Diana’s funeral and music

By Jane Davidson (Deputy Director, The ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions)

In past weeks, the western media has reflected on the sentiments we have come to associate with the late Diana, Princess of Wales, who died 20 years ago. In a life of only 36 years, Diana became one of the most famous members of royalty in history. Divorced from the heir to the British monarchy just a year before the car crash in which she was killed along with her new partner Dodi Fayed and their driver Henri Paul, Diana’s death provoked an outpouring of public sorrow that swept across the western world. The feelings expressed seemed to bring millions of people a temporary sense of community, these emotions providing a sense of equality for those sharing in the grief.[1] Twenty years on, it is this shared emotional community[2], experienced through nostalgia for that sad event, that I wish to explore.

Image: Diana meets children in an area of Sarajevo, Bosnia, after meeting more land mine victims in the country in August 1997. Courtesy of Press Association
Image: Diana meets children in an area of Sarajevo, Bosnia, after meeting more land mine victims in the country in August 1997. Courtesy of Press Association


A recent broadsheet memorial supplement remembered Diana’s life in terms of a legacy that offered a ‘guiding light for today’s young Royals’ – that is, a role model for how to work with the public.[3] Of course, in the 1990s there was much controversy over Diana’s candour with the international media about her psychological health problems, self-harming and related Bulimia Nervosa, and her significant revelation that Prince Charles had been engaged in a long-term affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles. Diana had not followed the expected norms of royal disclosure to the press, and this led her into significant conflict with the royal family as a whole.

It was the deep loss expressed by the public that influenced how Diana’s funeral was carried out. Queen Elizabeth II’s lack of immediate and official acknowledgement of Diana’s death resulted in public outrage. This in turn forced the Queen and her family to return to Buckingham Palace in London from their late summer retreat at Balmoral in Scotland. The wave of public grief also caused the Queen to take the unprecedented step of giving a state funeral to someone who had been distanced from the royal family in the final years of her life. Reflecting on the funeral, several key elements made it deeply affecting for those who saw the ceremony on TV or in person: the images of millions of floral tributes laid outside Buckingham Palace; tens of thousands of people lining the route of the cortege, softly weeping, hushed in their respect; Diana’s young sons following the coffin, evidently in deep shock; her brother’s passionate and angry eulogy; and, perhaps most moving of all, the use of music in the service.

Princess Diana's brother, Earl Spencer, with Prince William and Prince Harry, and Prince Charles. Image courtesy of the Daily Mail.
Princess Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, with Prince William and Prince Harry, and Prince Charles. Image courtesy of the Daily Mail.

The funeral was viewed by 32.2 million people in Britain and more than one billion people internationally. It contained many traditional elements of the Protestant funeral ritual. As a state ceremony, the music was cleverly chosen to deliver different sorts of socio-cultural messages and provide a range of emotional impacts. Melancholy, solemnity, reverence and formality were achieved through the tolling of the tenor bell of Westminster Abbey. Organ music performed by Hubert Parry, Frank Bridge and Ralph Vaughan Williams generated a sense of Englishness. The service also included popular classical works like Johann Pachelbel’s Canon and the Adagio for strings by Tomaso Albinoni, works known for their ‘tear-jerking’ affect.[4] Choral music in the form of the ‘Libera me’ from Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem and John Taverner’s Song for Anthene also added to this special ambience, both works referencing the passage of the dead to heaven. But it was the inclusion of the song Candle in the Wind that gave the funeral service a popular reference and cemented Diana’s reputation as ‘the People’s Princess’.[5] Considering the historical ritual of a state funeral, this popular song represented a real deviation from tradition, and in effect became the centerpiece of the service.

The impact of Sir Elton John’s rendition of his 1973 hit Candle in the Wind, with re-worked lyrics by Bernie Taupin, could not have been anticipated. According to The Guinness World Records,[6] after the funeral the song became the biggest selling single in the UK and US ever. The lyrics were adapted from the song’s original reference to the tragic life and death of Norma Jean Mortenson (Marilyn Monroe) and applied to Princess Diana – ‘Goodbye England’s Rose’ as opposed to ‘Goodbye Norma Jean’. For such a public ritual, the inclusion of this highly sentimental song signified much in the five minutes and seven seconds of its performance: the mass familiarity and resonance with the ritual of pop music performance; the tragedy of young beautiful lives being extinguished, blurring the boundaries between the celebrity of Norma Jean and Diana; the personal friendship between Sir Elton John and Princess Diana that clearly resulted in the song’s performance at the funeral; and, perhaps above all other elements, the strong impact of the music on the emotions of all who engaged with the service.

Some post-hoc analyses have claimed that the tone and number of media reports in the week leading up to and including Diana’s funeral has been overplayed, and that the level of mass grief has been romanticised. I can attest, however, that having been in England at the time the degree of sentiment expressed was phenomenal. Floral tributes were offered at churches and cathedrals across the country, and the number of people attending religious services in churches and cathedrals rose significantly.

A few days ago, on 6 September (which I only later found out was the anniversary of Diana’s funeral), I happened to be in my local village gift shop. As I browsed the stock, I gradually became aware that I was also listening to a radio playing in the background. It was an interview with Elton John, who was reflecting on how amazingly difficult it had been for him to hold together his own emotions in Westminster Abbey at Diana’s funeral. Then, a snippet of his rendition of ‘Goodbye England’s Rose’ poured out of the radio, and as I heard the opening chords I could feel tears welling up. For me, listening to that song is a very rare occurrence, but the socio-cultural associations and musical mechanisms the song elicits afford me the opportunity to release emotion, even if only for a few seconds. Diana’s funeral is distilled in its most intense form in my memory through the performance of Candle in the Wind. Today, the song continues to evoke strong personal nostalgia for the funeral. I’m certain that Candle in the Wind has become appropriated as an expression of loss for millions. The nostalgia found in the music heard at Diana’s funeral connects strongly with music’s long-held historical function: to offer emotional expression and mood regulation, and to intensify memory. To recognise and reflect on the value of using music to ‘have a good cry’ and to express deeply held emotions is important – it is something that interfaces with our everyday experiences, not only our experience of significant historical events such as the state funeral of a princess.

Jane Davidson is a Professor of Creative and Performing Arts (Music) in the Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music at The University of Melbourne. She is Deputy Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (CHE) and also leader of its Performance Program, which interrogates how emotions were performed and expressed in pre-modern dramatic, literary, artistic and musical performances. Jane’s own CHE-related research projects explore: i) how music was used historically and is used today for emotional regulation from personal through to collective ceremonial activities; and ii) how emotional affect can be achieved through historically informed opera production practices, employing reflective practice techniques.

[1] Turner, G. (2004). Understanding Celebrity. London: Sage

[2] Rosenwein, B. (2006). Emotional Communities in the Middle Ages. Cornell: Cornell University Press.

[3] The Australian, 3 August 2017.

[4] Sloboda, J. (1991). Musical structure and emotional response to music. Psychology of Music, 19 (2).

[5] ( Clarke, E.F., Dibben, N. & Pitts, S.E. (2009). Music and mind in everyday life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[6] Guinness World Records (2017), Vancouver BC: Jim Pattison publications.


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