conducting the royal Anthem

The crowd that gathered in Sanam Luang and surrounding streets has been estimated at anywhere from 177,000 people to half a million or even (according to the Khmer Times) one million people.  If not the biggest, it was clearly one of the vastest assemblies ever to perform a nation's song.  

The crowd that gathered in Sanam Luang and surrounding streets has been estimated at anywhere from 177,000 people to half a million or even (according to the Khmer Times) one million people.  If not the biggest, it was clearly one of the vastest assemblies ever to perform a nation's song.  

 
 

A ROYAL ANTHEM

When I was a child, the only version of the Royal Anthem commonly heard (in movie theatres and the like) was a scratchy and antiquated recording of a very unusual arrangement, notable for a very extended tuba solo countermelody towards the end. In the 1960s, a lot of musicians were saying that this "tuba concerto" version needed an updating and Hans Gunther Mommer, who had been brought in by the Goethe Institut to kick-start classical music in Thailand, wrote what became a classic arrangement for symphony orchestra, notable for some rather academic counterpoint and for one lovely cadence in particular with a clashing major seventh (on the words kho bandaan). This was I believe first played by the Pro Musica Orchestra - the BSO did not yet then exist - and was the first "modern" arrangement (that I can recall).

Since that time, many great artists and musicians of all disciplines have created a rich variety of arrangements and interpretations, showing that this is a melody so rich and subtle that its accompaniment can be reimagined time and time again without any departure from the melody's unique beauty.

Versions that I personally have loved are Bruce Gaston's subtly coloristic version, and two versions by my brilliant student Trisdee na Patalung that show completely different uses of the complex palette of orchestral and harmonic color available to the modern composer. I haven't always liked every version that has been created — some are so "epic" as to sound like a fantasy movie, others are just plain weird — but all have something to say, and add something to the rich history of how this melody has been intepreted.

I want to tell you a little bit about the version that was heard in Saturday which is my own arrangement. For decades, Khunying Malaiwal, had been suggesting that I do an a cappella version of the anthem so that choirs could sing it without piano or orchestra. I finally wrote this in 2002 and my concept was to create a version whose colors depended entirely on the harmony and counterpoint — since there would be no orchestra. Inspiration therefore came from the chorales of J.S. Bach in terms of a far more wide-ranging harmonic language than previous versions, making up for being unable to paint with orchestral colors.

It is a very difficult version to sing, requiring spot-on intonation from a well-trained choir, so it is not a version that was much performed except, of course, by well-trained choirs.

It was about a decade later that I came to write the orchestral accompaniment for this arrangement (without changing any of the choral parts). Again, since the harmonic language was quite chromatic, I kept the orchestration very simple and classical, and small enough to be played by a Mozart-sized orchestra or even a string quartet.

For the performance on Saturday, which was by a massive ensemble, I tweaked the orchestration one more time and therefore what we heard on Saturday was in fact the world premiere of a slightly newer arrangement.

My aim was to tell the entire history of the last 70 years, which are really also about the transition from Siam to Thailand. That's why the arrangements opens in unison, with all singers and orchestra playing the same note. The sound then grows and expands in tonal richness and harmonic complexity. I told the press that it is like a drop of water that becomes a stream that flows into a river and finally becomes a mighty ocean.

Sung by a crowd that was, at a minimum, estimated to have 177,000 people, the ocean was mighty indeed. I wish I had the words to explain how it felt...

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