Mum's the word

Rehearsals - Pelham Humfrey lets slip a few secrets about the Queen Mother's funeral

Every six months or so, I get a phone call from someone scheduling a rehearsal for the Queen Mother's funeral. About a hundred choral singers across the land, including myself, receive these calls periodically. It is all part of a hugely well co-ordinated plan to create a flawless and apparently spontaneous celebration of the life of the nation's most beloved royal. On the fateful day, the choir will consist of only about 50 people; usually, just 20 or so are available for any given rehearsal. The stable is larger because professionals tend to be busy, and cannot always jump on cue. Even the core singers, the regular choir of Westminster Abbey, aren't available all the time. Many of the people who do show for rehearsal are first-timers: replacements or "deputies" for regulars who cannot or will not be there, or who have simply had enough.

I used to drop everything for the chance to be involved in the sort of spectacle that I imagine will follow Her Majesty's eventual departure. But now, 20 or so false starts later, the edge is wearing off a bit. The potential personnel for the choir has changed almost completely, as singers have advanced professionally and become unavailable for rehearsal. The master of the choristers at the Abbey has been fired and replaced (and that's a mild way of telling the story). Even the music for the programme changes constantly, as new material is written by the trendiest or otherwise most appropriate composer. In addition, the calls are starting to come with increasingly pesky frequency; ten years ago, the phone would ring every time Ma'am blew her nose, so you can image what it is like now that she is past 100.

One irony of this is that Anglican choral singers are the envy of the earth for their ability to sight-read: to sing off a page of previously unknown music with little or no rehearsal. Ask a French choir to do this, and if, after sifting through the tonal wreckage that all too often passes for tuning south of the Channel, you can recognise what was printed on the page, your ears are more highly trained and sophisticated than those of Pierre Boulez. Certainly, ill-trained Anglican choirs are weedy, turgid, ghastly sounding things - but it seems superfluous to rehearse well-trained English singers quite so often, when part of their skill is making that particular Anglican sound more or less on the hoof.

Still, the BBC is all geared up and ready with a well-honed plan of action, so the Abbey and its adjuncts may as well get in on the act. And we are, after all this time, a lean, mean singing machine. The system had an unexpected dry run in 1997, when it was commandeered for Diana's funeral, and I think the world would concede that everything worked reasonably well, despite the assault to our choral dignity of all those candles in the wind. In fact, there is a certain unspoken worry that we may have peaked too soon. No one will admit this, but most of the singers who have been on The List for a while regard Diana's do as a dress rehearsal for the real thing. The old saw "bad dress rehearsal, good performance" becomes slightly haunting.

We are not supposed to talk about the particulars of the service, and I am probably skating on thin ice as it is. But it is not giving away any state secrets to say that I regret some of the pieces that have been dropped along the way. A beautiful Anglican chant setting of Psalm 121 by Walford Davies seems to have gone the way of all flesh. I worry generally, in fact, that the liturgy will become tawdry as we continue to tweak it: Elton John does not belong, especially not if worthy old Walford Davies is being moved over to accommodate him. Davies is simply more appropriate, stylistically as well as historically, to the occasion. The Queen Mother is, after all, a Victorian by birth, and as her life has spanned the past century, it should be represented as much by music of the earlier years as by more recent stuff.

And it is not her life alone being represented and remembered. It is an entire century of change, and also some bits of stasis - the Anglican choral tradition, for one thing, which is one of the enduring cultural glories of this country. That there are a hundred people who can rise to the occasion and sing exquisitely, like few other singers anywhere, rehearsed or unrehearsed, is something to be more proud of than the endurance of the royal family which occasions this particular display of tradition. In fact, as wonderful as this service will be, when the time comes, an everyday evensong in the Abbey is just as good or better.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The fall of civic culture