Music that Ties the Knot

The guests are invited and you’ve drawn up the lists, but what music should be playing at your wedding? Jeremy Nicholas explains the history of wedding music and gives some advice.

With a fair wind behind me, I can just about stagger my way through Widor’s Toccata on the three-manual organ of our local church (as long as no one’s listening too closely). I’ve lost count of the number of weddings at which I’ve played and the hours I’ve spent guiding friends and strangers through the hymn book and the vast wealth of music they can choose to have played at their service. I have learnt that you can divide the happy couples into two groups: those who have precise and definite ideas on the music they want, and those who ask for Wagner’s ‘Bridal Chorus’ and Mendelssohn’s Wedding March.

It’s strange that it is two pieces of theatre music that have become the most popular accompaniments for a church wedding. One is from an 1850 opera, Lohengrin, the other from the incidental music to a play (Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream). It’s stranger still that this religious ceremony has attracted so little ‘entrance and exit music’ that is non-secular. Few of the popular alternatives are the products of Christian belief – ‘The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba’ (oratorio?), trumpet voluntaries by the likes of Purcell, Clarke and Stanley, or the ubiquitous Toccata from Widor’s Fifth Organ Symphony. So how did the Wagner and Mendelssohn pieces become inseparable from the wedding service? And, before their composition, to what music did newly weds walk down the aisle?

Music has been part of the wedding service in England for at least 400 years, but it is only since the middle of the last century that the format used today came into being. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the bridal couple were accompanied to the church by a festive procession to the church porch where the wedding took place. There, presumably, all noise and music would cease during the Solemnisation of Marriage. Sometime in the last century, hymns and music were admitted to the ceremony now held within the church. So today’s ritual is a compromise between the two. Hymns designated specifically for the Solemnisation of Marriage begin to appear: Mrs Gurney’s ‘O Perfect Love’, for example, written for her sister’s wedding in 1883 and sung to a tune by Joseph Barnby at a royal wedding in 1889 (John Dykes composed an alternative for a royal wedding in Windsor in 1894).

And it was the royal family who, perhaps unsurprisingly, were responsible for the popularisation of the Wagner and Mendelssohn works as almost de rigueur for the late Victorian marriage. There had been little music written specifically for weddings, apart from Bach’s (secular) Wedding Cantata No. 202 and the anthems composed for royal occasions. Descriptions in novels or journals of the musical contents of pre-Victorian nuptials are few and far between.

Handel seems to have been the undisputed king of English wedding music till the advent of the other two Germans. Most people made do with the organ or other arrangements of his overtures, marches and movements from oratorios, as well as selections from the Water Music, Fireworks Music and Messiah; the royals did rather better and commissioned new works from him, such as Sing Unto God, written in 1736 for the wedding of Frederick, the Prince of Wales, and Princess Augusta of Saxe-Coburg.

Since Mendelssohn was Queen Victoria’s friend and favourite composer, you might have thought that it was she who made his Wedding March fashionable. But no. She was married in 1840 and the incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream was not completed until 1842. For lovers of musical trivia, the first time the wedding march was played on the organ was in 1844, a day or so after the British premiere of Mendelssohn’s work conducted by the composer. The occasion was a recital by the long-lived E J Hopkins (1818-1901) who was organist of the Temple church, London from 1843-1898. But the first organist to actually play the march during a marriage ceremony was one Samuel Reay (1822-1905) at a service at St Peter’s, the parish church of Tiverton in Devon in 1847. (Some of Reay’s part songs and church music are still in use; he was also the first person to perform Bach’s Peasant and Coffee Cantatas in England in 1879).

Several sources say the first time that the Mendelssohn and the Wagner were played together was in 1858 at the wedding of the Princess Victoria (the then Princess Royal) and Prince Frederick William of Prussia. Not strictly true. They enjoyed selections of Handel during the service and came out to the Mendelssohn; the Bridal Procession, Wedding March and ‘Epithalamium’ from Lohengrin were not heard until the evening, during the state concert. Nevertheless, the event set the pattern for a tradition that has lasted for nearly a century and a half.

The only rival to the Mendelssohn in popularity is Widor’s thrilling Toccata, the final movement of his Fifth Organ Symphony. The Duke and Duchess of Kent broke with the royal tradition in 1961, not only by marrying in York Minster but by choosing ‘the Widor’ to accompany them down the aisle, introducing it to a whole generation who had never even heard of Widor, let alone his Toccata. Princess Alexandra and Mr Angus Ogilvy followed suit in 1963 at their Westminster Abbey wedding. The amateur organist has had to struggle with it ever since – it’s distinctly more difficult than the Mendelssohn – but no matter how good the player is, if the organ is a one-manual instrument with an unresponsive keyboard, the bride and groom are likely to be disappointed: you simply can’t play Widor’s Toccata on a village organ.

So what music did I have for my wedding? My bride came down the aisle to Rose of England by Ivor Novello, two friends each sang a song during the signing of the register and for the finale I composed an organ toccata as a present to my wife. Romantic or what?

The four steps
Music to enter the church
Most people today opt for something other than Wagner’s ‘Bridal Chorus’, which many now consider hackneyed – unless you do as a friend of mine did and have the Prelude to Act 3 of Lohengrin followed by the ‘Bridal Chorus’ sung in German from the gallery! Here are some alternatives, all equally popular as both entrance and exit music:

– Handel’s The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba
– Stanley’s Trumpet Voluntaries, Op. 6, No. 5 and Op. 6, No. 6
– Jeremiah Clarke’s The Prince of Denmark’s March
– Purcell’s Trumpet Tune in D
– Trumpet Tune from Marc-Antoine’s Charpentier’s Te Deum
– ‘Hornpipe’ from Handel’s Water Music
– ‘Grand March’ from Aida
– S S Wesley’s Choral Song

Anthems for the service
For grand weddings, the choir sings an anthem while the assembled company listen. Usually, though, the anthem is performed during the signing of the register. Here are some suggestions:

– Vaughan Williams’s ‘Let all the world in every corner sing’
– Handel’s ‘Let their celestial concerts all unite’
– Walton’s ‘Set me a seal upon thy heart’
– Psalm 111: ‘I will give thanks unto the Lord’
– Handel’s ‘Let the bright seraphim’
– Walford Davies’s ‘God be in my head’
– J S Bach’s ‘Jesu, joy of man’s desiring’, also popular as an organ solo
– Patrick Hadley’s ‘My beloved spake’

Music for the signing of the papers
The choice is yours (or your mother-in-law’s) – a favourite piece that can be anything from the Bach-Gounod setting of Ave Maria to ‘Love Changes Everything’ from Aspects of Love. Favourite vocal numbers are:

– Handel’s ‘Where’er you walk’
– Rodgers’s ‘Climb Every Mountain’
– Franck’s ‘Panis angelicus’
– Giordani’s ‘Caro mio ben’
– Mozart’s Alleluia from ‘Exsultate Jubilate’
– Mozart’s ‘Laudate Dominum’

Organ solos include:

– Vaughan Williams’s Chorale Prelude on ‘Rhosymedre’
– J S Bach’s ‘Sheep may safely graze’
– Gluck’s ‘Dance of the Blessed Spirits’
– Myers’s Cavatina (theme from The Deer Hunter)
– J S Bach’s Air on the G String
– Handel’s Air from Water Music
– Pachelbel’s Canon in D

Music to leave the church
Apart from the Mendelssohn and Widor pieces and those listed above for the bride’s entrance, the most popular choices include:

– Parry’s ‘Bridal March’ from The Birds of Aristophanes
– Handel’s March from Scipio
– Elgar’s ‘Triumphal March’ from Caractacus
– Elgar’s Imperial March
– Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 4, used by Prince Charles and Diana
– Mendelssohn’s ‘War March of the Priest’ from Athalie
– Guilmant’s Grand Choeur in D
– Widor’s Marche Pontifical
– Purcell’s Rondeau from Abdelazar
– J S Bach’s Fugue à la gigue
– C S Lang’s Tuba Tune
– Lemmens’s Fanfare
– Smart’s Festive March in D
– Mulet’s Carillon-Sortie
– Vierne’s Finale from Symphony No. 1
– Lefébure-Wély’s Sortie in B flat
– Prizeman’s Toccata (‘Songs of Praise’)

Classic CD magazine, 1997


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