Coronation composer Roderick Williams: ‘I applaud the King’s passion for classical music’

Rare talent: Roderick Williams - Theo Williams
Rare talent: Roderick Williams - Theo Williams

To be invited to perform at the Coronation of King Charles III is an enormous privilege. To be invited to compose a new piece for the occasion, joining a tradition that stretches back to Elgar, Handel and Thomas Tallis, is even more so.

Only one person at Saturday’s event will have done both: Roderick Williams, the British baritone and composer born 58 years ago to a Welsh father and Jamaican mother. He still can’t believe his luck. “I was in a hotel in Spain doing a Messiah tour before Christmas,” he tells me, “and I got a text message from the choral conductor Andrew Nethsingha, who’d just taken over the reins as director of music at Westminster Abbey, saying that he wanted a confidential chat. I assumed it must be about my two nephews who are in the choir, but when I called, Andrew told me that His Majesty would like me to sing at the Coronation.” Another call came in January, this time from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

“They’re looking after the pre-service music, which includes six new pieces for the orchestra they’re forming for the occasion. They invited me to collaborate on a piece with two other composers, Nigel Hess and Shirley Thompson, based on one of the King’s favourite hymns, Be Thou My Vision. Well my smile just got even wider. I couldn’t believe my own good fortune.”

Williams tells me all of this with a sense of amusement and an eager volubility that makes him seem eternally young. He’s become ubiquitous on the opera stage and in the concert hall partly through an incredible work ethic, but also because there’s a tremendous warmth to his singing. In 2017, he was awarded an OBE for services to music. As for his new piece, Williams says it was composed for a limited number of players, perhaps a clue that the orchestra will be squeezed into the organ gallery, though he’s too discreet to say so.

“Nigel begins the piece by laying out the hymn tune, but leaves it hanging on a single note. It worked perfectly to lead into my slow middle movement, where I explore the shapes in the hymn. I too left it hanging on one note, so Shirley can then pick up and round off the triptych with a grand finale.” I ask about the style of his piece. “With this melody I suppose I respond to it in sort of majestic terms. I’m aware of the King’s fondness for Parry and Elgar – but I’ve also had a little fun with the melody.”

Roderick Williams after receiving his OBE from the then Prince of Wales in 2017 - WPA Pool
Roderick Williams after receiving his OBE from the then Prince of Wales in 2017 - WPA Pool

Williams says he admires the way the King is striving to make the ceremony more inclusive. “I think it’s lovely that he’s in effect declared, ‘It’s always been the case that only boys and men have sung at coronations. But this time round girls from Truro Cathedral and from Belfast are going to sing. It’s always been the case that the choirs and soloists have been exclusively white. But this time there are going to be people who are not white taking part’. I applaud that, and I also applaud the fact that he’s passionate about classical music. I feel at the moment that there are very few people at the decision-making tables who are prepared to say publicly that they’re passionate about the thing I hold dear.”

Williams is clearly angered by this, and for a moment the Coronation is forgotten. “I thought that the people who are making decisions about the arts could be trusted to see what’s really important,” he says. “And I’ve woken up in the last few months to discover that that is not the case. It was a massive shock to see certain institutions like English National Opera, Britten Sinfonia and others have the rug pulled from under them. Of course it’s great that other institutions helped for the first time, like Chineke!, but one gets the feeling that classical music is under some sort of siege. The whole edifice, not just orchestras and opera but choral music and cathedral music, is in danger of being swept aside by people who have no idea of its value.”

I bring the conversation back to the big day. Is Williams nervous about singing in front of more than 2,000 royals and heads of state, and an estimated TV audience of 300 million? “Well, I think it will be like that moment at The Last Night of the Proms in 2014, when I stepped on stage and part of me was thinking, my God, so many people are watching this. And another part of me that was thinking, forget all that. I think it will be the same this time. I’ll forget about all the things I can’t control and just enjoy it.”

The service will begin at 11.00am on Saturday. Watch live on BBC One and BBC iPlayer from 10.15am