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Royal Wedding Music Highlights Britain's Classical Greats

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UPDATE: The closely guarded secret of the royal wedding music has been announced. View the full service.

Prince William and Kate Middleton today revealed the music that will accompany them as they march down the aisle in Westminster Abbey in London. They have chosen a mixed program of choral and orchestral music for the 45-minute service, including pieces by Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, William Walton and Benjamin Britten.

The couple will be serenaded by the The Choir of Westminster Abbey, The Chapel Royal Choir, The London Chamber Orchestra and The Fanfare Team from the Central Band of the Royal Air Force. The ceremony will be televised around the world (and streamed live on WQXR.org).

Christopher Warren-Green, music director and conductor of the London Chamber Orchestra, called the royal couple’s musical tastes "all-embracing," adding, “Prince William and Princess Middleton have very good taste in music. They love music. Of course, it’s their wedding and we wanted them to have what they want.”

Before the ceremony begins, a selection of organ pieces will be played, as well as seven orchestral scores chosen by the couple. Three of these -- Peter Maxwell Davies's Farewell to Stromness, Walton's Touch Her Soft Lips and Part and Gerald Finzi's Romance for String Orchestra Op.11 -- were also played at the church blessing for the marriage of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles in 2005. 

There are also links to Charles's first wedding, to Princess Diana in 1981. They include Elgar's Sonata for Organ, Vaughan Williams' Rhosymedre and Walton's Crown Imperial, the latter of which will serve as the all-important recessional music.

In past royal weddings there has been a strong adherence to royal tradition and particularly to English composers of the past century.

In 1947, Queen Elizabeth II walked in on Prince Philip’s arm to the strains of Wagner’s Bridal March and exited to Mendelssohn’s Wedding March. Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer walked to the altar of St Paul's Cathedral to Jeremiah Clarke’s Prince of Denmark’s March and left to Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 4 in 1981. Five years later, Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson made a bolder choice by entering to Set Me As a Seal Upon Thy Heart by Walton, and exiting to the aforementioned Crown Imperial.

“The funny thing, looking at the music that has been chosen for past royal weddings, it seems quite conservative,” said Oliver Condy, editor of the BBC Music Magazine. “It’s only when you get to Prince Charles’s second marriage to Camilla Parker Bowles that you see things being shaken up a bit.” The civil ceremony wedding, in April 2005, featured Veruyu (The Creed) by Russian composer Aleksandr Gretchaninov as well as Elgar’s Triumphal March and (once again) Walton's Crown Imperial.

Prince William, who went to Eton, a private school famous for its choral singing, has said that his own tastes skew towards hip-hop and rock. It’s expected that he’ll closely consult with his father, Prince Charles, who has shown a keen interest in classical music, having reinstated the Royal Harpist position and hosted musicians at numerous charity events. The organist at Westminster Abbey will also serve as a musical adviser, and, of course, Middleton and her parents will likely have some input.  

Three commissioned pieces will be played at Friday's ceremony. British composer John Rutter has composed a choral anthem to be sung by both the choir of Westminster Abbey and the Chapel Royal Choir. Welsh musician Paul Mealor has composed Ubi caritas, a new motet (a piece of choral music sung in Latin) and RAF Wing Commander Duncan Stubbs has will contribute the fanfare Valiant and Brave, which will be trumpeted just after the couple sign the wedding register.

While every monarchy since Charles I in 1626 has employed a resident Master of the Queen’s Music, in recent years, these composers have not provided ceremonial music for royal weddings (Peter Maxwell Davies, who has held the post since 2004, wasn’t invited to write music for this wedding).

If one thing is for certain, the royal nuptials will set the bar for couples around the world. The wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana sparked a wholesale revival of the Prince of Denmark’s March that continues to this day. What's more, the official recording of Friday's event will be available to download within hours of the service finishing. (When asked about the short turn-around time, Warren Green was nonplussed, saying, “British musicians are notoriously fast sight-readers. Their professionalism is such that even if I get it wrong I know they won't.")

Condy notes that it was Queen Victoria who popularized Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, having used it as a recessional for her oldest daughter’s marriage in 1858. "People look to royal weddings as benchmarks of taste,” he said. "If a future king and queen are going to want it at their wedding, well, people are going to want it at their wedding. So they’re going to have to choose something that’s not too outlandish."

Join us on WQXR.org for a live chat during the royal wedding, which will also be streamed live on the site from 1:00 am to 9:00 am ET.