Proms 2022: Cheryl Frances-Hoad – Your Servant, Elizabeth (World Première)

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Last night’s Prom was a monarchist’s paradise, waxing lyrical in the Queen’s platinum jubilee year with an evening of music composed for royal occasions. Nestling among all the sonic bowing and scraping and forelock-tugging from the usual early 20th century shower was a short new choral work from Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Your Servant, Elizabeth. As its title suggests, the piece draws on William Byrd’s anthem O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth, written in the late 1580s, interspersing the original text with words spoken by the Queen both before her reign began and earlier this year.

Cheryl Frances-Hoad

Frances-Hoad generally opts for a tone far removed from the formal, metric solemnity of Byrd, though the opening lines are delivered more plainly, akin to chant, switching between male and female soloists (Rebecca Lea and Benjamin Durrant, both of them superb) to distinguish between the speaker. The chorus is spurred into action at “unless you join in it with me”, whereupon Frances-Hoad ramps things up, tapping into an atmosphere of opulence and full-blooded grandeur as the chant continues, concluding this section with an earnest benediction. For the remainder of the piece, the music unexpectedly opens out, moving beyond words into an expansive, beautifully radiant exultation, before the Queen’s final words return, again sung simply.

Depending on your sensibilities and allegiances, it’s either powerfully majestic or (to use a word i recall using before with Frances-Hoad’s work) equally powerfully cheesy. Regardless, it is at least heartfelt and honest, avoiding the worst of the ingratiating clichés that cling so closely to most royal music, allowing for an effective alteration between pomp and simplicity, and it’s hard not to be impressed (even overwhelmed) by that almighty climax.

The world première of Your Servant, Elizabeth was given by the BBC Singers and BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Barry Wordsworth.


Cheryl Frances-Hoad - Your Servant, Elizabeth


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Text

O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth our Queen
to rejoice in thy strength:

I declare before you all that my whole life
whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service.

give her her heart’s desire,
and deny not the request of her lips;

I shall not have strength to carry out this resolution alone*
unless you join in it with me.

but prevent her with thine everlasting blessing,

God help me to make good my vow,
and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it.

and give her a long life, even for ever and ever.

I look forward to continuing to serve you
with all my heart.
Your servant, Elizabeth.

Amen.


Lines 1-2, 5-6, 9 & 16: from text set by William Byrd (1543-1623) adapted from Psalm 21.1-4.
Lines 3-4, 7-8 & 10-11: from the speech made by HM Queen Elizabeth Il (when Princess Elizabeth) on her 21st birthday in 1947, broadcast from Cape Town, South Africa.
Lines 13-15: drawn from a letter to the nation written by HM Queen Elizabeth I and published on 5th February 2022, the eve of the 70 anniversary of her accession to the throne.

Text compiled by the Revd Canon Dr Simon Jones, Chaplain of Merton College, Oxford.

*This line is repeated at the end in the musical setting.


Programme note

Your Servant, Elizabeth, commissioned for the 2022 Platinum Jubilee celebration at the BBC Proms, also pays homage to William Byrd’s O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth, a prayer for Queen Elizabeth I written over 400 years ago. When the BBC approached me about this new work, with the stipulation that it use both Byrd’s music and text as a starting point, my initial delight was tinged with apprehension. What would I be able to add? Might it not be a better idea to simply perform this masterpiece of polyphony twice in tonight’s concert?

My way ‘in’ eventually came through words. Whilst Byrd’s music will never date, the excerpts he adapted from Psalm 21 for his text concentrated solely on the relationship between the monarch and her God, and felt incomplete in the context of tonight’s 21st century celebration. For the past year I have had the great fortune to be a Visiting Research Fellow in the Creative Arts at Merton College Oxford, and so I turned to the college Chaplain, the Revd Canon Dr Simon Jones, for advice. Were there excerpts of other Psalms that I could incorporate, in order to extol not just Queen Elizabeth’s relationship with God, but with us? Simon’s spine-tinglingly inspiring idea, that Byrd’s text be put into dialogue with Queen Elizabeth Il’s own words, freed me to see this commission in an entirely new light. I imagined William in the act of writing his choral prayer, Queen Elizabeth Il speaking directly to us, and revelled in stretching and transforming Byrd’s music in service of this new conversation across the centuries.

—Cheryl Frances-Hoad


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