The Strains Of Zadok
This is the story of a piece of music, and its place in the anointing of kings and queens.
It is the story of a musical introduction, with a pulse so graceful, and a rising motif of such exquisite beauty tinged with tension, that one greets a wall of voices when eventually it arrives as the freshest air after the storm.
Our story is rooted in Biblical texts, at the close of David’s reign. The king is troubled. His bastard son, Absalom, has already tried to usurp his power, and now, on his deathbed, another pretender makes his play.
How then, can the dying king assure Solomon ascend the throne, to rule the House of Saul?
And so it was that the elders of Israel thought it urgent to crown David’s first-born in a manner so public that his position would go unchallenged.
The Bible breathlessly describes what happens next.
Zadok the priest, and Nathan the prophet, place Solomon on a royal steed, and with great ceremony parade with him through the streets of Jerusalem, towards a spring outside the city walls. [Zadok. Nathan. Take note.]
There, in accordance with traditions, Solomon is anointed king.
The scribes record the moment after, when “all the people went up after him, playing on pipes, and rejoicing with great joy, so that the earth was split by their noise”.
It was, all told, a most successful crowning. Those pesky younger brothers desisted, and a template for coronations was written for the ages.
In 1727, the Hanoverian George I of Britain and Ireland, in an advanced state of aging, saw an opportunity to kill two crotchets with one quaver.
His flagging health meant he had not much time to ease the transition to his son, the would-be George II. His subjects were generally upset with insistent Germans ruling the roost.
Come the moment, come the musician.
The greatest musician of the day was George Frederick Handel, the celebrated genius-German who, for all of his prodigious artistry over decades in London, still could not buy any damned property as he lacked a British passport.
George I’s deathbed plan was to commission a coronation anthem for his son from Handel.
In recompense, he would grant Handel British nationality.
For it was only Handel who could create music of sufficient majesty to appease the people, that they might rally behind their new king.
Together, they agreed on the text upon which the anthem would be set.
It would be drawn from the Bible. It would tell the story Solomon’s coronation. And, through the mystery of Handelian notes on a stave, it would imbue the coronated one with such god-like power that the nation could but rejoice.
George I promptly died.
Thus, for the first time, in 1727, the strains of Zadok The Priest were heard in Westminster Abbey for his son, George II.
And for every British coronation since, and at the most sacred moment – the anointing of the new monarch, stripped of robes yet covered in emotion.
Every coronation, including 6th May 2023. Today.
Pay attention to manner in which Handel stirs the soul in his opening bars. Its gentle pulse meanders with grandeur, giving way to a divine canter before pulling from the edge. Finally, with unalloyed joy, the orchestral introduction races to meet its fate, and the chorus of hundreds proclaim their story:
‘Zadok the priest, and Nathan the prophet
Anointed Solomon king.
And all the people rejoiced and said…
God save the King. May the King live forever.’
Music is such a powerful carrier of emotional meaning. Humble notes collaborate to spell-binding effect; together, they provoke within us harmony, or dis-ease, or joy, or sorrow.
Or in the case of Handel’s Zadok The Priest, awe.
For it is awe that builds foundation, awe which leavens dissent, awe which raises a man, and maketh of his ragged cloaks immortal robes.
Charles III knows it. George I knew it. King David and Zadok too.