Recessional for Princess Diana’s Funeral, “Song for Athene,” a Pop Hit

Posted on August 31, 2010

Princess Diana's sisters Lady Jane Fellowes and Lady Sarah McCorquodale wonder what Diana's future would have brought.

Nothing was “usual” in the death, funeral and burial of Diana, Princess of Wales.  Against advice, Prince Charles  insisted on flying with her sisters to Paris to bring her body home.  It has been well-recorded how shocked he was when confronted with her in the face of her death.  He fought to have the royal standard on the casket.

But most remarkably, Charles was insistent that the mother of the future king of Britain  have a formal royal funeral and so a special category of royal funeral was created just for  her. [wikipedia]

While the Spencers were, in-the-main, responsible for the funeral Charles was given input. The music that celebrated her life at the funeral truly was representative of her and what she liked and also of what her relatives felt was the essence of her persona.  Here is a website that lists much of the music played at the Abbey and what family member requested it.

It was the recessional that became a “pop” favorite in the days right after the funeral.  Written by one of the most talented British composers of this generation,  John Tavner  ( not to be confused with the composer of the same name from the 16th  century)  He has had multiple serious illnesses since he was a young man and now can no longer write.

Amazingly, in view of his unworldliness, his antipathy to the age and the high spirituality of his work, Tavener does, from time to time, stumble into huge popular success. It happened in the 1960s, and it happened again when his Song for Athene was played at the end of Princess Diana’s funeral. It was the central musical event of the service. He found himself with a pop success on his hands.

A close friend of Prince Charles’,  here is Tavner’s own view of Diana’s death:

“I don’t think all those people were mourning Diana’s death. They were grieving for all the death in their own lives. I don’t necessarily mean physical death, all the pain in their lives. It was all heaped on this — I hate to use the word — icon. But this girl represented it all in some way. I don’t really believe it was because they loved her. They believed something that they came across in that death that they sympathised with. It was an opening into a more primordial world.”  [Entertainment.timesonline]

Song for Athene (also known as “Alleluia. May Flights of Angels Sing Thee to Thy Rest”) was

[c]ommissioned by the BBC,[2] the piece was written in April 1993 by Tavener as a tribute to Athene Hariades, a young half-Greek actress who was a family friend killed in a cycling accident. Tavener said of Hariades: “Her beauty, both outward and inner, was reflected in her love of acting, poetry, music and of the Orthodox Church.”[4] He had heard her reading Shakespeare in Westminster Abbey, and after her funeral, developed the idea of composing a song which combined words from the Orthodox funeral service and Shakespeare’s Hamlet.[4] The work was published by Chester Music in 1997.[Wikipedia]

And here is the video from the funeral of the song sung  a cappella:


May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Remember me O Lord, when you come into your kingdom.

Give rest O Lord to your handmaid, who has fallen asleep.

The choir of saints have found the well-spring of life, and door of paradise.

Life: a shadow and a dream.

Weeping at the grave creates the song:

Come, enjoy rewards and crowns I have prepared for you.

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