Design a site like this with
Get started

Why Pageants?

Twentieth-century pageants were vibrant and colourful representations of popular culture. Hundreds of pageants – many involving thousands of participants – took place all over Britain in the first half of the twentieth century. The rich combination of story, history, and legend attracted incredible national attention, but today the pageant genre remains an understudied topic of scholarship. This project seeks to encourage new, diverse scholarship into this interdisciplinary art form through conferences, concerts, and publications. Look for future events on Twitter with #20thcentpageants

St Albans Pageants Concert

These excerpts were recorded at a performance of pageant music from the 1907, 1948, and 1953 St Albans pageants. The music was arranged for oboe and Cor Anglais by Parker Gordon, who also performed the music at the St Albans Museum and Gallery on 22 January 2020. The performance was part of an evening of pageant films and music, organised by The Redress of the Past, an AHRC-funded research project on British historical pageants. Information about upcoming pageant events can be found on their website.

Photo by Liz Munday

Pageant music accompanies the action in the pageant arena, providing incidental music in the same way that music for theatres or cinemas guides an audience’s emotional response to the drama. Most pageants had a specially-composed anthem or chorus to bring the audience’s attention to their town’s history. Sometimes the audience could purchase copies of the music and sing along during the pageant. The St Albans Chorus for the 1907 pageant, with lyrics by C. H. Ashdown and music by W. H. Bell, brings the audience to attention with the opening lines, signalling the beginning of the pageant.

Ladies Fair, merry gentlemen, 
We pray you of your courtesy attend 
While we the folk of St Alban's town present 
Scenes of merriment and sorrow, 
Tragic death, unbridled fury, 
Secret hatred, lightsome love scene, 
All the phases of our pageantry in turn.

Fanfares in pageants function in several ways.

  1. Aesthetically, the fanfares provide the setting for a royal or noble entry as the processions of horses and banners make way for the important character as they enter.
  2. Practically, a fanfare is traditionally performed on brass instruments like trumpets, bugles, or horns – timbres that carry across open-air spaces and are easily heard from great distances – ideal for the large outdoor pageant arenas.
  3. Functionally, the fanfare is often performed at the beginning of an episode, making it an easy way to keep track of scenes and to cue casts of future episodes for their entrances.

In this first fanfare, the stage directions are read aloud, which indicate a call and response effect from the trumpets positioned in the arena, in the orchestra, and off in the distance.

Pageant episodes that present natural or even supernatural elements rely upon music to create spectacular special effects. In this episode, the choir and orchestra – with elements of fanfare and sudden dramatic pauses – announce the entry of Bonduca (another name for Boadicea) with truly fantastic fury.

Listen, oh listen! What is the noise? 
Is it the earth that quakes? 
Or is it the sea that swells? 
Whitened, clinging together 'gainst the infantry,
If there's a cry on the hill
Is it not Bonduca that terrifies?
Photo by Liz Munday

Pageants frequently present episodes of religious history: the founding of a monastery, the construction of a cathedral, iconoclasm, sermons, and requiems for the dead. Choral plainsong, chant, and hymns all feature in many pageants to accompany these scenes. The music often borrows tunes from familiar and popular hymnbooks, which are sometimes developed within the musical score by the pageant’s composer or can be performed with little-to-no adaptation. These excerpts from the 1907 St Albans pageant incorporate a chant tune along with the Dies irae requiem mass for the dead, which was played by the orchestra and sung by the choir during a funeral procession for Queen Eleanor.

Gustav Holst’s 1920 setting of Psalm 148 (originally for chorus, string orchestra, and organ) was used in both the 1948 and 1953 St Albans pageant. This popular hymn tune may sound familiar, but is set to the words of Psalm 148, which were paraphrased by Francis Ralph Gray. This short excerpt is only of two verses.

From personal collection
Lord, who hast made us for thine own, 
Hear as we sing before Thy throne.
Alleluia, Alleluia.
Accept Thy children's rev'rent praise
For all Thy wondrous works and ways. 
Alleluia, Alleluia.

Waves, rolling in on ev'ry shore, 
Pause at His footfall and adore.
Alleluia, Alleluia. 
Ye torrents rushing from the hills, 
Bless Him Whose hand your fountains fills. 
Alleluia, Alleluia.

The use of pre-existing music, such as hymns, was a popular and inexpensive way to accompany pageants. The St Albans pageants in 1948 and 1953 incorporated quite a few pre-existing pieces alongside the specially composed music for select episodes. As a special homage to the coronation service of Queen Elizabeth II, a few of the musical selections from the ceremony were also featured in the 1953 pageant, aptly titled ‘A Masque of the Queens’.

Other pre-existing compositions became standards for pageant performances throughout the twentieth century. Marches by Edward Elgar along with ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, Hubert Parry’s ‘Jerusalem’, ‘I Vow to Thee My Country’ set to music from ‘Jupiter’ by Holst, and the national anthem all became a traditional moment in a pageant performance for the audience to begin singing along.

These last two excerpts come from Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite: ‘Mattachins’ (Sword Dance) and Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 4.

Please contact Parker Gordon ( with any questions or comments about this event, pageants, or the musical recordings.

search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close