Radio 4 is to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation with a documentary about the 200 boy choristers who took part in the service. Choristers of the Coronation is, according to producer Andrew Green, ‘nothing more, nothing less, than the memories of those boy choristers’.
Back in 1953, it was decided that the London and Chapel Royal choirs should be supplemented by trebles from cathedrals countrywide, and the Royal School of Church Music became responsible for talent spotting in the shires: ‘Kids who were just pootling along singing in a small church choir suddenly found themselves at the coronation.’
The coronation music was chosen and conducted by Westminster Abbey’s director of music, William McKie, great uncle of the baritone Gerald Finley. Bad tempered and liable to throw books at choristers if they got something wrong, he terrified them.
The twenty RSCM boys taking part were given one month’s training at Addington Palace in east Croydon. At their first rehearsal, the conductor told them he wanted them to bring the roof down. The next morning, the choristers arrived to find ceiling plaster on the floor.
The full choir first came together for final rehearsals in St Margaret’s Westminster, since the Abbey was closed for the month leading up to the actual day. There was only one rehearsal in the Abbey and if a singer had missed any of the final rehearsals, even if illness was the cause, McKie would not let him take part.
On the day itself, the choristers had to turn up five hours before the service started. They were issued with packed lunches plus a small bottle of milk and the suggestion that when it was empty, any chorister taken short during the service should consider using it. There is no evidence anyone did.
‘People talk about what it was like when they eventually came together for the final rehearsal. The sound was, everyone says, amazing and, with the orchestra playing as well, overpowering.
‘The sad thing is that many of the boys couldn’t see much of the actual service because of where they were positioned, and even if they could, Dr McKie had drilled into them that if they were watching the coronation they couldn’t be concentrating on what they were doing. So a lot of the boys just daren’t look, even those with a good view.’
Choristers of the Coronation, Radio 4, 25 May, 10.30am.