We might not always enjoy participating in history . . . but thanks to music, we can relive important events in the past

I invite you to watch Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra perform Tchaikovsky’s “Festival Coronation March,” which was written for the coronation of Tsar Alexander III.

When I was in high school, there was a TV show called, “You Are There.”  There were episodes about the death of Socrates, the capture of Jesse James and other historical events. The idea that each show enabled you to be there on the day the event happened was driven home when host Walter Cronkite opened each segment with a statement like, “The death of Cleopatra . . . and YOU ARE THERE.”

For me, classical music serves a similar function. When I listen to a piece of music like Tchaikovsky’s “Festival Coronation March,” written in 1883 for the coronation of Tsar Alexander III, I feel something of what it was like to be there. And when I think about what happened to the Romanov dynasty in the years that followed, the music takes on a certain poignancy.

Music lets us relive history, and that is why I have selected the music on the playlist for today’s blog. CLICK HERE to listen to all selections if you are a Classical Archives subscriber. And if you are not a member, why not subscribe now?

Selection One (tracks 1-3 on playlist): Coronation Anthem “Zadok the Priest” for the Coronation of King Charles II, October 11, 1727, by George Frideric Handel

Handel wrote several coronation anthems, but this is my favorite. It is also a blast to sing, if you have ever had the opportunity. The text flatteringly compares King Charles II to King Solomon. But the King was paying Handel’s salary, right?

This performance is by the Royal Academy Consort, directed by Jeremy Summerly.

Selection Two (track 4 on playlist): “Festival Coronation March” for the Coronation of Tsar Alexander III, May 27, 1883, by Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky

This fantastic ceremonial march was apparently first performed in Sokolniki Park in Moscow as the Tsar’s procession passed by. The conductor, Sergei Taneyev.  It was later performed at the first concert ever presented in Carnegie Hall on May 5, 1891. Tchaikovsky conducted that performance. Talk about history! And keep your ears ready for those nifty step modulations – you’ll hear two of them between tape counter marks 118 and 130. (Barry Manilow did not invent them.)

The Saint Petersburg Philharmonia performs, conducted by Alexander Titov.

Selection Three (track 5 on playlist): “Te Deum” for the Coronation of King Charles V, June 22, 1911, by Charles Hubert Hastings Parry

Chances are that neither you nor I have been listening to a lot of music written by Parry. But I think you and I will share a sense of discovery when we hear what a strong piece of choral music this is.

We will hear the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Neeme Järvi.

Selection Four (track 6 on playlist): “Orb and Sceptre” March for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, June 2, 1953, by Sir William Walton

Although he called this piece a march, it is more of a celebratory tone poem for full orchestra. And what a master orchestrator Walton was.

We will hear the English Northern Philharmonia conducted by Paul Daniel.

And Now for Some Sad Occasions . . .

Selection Five (track 7 on playlist): Burial Service Composed for the Burial of Queen Mary II, March 5, 1694, by Henry Purcell

If you haven’t heard this remarkable four-section choral work, I think you will be struck by the mournful mood that the composer created with dissonance. Purcell (1659-1695) was a magnificent composer.

This performance is by the Sixteen Choir conducted by Harry Christophers.

Selection Six (track 8 on playlist): “President Garfield’s Funeral March” Composed for the Funeral of President James A. Garfield, 1881, by John Philip Sousa

Garfield was shot by an assassin in Washington DC on July 22, 1881 and died on September 19. The exact date when this march was first performed is not certain – immense public ceremonies in his honor took place in several cities. It was probably first performed on September 25, when a public funeral took place in Cleveland.

We will hear the Central Band of the Royal Air Force conducted by Keith Brion, who made this arrangement for wind band.

In closing, here is a video that describes the assassination of Garfield.