Classical KUSC Arts Alive Blog

Arts Alive Blog


Rachel Portman’s Queenly Commission

Posted By: Tim Greiving · 9/25/2012 1:32:00 PM



The 2012 Olympic Games have now receded into history. But if your inner anglophile is feeling woefully deprived of Britannia, take heart! Here’s a musical story from across the pond to slake your thirst like a room-temp pint.

As if the planet’s biggest sporting event wasn’t enough for Great Britain this summer, in June the country celebrated its Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Queen Elizabeth—who took the throne when Winston Churchill was still prime minister and Harry Truman was president—celebrated her 60th year as the United Kingdom’s beloved monarch, only the second such anniversary in the country’s history.

The Jubilee was commemorated in style, through a series of royal events, concerts, and receptions. The grand instigation was the River Thames Pageant on Sunday, June 3, in which a flotilla of 1000 boats floated down London’s iconic river in the Queen’s honor. Amongst the fleet were ten “music herald barges,” which included a giant floating belfry and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.One barge, the Westminster, carried the Mayor’s Jubilee Band—an assembly of 50 young brass players, most of them recipients of a scholarship awarded by the Mayor’s Fund for Young Musicians—and they were playing a new composition written especially for the occasion.



Film composer Rachel Portman wrote the piece, titled “A Celebration.” The English-born composer is known for her elegant scores for the films Chocolat, The Cider House Rules, and Emma (for which she won the first Best Original Score Oscar awarded to a female composer). Being both a patron of the Mayor’s Fund and one of the island’s most loved composers—as well as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE)—Portman was asked to write something for a large brass ensembleto commemorate the Queen’s big day.

“I wasn’t really given any parameters,” Portman said, sipping tea in her Notting Hill flat. Portman has a royal air herself, with genteel manners and a warm presence, but her boyish hair and funky lace-ups suggest a slightly mischievous spirit just beneath the surface.

“I thought long and hard about what this piece should be,” she said. “Firstly it should be a celebration of the Queen, because we are wanting to say a big thank you to her for all that she’s done through years and years of tireless work. But the other really important thing to me was that it would be inspiring for young players to play, and a piece that wasn’t too easy for them, but something they could play with older students.

“I also wanted to write a piece that the Queen would like, that would make her smile, that would make her tap her feet at times, and really feel like a celebration. To have a youthful quality to it.”

Portman was given eight months to compose. Despite her complete freedom, or perhaps because of it, the career film composer found the assignment unusually difficult. “How do you get round not having a narrative, if as a composer that’s what you like to have as your backbone?” she said. “I do like a narrative, so I kind of had to invent one.”

“I stuck photos all round a big composing board on my piano—pictures of kids playing brass instruments, and very happy joyful kids,” she said.“ And happy pictures of the Queen, and of when she was younger, because it’s important that it had a royal element to it. It was a harder thing to do for me, because I’m used to being able to have a running story. I was forced back far more on trusting my own instinct.”

Eventually she came up with a fanfare-like melody, for instruments that seem to carry royalty in their very DNA.With courtly accompaniment, “A Celebration” takes the melody through a series of playful variations, like the barge traveling down the Thames.

The composer is decidedly old school in her methods, always writing at a grand piano in her home studio with pencil and manuscript paper in hand. “I’m entirely comfortable writing away from the piano,” she said, “but it’s quite a silent, lonely world if you do that. The piano is like having a writing partner.”

On the big day roughly a million Britons turned out along the banks of the Thames, wearing Union Jack capes, face paint, and masks of the royal family—waving flags and breaking into spontaneous choruses of “God Save the Queen.” True to form the London skies dropped royal amounts of rain, but did nothing to sour the mood.

The Queen’s barge was anchored at Tower Bridge as the grand pageant floated past her. Without a canopy for the rain, the young brass players on the Westminster blasted their music into the wet air—breaking up repeated performances of “A Celebration” with a repertoire of standards.

“Our position was number eight, so most of the flotilla went up the river before us,” Portman said. “It was amazing to see just these hordes of boats coming towards us and then going past. We waited inside until it was our time to go, and then we sailed down on our barge. All 50 of us were on the deck. It took us an hour and twenty minutes to get to Tower Bridge from where we started. The banks were totally lined with people, the whole way waving. It was unbelievable.”

The moment they passed the Queen, playing this piece written just for her, “happened really slowly,” Portman said. “There was something very humbling and moving about that. She waved and said, ‘Thank you.’ It was an amazing feeling to play for her.”

“I couldn’t see if she was tapping her foot,” she admitted, smiling.

Portman said she can’t know how this event will rank in her career until she can look at it with perspective, but it was an undeniable gift to be part of history. “It’s an amazing thing to have lived through her whole reign,” she said. “She was already Queen when I was born. How many things like that are you going to experience in your life?”

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