Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason is one of the many artists performing at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. (Photo by Lars Borges/Kensington Palace via Getty Images)
Classical music critic

It’s the biggest classical musical event of the year, watched live by millions of people around the world. One of the soloists canceled his American orchestral debut to be there. The music will range from traditional to brand-new, with a world premiere. Thousands of people will download and stream it the day after the live event. Yet music won’t be the primary focus of the day. 

The event, of course, is the wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. 

“It’s a phenomenal chance for us to promote classical music,” says the conductor, Christopher Warren-Green, one of the event’s conductors.

Classical music comes to the fore at ceremonial occasions. At celebrations and memorials, this music has an acknowledged function in the popular consciousness, even to those who aren’t fans. Weddings are a prime example. For most people, only classical music will do, even if they don’t otherwise listen to it. The music is a kind of formal straitjacket, donned for the occasion, and brides turn to websites and magazines for advice on what they ought to play, searching for music they’ve never heard themselves.

How much more fraught, then, is the selection of music for the royal wedding, which — as in the case of Prince William’s wedding to Kate Middleton in 2011 — can be heard by an estimated 2 billion people. When in doubt, everyone turns to the older generation. Charles, the Prince of Wales, is a genuine music-lover and played a major role in selecting music for the weddings of both his sons, drawing on British ceremonial music going back centuries. Meghan and Harry’s wedding, however, will have a signal difference. “There most definitely will be an American slant,” Warren-Green said.


Christopher Warren-Green with Prince Charles. (Courtesy of The Charlotte Symphony)

Warren-Green will be conducting an orchestra made up of members of a number of leading British ensembles. Meghan and Harry’s will be his third royal wedding: “a hat trick,” he jokes, and one of a long string of appearances for and with the royals that he’s made since 1981, when Prince Charles invited him to give a concert in Buckingham Palace — the first concert given there since Johann Strauss the Elder performed with his orchestra for Queen Victoria.

Warren-Green also conducted at the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles, and at Kate and William’s wedding — among other memorable occasions. He once taught Prince Charles to conduct Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll” as a present for his wife. He also recalls a private concert for the royal family on the queen’s 80th birthday, leading a chamber orchestra in Handel’s music, with a harpsichord dating from Handel’s time, in a room in Kew Gardens in which Handel is very likely to have performed himself. 

“The only problem,” he says, “was that the harpsichord was tuned a semitone flat.” The soloist had to transpose up, by sight, throughout the evening. 

Conducting a royal wedding is different from preparing a concert for one of his orchestras — the London Chamber Orchestra or the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra in North Carolina, where ­Warren-Green has been music director since 2009. For one thing, he doesn’t have much of a say in the repertoire.

Even the brides have had only limited choice, although Kate Middleton had a few picks for her wedding in 2011. One piece she wanted, as a recessional, was William Walton’s “Crown Imperial,” but the work was written as a coronation march, and the bridal pair, Warren-Green said, was concerned this might violate protocol. They consulted Prince Charles, who told them not to worry. Still unsure, they asked the queen. She, too, said it didn’t matter, and the music was part of the ceremony — playing as the bride and groom stopped to bow and curtsy to the queen on their way out of the church.


Britain's Prince William and his wife Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, come out of Westminster Abbey in London, after their wedding service. (CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images)

The repertoire for an English event is also markedly different from an American one. English ceremonial tradition is steeped in music, going back to Handel’s day. (Who can forget the soprano Kiri Te Kanawa at Charles and Diana’s wedding, dressed in the height of 1981 chic and looking not unlike a fashionable Easter egg, singing “Let the Bright Seraphim” from Handel’s oratorio “Samson” — a moment that sealed her already flourishing stardom?) Kate and William’s wedding was rife with English compositions, from Hubert Parry to William Walton to Peter Maxwell Davies to John Rutter, whom Westminster Abbey commissioned to write an anthem for the ceremony as a wedding present to the bride and groom. (This kind of thing does not generally happen at American political weddings.) 

America’s ceremonial music is more secular, and of more recent vintage. “ ‘America the Beautiful,’ Sousa marches, and anything written by Gershwin, Bernstein or Copland,” Warren-Green said. Our ceremonies are different, too: State offerings of classical music tend to be at Memorial Day or Fourth of July concerts, or funerals and memorials.

In September 2016, Warren-Green programmed an American ceremonial concert, “literally overnight.” The orchestra had planned a free community concert for a date that happened to fall in the middle of the protests that broke out in Charlotte after a black man was fatally shot by police. The orchestra’s administration thought it should be canceled; Warren-Green suggested, instead, turning it into a concert for peace. They rescheduled the whole thing and performed it the next day, with Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” as a centerpiece. 

The repertoire for Meghan and Harry’s wedding, of course, is still under wraps, although the performers have already been announced. Warren-Green is one of a host of musicians under the overall leadership of Sir James Vivian, the director of music at St. George’s Chapel, where the wedding will take place. The Kingdom Choir, a British gospel group, will perform, as will the Baroque trumpeter David Blackadder. And much focus will be on the 19-year-old cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who won the BBC Young Musician award in 2016 and released his first solo album earlier this year. A student at the Royal College of Music, he was to have made his American orchestral debut with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra on May 20. But Meghan Markle called him personally to invite him to perform. And an audience of 2 billion can’t be beat.