Composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad's music has been described as "like a declaration of faith in the eternal verities of composition" (The Sunday Times), with "a voice overflowing not only with ideas, but also with the discipline and artistry necessary to harness them" (The Scotsman). Classical tradition, along with diverse contemporary inspirations including literature, painting, and dance have contributed to a creative presence provocatively her own.
Earlier this year I had the immense privilege of being asked to write a new work for the 'Platinum Jubilee Prom' as part of the 2022 BBC Proms Season at the Royal Albert Hall. To my knowledge, my composition, Your Servant, Elizabeth (for soprano, tenor, SATB choir, orchestra and organ) was the last piece of music to be commissioned and performed in celebration of Her Late Majesty whilst she was still alive. The work is based on the text and music of William Byrd's O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth, and also sets excerpts from Queen Elizabeth’s speeches and letters. In the weeks after the Queen's passing, many of these lines (such as “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service”) were repeated many times on the television and radio, and the fact that I had only been setting these words a few months beforehand felt incredibly poignant.
The musical fabric of my piece is hugely indebted to the Byrd, and in preparation for writing, I played his work through endlessly on the piano, copied it out by hand twice, notated every single line 'verticality' (e.g. every chord that ever occurs, including the dissonances created by passing notes and suspensions) and sang all of the individual lines repeatedly. My intention was to absorb Byrd's style and then compose my own music, with a sort of 'musical muscle memory' of this most beautifully crafted of anthems. One aim was to somehow turn Byrd's dissonances into my consonances, creating a harmonic language that, whilst being intentionally accessible and firmly rooted in music of 400 years ago, was also very much my own. I was particularly inspired by Byrd's final amen, with the long held a-flat in the top line symbolising devotion and constancy: in my version, the amen is stretched to over two minutes in length, with the organ providing a 'pedal' note at the very top of the orchestra. Starting with music almost identical to Byrd's, the harmony and orchestration gradually expands and expands until it reaches a fff climax featuring a 'ramped up' English cadence with many simultaneous suspensions. After this, only the organ pedal (which actually turns out to be a 4-3 suspension itself) remains, to accompany the solo soprano as she sings the closing lines of my homage to both Byrd and Queen Elizabeth II: “I shall not have strength to carry out this resolution alone. Your servant, Elizabeth.”
Readers in the UK can watch this PROM for a Royal Celebration on iPlayer. Cheryl's commission starts at 1:41:30.
O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth our Queen to rejoice in thy strength:
I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service.
give her her heart’s desire, and deny not the request of her lips;
I shall not have strength to carry out this resolution alone* unless you join in it with me.
but prevent her with thine everlasting blessing,
God help me to make good my vow, and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it.
and give her a long life, even for ever and ever.
I look forward to continuing to serve you with all my heart. Your servant, Elizabeth.
Lines 1-2, 5-6, 9 & 16: from text set by William Byrd (1543-1623) adapted from Psalm 21.1-4. Lines 3-4, 7-8 & 10-11: from the speech made by HM Queen Elizabeth Il (when Princess Elizabeth) on her 21st birthday in 1947, broadcast from Cape Town, South Africa. Lines 13-15: drawn from a letter to the nation written by HM Queen Elizabeth I and published on 5th February 2022, the eve of the 70 anniversary of her accession to the throne.
Text compiled by the Revd Canon Dr Simon Jones, Chaplain of Merton College, Oxford.
*This line is repeated at the end in the musical setting.
👈 Hear Byrd's Make Thy Servant, Elizabeth