The power of ‘Beethoven’s Funeral March’, the musical masterpiece played at Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral

19 April 2021, 17:00 | Updated: 19 April 2021, 17:27

'Beethoven's Funeral March' was played at the Duke of Edinburgh's funeral procession
'Beethoven's Funeral March' was played at the Duke of Edinburgh's funeral procession. Picture: PA/Getty

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

Deceptively credited to Beethoven, this solemn march, with a long history and deep ties with the Royal Family, stands up without an illustrious name behind it.

As the funeral procession began the journey to the West Steps of St George’s Chapel, the Band of the Grenadier Guards played a poignant melody in mourning for the late Duke of Edinburgh.

The piece, credited on television as the ‘Beethoven Funeral March No. 1’, was an abiding, stately work, played with poise by the military orchestra.

But it strangely transpires that the music was unlikely to have been penned by Beethoven.

In fact, is is most likely that as the Royal Family walked through the grounds of Windsor Castle, they were accompanied by the music of a little-known German conductor, Johann Heinrich Walch, whose name has been forgotten in the annals.

Read more: Soprano sings Royal Navy hymn in empty cathedral in moving Duke of Edinburgh tribute >

Band of the Grenadier Guards play Walch’s Funeral March outside Windsor Castle
Band of the Grenadier Guards play Walch’s Funeral March outside Windsor Castle. Picture: PA

Beethoven’s Funeral March – or Walch’s?

The ‘Beethoven Funeral March’ was formerly attributed to the German Romantic composer, as WoO Anhang 13. But now, it is believed to be by Johann Heinrich Walch, a German conductor, chamber musician and choral master for the Duke of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, a duchy in today’s Germany, and the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.

His Funeral March in B flat minor is a noble, stately sounding march for remembrance, which speaks to the tradition and history of the Royal Family, the national mood around Remembrance Sunday, and feelings of respect towards servicemen and women of the Commonwealth.

Walch, in fact, composed many well-known marches, including one formerly attributed to Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert – the British regiment march.

When is the Funeral March usually played?

Every year on Remembrance Sunday, the Walch Funeral March is sounded at The Cenotaph in Whitehall, London, in honour of all British and Commonwealth soldiers who have lost their lives in war.

First, Royal Marines buglers sound the Last Post. Then, members of the Royal Family lay wreaths in silence, in the Wreath Laying Ceremony. After that, other guests, politicians and Commonwealth representatives lay theirs, and the Funeral March is played.

A longstanding musical accompaniment to stately funeral processions, it was played during the procession for The Queen Mother’s funeral at Westminster, and at the procession to St Paul’s Cathedral, in a service for former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. It was also played out at the funeral of Edward VII.

Mysteriously, it is impossible to find a recording of the Beethoven-worthy march on any streaming service. It rather adds to its power, it only being heard live at moments of great ceremony...