Making music and singing is an instinctive reaction to life’s main events – births, marriages and deaths are celebrated or mourned by music in many cultures across the globe. From tribal beats in Africa to folk singing in China, most countries and cultures have a traditional way of expressing their joy at the union of two people.
The history of wedding music in Britain spans pagan ritual, Christian ceremony, European fashions and more recently the richly diverse ethnic traditions that are present in the country today. For example, the popular use of Wagner’s ‘Bridal Chorus’, more commonly known as ‘Here Comes The Bride’, and Mendelsohn’s ‘Wedding March’ from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in the church ceremony is believed to have been started by Victoria the Princess Royal, daughter of Queen Victoria when she married the Crown Prince of Prussia in 1858. Her love of German composers led her to choose these two pieces and, with royal weddings leading fashions as they still do today, her choice was emulated by many more brides until it became a tradition in itself.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, and possibly earlier, wedding music would differ between urban and rural areas and between the classes. Rural and urban lower classes would have celebrated with more informal and impromptu music, perhaps someone picking up a guitar or with everyone joining in some folk songs and family favourites. Whereas the rural gentry would have been keen to follow the example of their urban upper class contemporaries and would have had more of a formal and organised entertainment. They would probably have been rich enough to own a piano, which an accomplished young lady would have played for the guests to dance to or may have hired a string quartet to truly impress. For the upper classes, classical music would have taken centre-stage at this time, with sombre organ music reflecting the formality of the service and lighter music for a reception in the home with some dancing later.
Wartime weddings were naturally influenced by the troubles that the country was experiencing at the time, with rationing affecting the wedding meal, cake and dress. Nevertheless, in true ‘blitz spirit’ communities pulled together for a wedding, pooling coupons to ensure that the party had a decent meal and managing to create dresses from family heirlooms and clothing coupons. Despite, or perhaps because of, the war everyone was determined to have a good time. Wedding entertainment in this era would most likely have been quite impromptu, with the guests joining in popular songs, perhaps with someone playing the piano or putting a few records on a gramophone.
Music itself has changed dramatically since the arrival of popular music post-war and the electronic advancement of music in recent decades. The idea of evening entertainment as we know it now is quite a recent invention. The now traditional first and last dances started in the 1980s and onward. Prior to this time the bride and groom traditionally left for their honeymoon after the meal had ended and the cake was cut, leaving their guests behind to socialise alongside whatever entertainment was arranged or improvised.
With the increase in popularity of organised evening entertainment and a huge increase in the market it is possible for couples to put a more personal touch to their big day. Acoustic guitarists, singers, harpists, keyboard players and string quartets are all popular and yet still individual choices for music to accompany the ceremony, be it religious or civil.