, intimate choral pieces by Thomas Thales and Henry Purcell before the service, sung by the cathedral choir, and during the service itself, the great William Byrd’s Latin anthem Justorum Animae (The Souls of the Righteous).
The Queen adored her home in the Balmoral, and died there, so it is quite fitting that the service contained an extraordinary number of pieces by Scottish composers. There are two pieces by Scotland’s most famous living composer James Macmillan, Farewell to Stromness by Manchester-born but long-time resident Peter Maxwell Davies in Orkney, and the beautiful organ piece “Andante soavemente e dolce” by Charles Macpherson. Scottish bassist and composer Savorna Stephenson will sing Psalm 121 before the service.
But after such a long history of official contempt, hearing a Gaelic-speaking folk singer sing an expensive psalm, at a Thanksgiving service to a deceased British king, feels like a symbolic act of reparation. He is sure to bring something uniquely beautiful to a service in which music, as always, plays a vital role.