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If there is one thing the UK does well it’s royal celebrations, and none come bigger than a coronation. But, as Mark Pemberton writes, the coronation of King Charles III had one particular dimension - the inclusion of so much classical music.

Thousands of Union Jacks decorate Covent Garden Market ahead of the coronation of King Charles III.
Thousands of Union Jacks decorate Covent Garden Market for the coronation of King Charles III.

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His Majesty’s love of the artform is well known. A cellist himself, he has been an ardent supporter of musicians, conservatoires and orchestras throughout his life and has gladly been Patron to some of the country’s leading institutions, from the Royal College of Music to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Philharmonia. 

As the South African soprano Pretty Yende who sang during the coronation said in a recent Sunday Times interview: “He’s a big fan of opera and classical music.”

King’s love of classical music

With a global audience estimated at 400 million, the coronation is probably the biggest ever showcase of the UK’s classical music sector. There was not just the pre-ceremony performances with Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, but also music throughout the coronation from an ensemble comprised of members of orchestras of which the King is Patron, conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano, Music Director of the Royal Opera. 

And alongside traditional pieces such as Handel’s Zadok the Priest and Parry’s I Was Glad were 12 new works by contemporary composers including Judith Weir, Shirley Thompson, Tarik O’Regan and Roxanna Panufnik. And all the music has been recorded on what will no doubt be a best-selling album released by Decca, available to stream and download on the day.

And such excellence was recognised by ACE in its recent press statement which said: “Musicians from Arts Council England funded Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra and Royal Opera House Orchestra will join members of five other world class orchestras in the Coronation Orchestra. They will perform during the coronation service a programme reflecting the King’s love of music, including a number of new commissions personally selected by His Majesty.”

Ongoing debate about relevance

What an irony it is then that it was these very “world class orchestras” that took the brunt of the recent cuts in Arts Council funding. Three of the London symphony orchestras incurred a cut of 10%, the Royal Opera House a cut of just under £3 million, and Welsh National Opera a cut of £2.2 million.

At the same time, the coronation was broadcast by the BBC, another British institution that has sustained a lot of flak over its decision (subsequently postponed) to abolish the BBC Singers and cut 20% off the headcount of its three English orchestras. And one of the orchestras taking part in the coronation was the BBC’s own National Orchestra of Wales.

What lies at the heart of this dichotomy is the ongoing debate about relevance. What underpinned ACE’s decision to reduce funding for these organisations is its belief that they are not relevant to the people and places that have not previously benefited from its direct investment. 

But the coronation was most definitely relevant to these same communities. Patriotism runs deeps, and when the nation needs to celebrate, it turns to classical music to deliver the goods.

Classical music intrinsic to the cultural fabric of the nation

While less ideological, the BBC’s inept handling of its performing groups stems from its view that they would be an easy target for a £5 million reduction in spending, or 20%. And this with just four months’ notice and seemingly in breach of their requirement to consult with the Musicians’ Union. 

They misjudged the depth of media and public opposition and have had to back-pedal.

The coronation was a timely reminder that orchestras and opera are intrinsic to the cultural fabric of the nation. They are the ‘crown jewels’ the DCMS were so keen to save during the pandemic. Alongside the intrinsic role they play in national celebrations, they reach into communities across the country, while also enhancing the UK’s international reputation. 

And it’s testimony to classical music’s cultural and economic value that Apple Music has just launched a dedicated classical music app.

Fragile business model

But the business model for orchestras and opera is fragile. With every performance costing more to put on than can be recouped in ticket sales, every cut in subsidy simply increases the structural deficit. At some point, the string will snap. And then there won’t be any orchestras left when William assumes the crown.

It is time to end the futile infighting between artforms. It shouldn’t be either orchestras or community activity. There should be room for both. The real enemy is 13 years of austerity, with ACE receiving the same in cash terms as it did in 2008, and the BBC licence fee frozen year after year. 

It’s no surprise to read in DCMS’s own statistics that “earnings by employees in the cultural sector fell by 4.2% in nominal terms between 2016 and 2021 whilst those for the UK as a whole rose by 11.7%". 

What the arts need, including classical music, is a pay rise.

Mark Pemberton OBE is the former Chief Executive of the Association of British Orchestras.


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Of course Mark would say that given his past role - however it is the diversity of music that counts and that was sorely lacking! The coronation music and the images on the balcony failed miserably to show the richness and diversity that is now the backbone of Britain. These images and the coronation only confirmed that the Firm and all that work in it are still heavily entrenched in an environment where imperialist views and a "whites only" attitude still abound. Maybe they should live a little outside their royal bubble! Thankfully many of us had more interesting things to do on that day.