Handel’s anthem, composed in 1727 for the critical moment of a coronation, the anointing, is the only piece to have been used on all subsequent coronations. It is not hard to understand why. It is magisterial, with a substantial introduction which swells and calms, sustaining a growing sense of expectation. When the choir enters, it is with a sudden and dizzying burst of sound. The text from 1 Kings is brief. In many respects it is a prosaic passage, describing with an almost matter-of-fact tone the actions of a priest and a prophet. Centuries later, in the hands of Handel, it is transformed to embellish the coronation of a British sovereign, conveying an auspicious announcement and the response of the people.
Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophetThe text of the anthem from 1 Kings chapter 1
anointed Solomon king.
And all the people rejoiced and said:
“God save the King!
Long live the King!
May the King live forever!
Amen! Amen! Alleluia!”
In its context the words used in the anthem signify rejoicing after uncertainty and discord. Another of David’s sons is attempting to take the crown, even as his elderly father still lives. The promise of succession had been given to Solomon, but this suddenly looks precarious. To avert civil war or other disorder, David orders Solomon to be taken to Nathan and Zadok (two figures who had not sided with the contender) – so that he can be proclaimed King. This action seals the succession and prevents any violence.
The BBC Radio 4 episode of Soul Music which centres on Handel’s anthem is a fine reflection on the technical achievements of the work as well as its past and present reception.
Hearing Zadok the Priest played for the Platinum Jubilee in York Minster this weekend, with the organ recently restored, has been a highlight of the celebrations. The well known notes, the tension of the moment and the release of expectation, never lose their power, despite their familiarity. As with so much of the symbolism of a coronation, each reference carries links to other times and occasions. Sometimes these feel fully justified, while at others it can amount to a forced connection which may be far removed from its original meaning. The text in 1 Kings, with its reference to Zadok and Nathan, appears to convey social order; the fulfilment of lawful succession; righteousness and fidelity.
Events conspired to bring Elizabeth II to the throne – it could easily have been otherwise. Across seventy years her presence has provided stability in the winds of political change. Perhaps one day we shall know what the Queen thought about the political leadership and direction of the country. I cannot imagine that the last decade will have filled her with satisfaction as her long reign enters its twilight years. In the UK, even as the pandemic began, 27% of children were living in poverty. Recent rises in energy costs and the overall impact on the cost of living are likely to increase that figure, despite Government assistance. The gap between wealth and poverty has ballooned during the pandemic and it will take more than charity to transform this dismal trajectory.
Zadok and Nathan ensured orderly succession. Prophets, priests and kings did not always agree – but the tensions between these roles could work creatively for the people as a whole. Checks and a recognised dispersal of power are always needed for good governance, but so too is a common desire to see the whole community flourish. There has been much that is good over the last 70 years, but the reality of an ever-widening gap between wealth and poverty requires determined action if we wish to see everyone enjoy both peace and prosperity. This weekend has witnessed a rightful sense of celebration, but to honour the Queen and her unique role in British public life we cannot pass by the pressing issues of our time. A fitting legacy for this remarkable reign will be a society in which the fear of injustice, and of poverty, will begin to fade.