An Australian buried at Westminster Abbey

Sixty years ago, Melbourne-born Sir William McKie masterminded music for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
By Alasdair McGregor June 4, 2013 Reading Time: 4 Minutes Print this page

AS THE PARISH CHURCH to the British nation, London’s Westminster Abbey has served a political as well as a spiritual function for centuries.

The greatest political act of all – the coronation of English monarchs – has occurred on the site of the Abbey since 1066. The first was William the Conqueror. The most recent was Queen Elizabeth II, 60 years ago this month.

The church at Westminster dates from 1245 and as well as a place of worship, it is also the final resting place of many kings, queens and prime ministers, not to mention immortal names such as Geoffrey Chaucer, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Laurence Olivier.

As a member of the Commonwealth, Australia inevitably has connections with this ancient place. Within its walls, Howard Florey, the pioneer of penicillin, is memorialised in South Australian granite, while a bust by Kathleen Scott, widow of the Antarctic explorer, commemorates the Australian poet Adam Lindsay Gordon. But there are only two Australians actually buried in Westminster Abbey; one is classical scholar Gilbert Murray, the other Sir William McKie, organist and master of choristers at the Abbey from 1941.

Sir William McKie at Westminster Abbey

Born in Melbourne in 1901, McKie attended Melbourne Grammar and in 1918 travelled to England on a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music. In an illustrious career, both in Britain and Australia, he was at various times director of music at Geelong Grammar, Melbourne City organist, and instructor of music at Magdalen College, Oxford.

For a nation emerging from years of war and dreary austerity, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in Westminster Abbey on 2 June 1953 was a spectacle intended to buoy the spirits of the people. Upon the death of King George VI in February 1952, the Abbey was closed so that preparations for the great event could proceed uninterrupted.

As a 12-year old pupil at the Abbey’s choir school, author James Wilkinson recalls that it was a “massive project… it went on for six months and the normal seating was increased from 2,000 to about 8,000.” Away from the noise and clatter of the building work, rehearsals began in earnest, climaxing in the main rehearsal just a couple of days before the Coronation itself.

Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II

The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. (Credit: Wikipedia)

James recalls the “astonishing change” that overcame the Abbey. “The Coronation was the first service to be televised, so they had erected special lighting in the Abbey. This picked out the amazing colours – the gold carpet and the blue frontals… the whole thing looked spectacular.”

60 years on: the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II

The responsibility for the event’s musical program fell to William McKie in his role as the Abbey’s organist. From the vantage point of youth, James Wilkinson remembers McKie as a “very arresting character; tall, with a jutting chin, who, even on relatively informal occasions would wear pin-striped trousers and a black jacket.”

Totally absorbed in his work, McKie was, according to James, “very tense and wavered between being charming and delightful and having a fierce temper. It wasn’t difficult to upset him. If we didn’t sing very well, or if we were out of tune… he would get very cross.” Although he was quick to anger, William McKie was also quick to feel remorse. James added that “he would realise he’d gone too far and soon invite us all out to tea. Overall, he was a delightful man.”

What carried McKie through the many complexities of preparing for the Coronation was his skill as an administrator. “It was a big job,” says James. “And he did it exceptionally well.” He engaged and rehearsed choristers from all over the nation, assembled an orchestra of 80 players, and put together a carefully selected musical program which included the works of English composers, both ancient and modern.

The interspersing of contemporary compositions with older works steeped in the traditions of coronations past was a triumph for McKie, and a highpoint of his career. On the day before the great event, he received a knighthood in the Queen’s Coronation Honours in recognition of his great musical contribution to the Commonwealth.

Apart from the climactic moment when Princess Elizabeth was crowned and became Queen Elizabeth II, and the whole congregation shouted, “God save the Queen, long live the Queen,” James Wilkinson remembers the dazzling colour. “Indian princes dressed in gold and silks and highly coloured costumes and turbans, and the peers in their crimson robes trimmed with white ermine fur.”

James says it was an event that “you’d be unlikely to see again, not like that”.

This week marks the 60th anniversary of that momentous day. In a celebratory service, Westminster Abbey will again resound to a selection of music from the 1953 Coronation, an event made glorious by a brilliant organist from Melbourne.

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