Let’s start with the original source of the words for this piece: Psalm 122 in the Jewish Bible. It is one of a group of Psalms (songs) usually called “Psalms of ascent.” Scholars disagree on what exactly the word “ascent” refers, but the idea that’s usually listed first is that these psalms were sung by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem to participate in various festivals during the year. Jerusalem is built on several hills (one of which had the name “Zion,” so that name is used sometimes to refer to Jerusalem as a whole.), so you would indeed be ascending as you made your approach into the city. Verse 4 of the Psalm (which is not included in the piece) says, “For thither the tribes go up, even the tribes of the Lord: to testify unto Israel, to give thanks unto the Name of the Lord.” (KJV) That sounds pretty much like a group of Israelites going to a thanksgiving festival, doesn’t it? (And they’re probably pretty glad that the end of their journey is in sight.)
How did a song about going to a Jewish festival end up being applied to a British coronation? Good question. There is a clear parallel drawn by the use of the psalm’s words between the peace and prosperity of Jerusalem and that of the United Kingdom. I don’t know that there’s any deliberate attempt to say that now Britain has replaced Israel as God’s chosen people or anything like that, though. The psalm was included in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and I think someone just decided it would make a nice statement as a new monarch was crowned. Some version of it has been performed at the coronation of every British monarch since that of Charles I in 1625. (You may remember that Charles I ended up being beheaded, so he was perhaps not the most auspicious of monarchs to first use the piece. But we won’t worry about that!)
The version we are singing, by Sir Hubert Parry, was first used in 1902 for King Edward VII’s coronation. (This was “Bertie,” Queen Victoria’s oldest son.) Funny sidenote about the ceremony:
At the first performance of Parry’s arrangement at the 1902 coronation, the director of music, Sir Frederick Bridge, misjudged the timing and had finished the anthem before the King had arrived, having to repeat it when the right moment came. Bridge was saved by the organist, Walter Alcock, who improvised in the interim.(Wikipedia)
Always great to be remembered at a quick-witted improviser!
As for Parry himself, he was forced by his father to work in the insurance business. By age 35, though, in 1883, Parry was a teacher at the Royal College of Music, and he became its head in 1895. While there are varying opinions about his own compositional abilities, no one can argue about the quality of his pupils, among whom were Ralph Vaughn Williams and Gustav Holst.
In 2011 our piece was used in the wedding ceremony of Prince William and Kate Middleton, as it had also been in the ceremony for William’s parents Charles and Diana. So, as I said in our program notes, if ermine is not to your taste you may instead imagine a wedding procession as you sing or hear this magnificent piece!