Music and Monarchy: Recording Handel in Westminster Abbey

Sound Supervisor

Editor's Note - Earlier this year About the BBC producer Jen Macro attended the preview screening of David Starkey's Music and Monarchy, a new BBC Two series that explores how the monarchy shaped the history of British music.

Significant works by composers such as Handel, Purcell and Elgar, amongst others, feature in the story told by historian Professor David Starkey. In an ambitious project, the programme makers recorded performances of these pieces in the settings the music was originally scored for. Ahead of the first episode, sound supervisor Paul Paragon relives one of those special recordings.

I am sitting at my sound mixing desk in the quire south aisle of Westminster Abbey. This is a narrow alleyway that runs behind the Quire Stalls of this cathedral. All the little red record lights are illuminated on my multi-track recorder and the microphones at the end of my cables in the ‘lantern’ where the orchestra are poised are set and ready to go.

I glance around me at the bronze statues, plaques and candle holders. The flagstone floor is worn from centuries of footsteps. My eyes follow a stone column upwards to the vaulted ceiling some twenty meters above my head. The voice of series producer, Peter Sweasey comes through my headphones calling for the first take.  There is silence. Conductor James O’Donnell raises his arms and the strings and woodwinds of St. James Baroque Orchestra begin with a repeating short delicate phrase.

It’s a technique that has been copied in countless sound tracks of movie thrillers, a repeating phrase that starts quietly then builds, develops and swells. It remains soft, sometimes brooding and suggests that something profound or dramatic is about to happen. I have experienced similar at sea. The waves and swells of an ocean contain the power to send waves crashing with awesome force when stirred by the right wind. But music is far more than can be conveyed by a crude metaphor.

The orchestra are playing on period instruments, true to the era in which the piece was composed and we are in the abbey where the piece was written to be performed. When George Frederick Handel wrote the music he took into account the acoustics of the space and he crafted the textures of the assembled instruments to fill it with the required dramatic effect. It sent a shiver down my spine to think that I was hearing it now pretty much as close as possible to how he would have heard it in his head when he penned the score.

Handel's Zadok the Priest, performed by St. James Baroque Orchestra at Westminster Abbey

Handel is a master. He hooks you with the opening bars and hypnotises you with the repetition. As the music swells you are carried along and you are now his. He has you exactly where he wants you, intently listening knowing that something big is about to happen. When it comes, even if you have heard it before, you are never quite prepared. Then all of a sudden the orchestra crescendos, the choir open their voices and lifted by trumpets and kettle drums sing with all the might in their hearts: “Zadok the Priest and Nathan the Prophet anointed Solomon King.” It has to be one of the greatest moments in music. It’s an onslaught, a wall of music, a mighty fanfare, a tsunami of sound. I want to punch the air in time with notes. “Za – dok – the – priest”

In 1714 within these magnificent surroundings and all the full blown pageantry of a baroque coronation, George I heard these notes as the crown went on his head and he became King of Great Britain. I can only begin to imagine the overwhelming emotions he must have felt. Personally, I can’t wait to get home and stick it on my hi-fi very loud and let the house rattle.

Paul Paragon is a freelance sound engineer.

  • The first episode of David Starkey's Music and Monarchy will be broadcast on BBC Two at 8.10pm on Saturday 20 July.
  • Further full performances of music featured in the series are available on the programme website
  • More information about each of the 4 episodes can be found in this PDF and in a press release on the BBC Media Centre website.
  • You can read about the preview screening of David Starkey's Music and Monarchy at Westminster Abbey here.
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