Nelson’s was one
of the last full heraldic state funerals to be held in Britain;
this meant that it was full of arcane detail which sounds quite
curious to us today. In his informative essay Colin White informs
us that Nelson’s coffin was accompanied, on its journey from
Greenwich to St. Paul’s, by Nelson’s helmet, surcoat, shield
and gauntlets. Not that Nelson had worn any of them; they had
been made especially for the occasion, as if the hero really
were a medieval knight going to his rest.
The centre piece
of the ceremonial, reconstructed here at Portsmouth Cathedral,
was the service at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Here the Burial Service
was performed in the context of the Office of Evensong. The
music was selected by John Page, one of the Vicars Choral at
St. Paul’s. The organist at the service was Mozart’s pupil Thomas
Attwood. Attwood contributed the setting of the canticles and
a dirge for organ. The choir was made up of singers from St.
Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, the Chapel Royal and St.
George’s Chapel, Windsor.
This brings me to
a small point where this splendid reconstruction falls down.
The original choir numbered one hundred men and boys whereas
Portsmouth Cathedral choir number twenty-two boys and twelve
men, though they do make a splendid sound.
It must be confessed
that not all the music for the service is of the first water
and the totality is as much of historical as musical interest.
The service starts with the Dead March from Handel’s ‘Saul’,
sounding a little bereft played on the organ without any of
Handel’s orchestral textures; then follows William Croft’s lovely
funeral sentences, originally sung as the body was carried up
the nave by twelve seamen. The next four tracks are taken up
with spoken sections of the service. This disc is most definitely
not a concert; even though the spoken section is trimmed slightly
there is quite a substantial amount of speaking.
The Preces and Responses
are by the 17th century composer, Richard Ayleward,
a composer who features more often on Church and Cathedral music
lists than on CDs. Only one Psalm is sung - the second was cut
for the recording - to a setting by Purcell.
Both lessons are
read expertly by Colin White who also wrote the essay in the
CD booklet. Attwood’s Canticles, specially written for the occasion
are charming, which is not perhaps the ideal word to describe
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis settings.
The Anthem is Maurice
Greene’s lovely ‘Lord, let me know mine end’. Greene had been
Attwood’s predecessor as Organist of St. Paul’s.
As the coffin was
carried out of the chancel, Attwood played his newly composed
grand Dirge; this is a fine, evocative piece. This is followed
by Purcell’s lovely ‘Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our
hearts’, which is beautifully sung by the choir. The final anthem
is an adaptation of a Handel chorus, ‘His body is buried in
peace’. On the recording the balance with the organ is not ideal,
the organ being rather too discreet; I missed having an instrumental
A final poignant
moment is the proclamation of Nelson’s title. Then the service
concludes, remarkably, with an organ version of Arne’s ‘Rule
As if they realised
that the musical content of the CD needed a boost, the disc
concludes with a performance of Handel’s ‘Te Deum’, a work which
Nelson had heard in Vienna in 1800. Again I missed the instrumental
accompaniment but the performance is lively and creditable.
The programme of
this disc has a great deal of historical interest and it is
fascinating to hear the reconstruction of such a major state
service. Unfortunately the service dates from a time when English
church music was in the doldrums and musically this disc is
a little thin. But Portsmouth Cathedral choir, under David Price,
along with organist David Thorne turn in a creditable and involving
This is not a disc
to be dipped into, but listened to carefully with Colin White’s
involving essay as companion; the result is to transport you
to an earlier era.