Singing at Elizabeth II's Coronation

by Lynne Warfel, Minnesota Public Radio
June 1, 2012

As Queen Elizabeth's Jubilee celebrations kick off, former King's Singer Tony Holt has been reminiscing about being a boy soprano in the coronation day choir at Westminster Abbey, and how he started singing in the first place.

St. Paul, Minn. — My parents both sang in the local parish church choir and had been for many years before I came along. And they said, "You'll sing in the choir." So I said, "Yes," of course, ha! My brother and I went along. I enjoyed riding my bike actually more than singing in the choir. But gradually it sort of seeped in, and I started enjoying it.

On being chosen to sing before the queen:

The Royal School of Church Music arranged choirs to go and take the place of cathedral choirs when they were on holiday in the summer. And a number of different choristers from around the country would make up those summer choirs. The RSCM were allowed a number of choristers to sing at the coronation. So they picked the sort of the stars I suppose of the time. They were the best choristers they could come up with and I just happened to be around at the right time, I suppose.

Practice, Practice, Practice!

We had, I think, a month, although we were sent the music before that. And then we had a month of rehearsing on our own, just the twenty of us. Then we started travelling up to the Abbey everyday when they started making preparations for the service. And the rest of the trebles came from all around the country. Westminster Abbey Cathedral, St Paul's Cathedral, St George's Chapel Windsor, and a number of other cathedrals around the country sent numbers of boys. But we didn't actually rehearse together until a month before. From what I remember, I think the choristers all sang together to start off with. Just the trebles. Then the altos, tenors and basses came in. Their time of rehearsal was probably less than the choristers.

The one thing I remember about the whole preparation is that I got a month of school to go and rehearse. I'd like to say that I was tremendously impressed by the pomp and circumstance and the sense of history... but I'm afraid I wasn't at that age. I was only 12. But I got a month off school, and we had to do schoolwork while we were rehearsing at Addington Palace, every day. But not all day, every day. Probably mostly rehearsed in the morning, then we'd have the afternoon off.

And there's quite an extensive golf course surrounding the Addington Palace. So some of us would go to the shop and say "anybody want a caddy for the afternoon?" and we earned quite a bit of money doing that, carrying golf clubs around all afternoon before going back to rehearse again in the evening, probably.

The coronation service lasted all day. Did they let you eat?

I remember that we had to get up at the crack of dawn or even before it. And we had a lot of waiting around to be done... because we all had to be in place got in place, before the whole service started. So we took snacks in with us, and the lunch in with us. The story went that the peers of the realm, who all wore these beautiful colored coronets, actually kept their sammiches in the coronet, on top of their heads. But I don't know whether that's apocryphal or not!

How close to the Queen did you get?

We had to be shown to our places. I remember our particular place, the RSCM choristers were way, way up high. We could actually look over on top of everybody. The first television set we had in our family was specially bought at that time, 1952, so they could all watch it, watch the whole service. My parents watched the television, trying to pick me out. I don't think they ever saw me all — I don't think the cameras went up that far!

When the actual coronation started (Of course there was a lot of "starting" before that — false starts), everybody came in and we could look down and try to pick out a few figures and whoever they were.

Then the Queen would arrive at the West Door and then there'd be this long procession of all the dignitaries and the Queen and the flowing robes.

Did you meet anyone famous?

Vaughan Williams was there for quite a lot of the rehearsals, and I remember him being a very a very large man. Very slow to speak, but offered some advice on how he wanted to hear various pieces go. But I really liked the very soft piece by Vaughan Williams called O Taste and See, which I'm pretty sure was written for that occasion. Very simple, and very beautiful.

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