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Ovaltine, chocolate and a bottle of milk: choristers recall coronation highlights

It will be an emotional return to the abbey for a former choirboy who remembers the Queen’s great day

When boy choristers file into the choir stalls at Westminster Abbey on Tuesday, to mark today’s 60th anniversary of Elizabeth II’s coronation, they will look very like their 1953 counterparts, apart from one detail: they won’t be hiding small milk bottles in their cassocks. With hours of pageant and splendour before them, the milk was necessary refreshment – and the empty bottle could have been useful in an emergency.

On Tuesday, those 1953 choristers will be returning to the abbey as it welcomes the Queen and members of the royal family to a special commemoration. They have funded a musical gift for the monarch: a new anthem that follows examples by Purcell, Croft, Handel and Parry in its evocation of regal splendour.

One of the choristers is David Bainbridge, aged 11 when he was one of the 20 boys chosen from parish church choirs to join choristers from the abbey, Chapel Royal and Britain’s major cathedrals to sing at the coronation. He had to learn the music before setting out to the headquarters of the Royal School of Church Music at Addington Palace, Croydon, to spend a month rehearsing.

“To be honest, I didn’t want to go,” he said. “As a working-class boy from Dartford, I thought I was going to be stuck with a load of toffs for a month, but when I walked into the dormitory and found two boys from Belfast cathedral knocking hell out of each other with pillows I thought: ‘I’m going to like this.’ It was only on the day of the final rehearsal that it dawned on us what an occasion it was going to be, what with a large orchestra and state trumpeters blasting away.

“I’ll never forget the day itself. We had to be in our places at 7am, armed with sandwiches, Ovaltine tablets and, best of all, a bar of chocolate – sweets had only just come off ration. And, yes, we had a third of a pint of milk and were told to use the empty bottle if an emergency arose. I don’t think anyone dared to, though.

“It was the colour of it all that really struck me: the scarlet and gold … all those dukes and earls in their robes, and the new Queen. I think of all the music I enjoyed, singing Handel’s Zadok the Priest the most. It’s such a powerful piece. We finally got out of the abbey at about 1pm, when we were given the most enormous buffet in the cloisters – brilliant for hungry boys. I remember wandering outside with my plate and finding the gold state coach waiting to take the Queen. I asked the coachman if I could climb inside and eat my lunch. Of course he said no, but he let me touch it. It was like a Disneyland dream for us.”

The new piece, commissioned with the help of those former choristers, is The King Shall Rejoice by Bob Chilcott, a choral conductor and composer who sang with the King’s Singers for many years. He is also known to millions for a recording he made when a boy, the Pie Jesu solo in King’s College Cambridge’s definitive 1967 recording of Fauré’s Requiem, which is still available today.

Unlike the coronation, Tuesday’s service, which will be broadcast live on BBC1, will be sung by just the abbey choir and the choir of the Chapel Royal. “I was very excited to write for them,” said Chilcott. “They are such wonderful singers. The dean and chapter made a few suggestions for text, including Psalm 21. Handel only set the first three verses, but I set the first six, because I think they really express what it must be to be a monarch and live your entire life in service to the state. It occurred to me that the text of William Byrd’s O Lord Bless Thy Servant Elizabeth, which he wrote for Elizabeth I, might also be appropriate, so I have also set those words.”

Chilcott’s anthem is an imposing work for double choir and organ, with intriguingly thick texturing in the voice parts. “I wanted it to be a dance-like celebratory piece with contrasting passages of gentler lyricism,” he said. “I took as my benchmark Walton’s Te Deum, which is also in the service and was sung at the coronation. My father-in-law [the late Sir Philip Ledger, former director of music at King’s College, Cambridge] happened to have an edition of all the music for the Queen’s coronation. There was so much of it! The service took four hours and closed with Walton’s magnificent piece.

“It’s quite a responsibility. I wanted to write something that both fulfilled the requirements of a big occasion and that would also serve the liturgy. It’s interesting how we as a nation feel the need for music at these big occasions, just as we do at certain stages in our own lives – at weddings and funerals, for instance.”

Organist and master of the choristers James O’Donnell told the Observer that the abbey had asked Chilcott to write the music because they wanted a piece that would be both accessible and suitable. “We knew that we would get a well-crafted piece from a man who really understands choirs,” he said.Chilcott lives in a village in the Cotswolds. “There was a knock at the door the other day,” he said. “It was a villager who said he had sung in the choir at the coronation and was really chuffed to have contributed towards this new piece. That made me feel very proud.”

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