I am a church musician and the gig means playing at weddings. At the risk of looking a gift horse in the mouth, as it helped me pay my bills over the years, it isn’t one of my favourite musical activities. Saturdays from June to August often resembled an assembly line of white limos and bridesmaids carrying flowers or parasols looking uncomfortable in matching satin outfits, designed purely to make the bride look beautiful in comparison. Groomsmen in their rented tuxedos stand at the front of the church mopping their foreheads counting the seconds when they can high-tail it out of the sweltering church to the waiting open bar at the reception. More often than not, the requested tunes have been grim at best, “The Impossible Dream”; “Evergreen”; “”We’ve Only Just Begun” and “She’s having my Baby” (which I suggested they wait for the reception for that catchy little number). Though a few times, the music has been glorious.
In 1624 composer Michael East published a beautiful wedding song – ‘You Meaner Beauties of the Night’. This Cd ‘Madrigals and Wedding Songs for Diana’ It is available on the Hyperion label and has fabulous songs for marriage.
Why was/is June such a popular month to get married? One reason is because society was much more focused on the seasons. In June, seeds have been planted and the crops aren’t ready for harvesting. More time for leisure and a party. In ancient Rome mythology, ‘Juno’ was the wife of Jupiter, the goddess of marriage. Venus’ sacred month was April. If you married in May, you would offend both goddesses as May was the festival of ‘Lumuria’ when women were forbidden to wear cosmetics! The Romans felt that Juno represented the female principle of life – sort of a female guardian angel or female comforter. Even in Elizabethan England, Juno’s mythology was celebrated. Shakespeare wrote in the tempest, “Honour, riches, marriage-blessing, Long continuance, and increasing, Hourly joys be still upon you! Juno sings her blessings upon you.
There are many legends, myths, customs and folklore concerning weddings. One story on ancient practises is ‘marriage by capture’. Young men of one tribe invaded the camp of another and stole a bride. The ‘grooms friends’, ‘goons’ went along to make sure that no one stopped them. Marriage by capture was legal in England until the 13th century but only practised in times of war and natural disaster.
As time marched on, thank goodness, most women were not dragged to their wedding. They were sold to the groom willing to pay the price – the ‘wed price’. A pledge sealed by money was given to the bride’s father in exchange for his daughter. Her rights were transferred from her Dad’s ownership to the husband. In some customs, she received a ring and her father gave the groom one of his daughter’s shoes. “Who proceeded to hit her over the head with it, then place it by the side of his bed.” I don’t think it always was used as a gentle tap of affection.
Before the Council of Trent in the 16th century, a couple could legally marry without a church ceremony. They needed a valid contract with or without a priest. Sex confirmed the pledge and the union. Marriages were usually performed at the church door. Then the couple could enter the church for a mass. After the wedding feast, which relatives and often the entire village would attend, the newlyweds were brought to bed before their family and friends. If I had been a fly on the wall, I bet I could have reported awkward moments all round before the availability of the little blue pill.
Not all men wished to enter into wedded bliss. Thomas Flatman wrote in the Bachelor’s song in 1674, “If a man purchase a wife for a month and a day but to live with has all a man’s life, for ever and ay, Till she grow as grey as a cat, good faith, Mr. Parson, I thank you for that!”
Through-out history, arranged marriages had little to do with love and much to do with political, financial and social advancement for the families. During Handel’s time, Frederick the Prince of Wales had a testy relationship with his father, King George II. Frederick was betrothed to the daughter of the King of Prussia (Saxe-Coburg) but because both sets of parents didn’t get along, the wedding was cancelled. Frederick eventually married Augusta in 1736. Frederick however, fought with his father all his life, going so far as to publish offensive caricatures of his parents. His troubles with his father probably caused more than a few tensions in his own marriage. He went to great lengths to prevent his first child from being born under his parent’s roof, carrying off his wife, Augusta from court while she was ready to go into labour. Handel no doubt would have been aware of Frederick’s and George’s stormy relationship. But his commissioned wedding anthem for Frederick’s & Augusta’s wedding “Sing unto God’ is cherry & festive, an optimistic blessing perhaps?
We know it is the ‘bride’s day’ but the applause should go to the unsung heroines – the bridesmaids. They throw the bridal showers, and wear the hideous dresses all because of duty and love for their friend. How did they come to be?
Maybe their role was to protect the dowry and bride from harm as she journey to another village to meet her groom. At one time the bride and bridesmaids were all dressed alike to fool the evil spirits who might want to harm the couple. It wasn’t until the 19th century was the bridesmaids dressed in different colours. This quote is taken from the 1872 book ‘Brides and Bridals’ , “On the wedding day she enjoys herself more than any other woman in the solemnity. Standing close to the bride in church, she holds the dear girl’s fan and scent bottle and signs the register as witness after the performance of the marriage ceremony. Breakfast follows, and when the slipper has been thrown after the retiring carriage of the happy couple, her work is at an end, unless it is a wedding ‘with cards’ and she has engaged to help in directing the envelopes and making out the invariably incomplete list of persons to whom cards ought to be sent.”
There are two cakes that are circulated at weddings. The groom’s cake (fruit cake) and the wedding cake. Since the 17th century bakers have been creating cakes for upper class weddings. They originally started out as really rich breads of flour and yeast with spices, butter cream, eggs and currents with coloured sugar paste. Over time, eggs, dried fruits, and other goodies were added. When Charles II returned to England from France at his Restoration – he brought with him French pastry cooks who knew the art of icing.
The most famous wedding recessional of all has to be Mendelssohn’s ‘Midsummer Night’s dream Wedding March’. First time I played this I was 15 or so, on an old pump organ in Sussex N.B. No organ pedals and not enough keys to play the entire chord. I have already said too much! This version is much better!
- Here Comes the Bride (kellygalbraithblog.com)
- Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed And A Silver Sixpence In Your Shoe! (bridgesgracie20.wordpress.com)
- Wedding Traditions: Out with the Old, in with the New (jetaimeproductions.wordpress.com)