One day in early 1953 an important-looking letter arrived. At the top of the envelope was the Royal Coat of Arms and beneath it “Buckingham Palace”. Inside was a directive from the Duke of Norfolk, the Earl Marshal, who was in charge of the Queen’s Coronation to be held in Westminster Abbey on the 2nd. of June, 1953. It read that H.M Queen Elizabeth ll commanded me to play in the Coronation Orchestra. Tail coats, decorations and white gloves were to be worn and I was to attend all rehearsals punctually.
I was very thrilled to be commanded to play as it gave me great cachet in the musical world and, too, that I would be recognized as one of the leading players in Great Britain. Everybody in the Coronation Orchestra had to be or have been an orchestra principal or, in the case of strings, the leader of a famous string quartet. The first violins consisted of every concertmaster in the British Isles and were led by Paul Beard, the concertmaster of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
Similarly the choir consisted of every famous singer in the land – all the prima donnas of Covent Garden and elsewhere were included, not minding where they were asked to sit.
The orchestra was seated in the Rood Loft, which was a sort of gallery situated close to the Throne, so we were able to look down and view the whole ceremony. It was the best seat in the house. There wasn’t enough room to play comfortably. It would have been better if Sir Adrian Boult, the conductor had spent just a little time arranging matters. When Harold Jackson the first trumpet complained to Sir Adrian that there wasn’t enough room, all he would say icily was “Neither is there room for anyone else” There had been fierce competition for the job as conductor, but I’m sure that Sir Adrian being a staunch Quaker never sought the job, , but I know that Sir Malcolm Sargent was pulling every string he knew to get the job. I have to say, much as I admire Sir Adrian that if Sargent had conducted, it would have been a better choice.
Then again, we had to be in position at 6 a.m. until 3 p.m and the inevitable question was raised about toilet facilities. No less a person than the Earl Marshal was consulted, and after thinking of the birds and the bees and our respective anatomies, solemnly decided that the men should bring hot water bottles and the ladies sponges and he issued a written directive on Royal notepaper to this effect. Vive la différence!
I spoke to Marie Wilson, a real old trooper, a fine violinist and onetime leader of the BBC Symphony Orchestra whether or not she was going to bring her sponge and she answered “No Bob, I’m not drinking anything beforehand, and I’ll have a good pee too.
Talking of washrooms, my wife was very curious as to what the Queen’s washroom, which had been built especially for the occasion, was like. During a rehearsal intermission I was able to have a perfunctory peep inside; it was nothing special, just a white job.
At one rehearsal, Boris Ord, who was Choir Director etc. for Kings College, Cambridge, did not attend and was barred from entry the next day.
Came the Great Day and Eugene Cruft, who was principal bass had somehow wangled a ticket for Mrs. C. and he asked me if I would pick them up, but, he insisted that I spread sheets on the back seat of my car as Mrs. C. would be wearing a white dress.
When I arrived at the Cruft residence at about 5.30 a.m. I picked up Eugene, resplendent with his many medals and Mrs, C., beautifully attired in a white gown and wearing a tiara with a white boa feather in it. Eugene had managed to get me a pass for my car and I was elated to be whisked through with many deferential bows by the police. I felt to be one very important bass player.
We arrived at Westminster Abbey, and as the dignitaries arrived we played a special tune for them. I don’t know whether or not it was for the Queen of Tonga, the Oni of Ife or the Shah of Persia, but the piece began with a terrific pizzicato from the basses. Eugene, with great aplomb, known in the trade as “feeding the
pigeons” gave a very showy pizzicato, but unfortunately one of his medals got caught in one of his strings, but with great nonchalance he retrieved the medal and went on playing as if nothing had happened.
It was a miserable day, weather wise, but just as the Queen was being crowned and a boy’s choir was singing “Vivat, Vivat” a shaft of sunlight appeared through the Abbey’s stained glass windows, which I thought was a good omen for Her Majesty’s future reign.
There were two elderly gentlemen, both Doctors of Music and Organists and Directors of Music at big Cathedrals. Their job was to hold up a card giving the number of the piece which we were to play. After the ceremony when the congregation was filing out, the elderly numerologists held up their cards, but unfortunately with different numbers. The piece was to have been one of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance marches aka “:Land of Hope and Glory” and the orchestra, including Boult were nonplussed, but Paul Beard, the concertmaster showed his experience by belting the tune out fortissimo and the day was saved.
Afterwards there was a reception (for which we had to buy tickets) and I found myself sandwiched between Paul Beard and Joe Shadwick, concertmaster of Covent Garden Opera enjoying some first class nibbles and one or two glasses of champagne surrounded by noble Earls, Dukes and Knights who were two a penny that day and who gave us condescending nods.
I should have gone home and taken my wife out for a celebratory dinner, but free lance player that I was, with a wife, two kids and a mortgage, had booked an evening television show for the BBC.
Although we weren’t paid for our services it was one of the best dates I ever had, for we were given broadcasting and TV fees from all over the world. I was awarded the Coronation Medal by Her Majesty, the Westminster Abbey organist was knighted and Eugene Cruft was made a Member of the Victorian Order, Fourth Class.