It is a huge privilege to be invited to perform at the Coronation of King Charles III. It is even more so to be invited to compose a new piece for the occasion, which joins a tradition that stretches back to Elgar, Handel and Thomas Tallis.
Only one person at Saturday’s event will do both: Roderick Williams, the British baritone and composer born 58 years ago to a British father and Jamaican mother. He still can’t believe his luck. “I was in a hotel in Spain doing the Messiah tour before Christmas,” he tells me, “and I got a text message from choral director Andrew Nethsingha, who had just taken over as music director at Westminster Abbey , saying he wanted a secret conversation. I assumed it must be about my two nephews who are in the choir, but when I called, Andrew told me His Majesty would like me to sing at the Coronation.” Another call came in January, this time from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
“They are taking care of the pre-service music, which includes six new pieces for the orchestra that they are composing for the occasion. They invited me to team up with two other composers, Nigel Hess and Shirley Thompson, based on one of King’s favorite hymns, Be Thou My Vision. Well my smile got even wider. I couldn’t believe my luck.”
Williams tells me this with a sense of amusement and an eagerness that makes him seem youthful. He has become ubiquitous on the opera stage and in the concert hall in part through an incredible work ethic, but also because of the warmth of his singing. In 2017, he was awarded an OBE for services to music. As for his new piece, Williams says it was composed for a limited number of players, perhaps a hint that the orchestra will be pushed into the organ gallery, although it is too discreet to say so.
“Nigel begins the piece by laying out the hymn, but leaves it hanging on one note. It worked perfectly to go into my slow middle movement, where I explore the shapes in the hymn. I also left it hanging on one note, so Shirley can take the triptych and complete it with a big ending.” I ask about the style of his piece. “With this melody I probably answer her in majestic terms. I understand the King’s love of Parry and Elgar – but I also had a bit of fun with the melody.”
Williams says he appreciates the way the King is trying to make the ceremony more inclusive. “I think it’s beautiful that he truly said, ‘It was always the case that only boys and men sang at coronations. But this time girls from Truro Cathedral and Belfast will be singing. It was always that the choirs and soloists were completely white. But this time there will be people who are not white taking part’. I appreciate that, and I also appreciate that he is passionate about classical music. I feel at the moment that there are very few people at the decision-making boards who are willing to say publicly that they are passionate about what I find interesting.”
Williams is clearly angry at this, and the Coronation is momentarily forgotten. “I thought the people making decisions about the arts could be trusted to see what’s really important,” he says. “And I’ve woken up in the last few months to find that’s not the case. It was a great shock to see that certain institutions such as English National Opera, Britten Sinfonia and others have pulled the plug. Of course it’s great that other institutions helped for the first time, like Chineke!, but it feels like classical music is somehow under siege. The whole edifice, not just orchestras and operas but choral music and cathedral music, is in danger of being dismissed by people who have no idea of its value.”
I bring the conversation back to the big day. Is Williams nervous about singing in front of more than 2,000 royals and heads of state, and an estimated television audience of 300 million? “Well, I think it’s going to be like that moment at the Last Proms in 2014, when I stood on stage and part of me thought, oh my God, there are so many people watching this. And another part of me was thinking, forget all that. I think it will be the same this time. I will forget the things I cannot control and enjoy myself.”
The service will start at 11.00am on Saturday. Watch live on BBC One and BBC iPlayer from 10.15am