Bach off – how to stay out of treble and avoid tempo tantrums on your big day

You know the tune, right? But what were those words in the first line? Wasn’t it by the bald one from Genesis? (or did they do a cover of a song that was actually by the guy with the long curly hair?) And what was that classical tune you heard in the lift the other day? If these thoughts sound familiar, then you’ve probably been involved at some point in your life in choosing music for a wedding. Maybe it was your own, or you were the best man or bridesmaid who was tasked with coming up with a great recommendation to accompany the beaming bride as she made her way down the aisle. For some lucky souls, choosing music is a pleasure and a way of expressing their personal tastes to the assembled guests. For others, it’s a bit of a pain – the thought of classical music turns your mind to a sort of blank jelly, quivering nervously as you admit to your beloved that you can’t name a single composer who might have written anything even vaguely suitable for the occasion of your nuptials.

The reception is no problem at all – that’s taken care of with a call to a DJ you know from down the pub – or alternatively, an email to that quirky yet highly memorable steel-drum band that Aunty Jane hired for her second (or was it third?) marriage last summer. And your first dance? You’ve been thinking about that one for ages, had countless pillow fights over it with your intended, and settled on something perfect you’ve been humming ever since. For the disco, pop music and the oldies everyone loves to hate are no problem to choose. But what about those more solemn moments, heavy with religious and legal significance, during the ceremony? You can’t sign the register to Black Sabbath or walk down the aisle to Limp Bizkit, can you? (That’s a rhetorical question, in case you were wondering. Aunty Jane would never recover from that).

Sure, there’s plenty of help out there on the web for those looking to track the trends of wedding party music; everything from wandering-minstrel type acts to dance troupes you may have seen on Saturday night television – some couples even try choreographing a few Disney numbers with live band, lifts and twirls . But when it comes to telling the organist which toccata to pick, the pianist which Beethoven number to start polishing up, or the string quartet which piece to aim their bows for, it can make the smiles of even the most enthusiastic couples start to fall slightly at the edges.

There are a few things you should consider. Think what mood you want to create; joyful and light? soft and romantic? weighty and important? That can help marrow the choices down. Then think how long you will need to get from the church door, down the aisle and to the altar – is it a long walk wanting a good three minutes of music, or a short-ish one where 50 seconds will suffice? How big is the space? (If the organ has one stop and a man aged about a hundred and twenty playing it, then Toccata and Fugue in D minor is a nice thought – but steer clear, the effect may be somewhat underwhelming). And will there be a choir? This can help your guests to feel more comfortable when singing, and can fill any gaps in proceedings with heavenly music – the choirmaster will be happy to speak to you and make suggestions as to pieces in their repertoire already.

If the action will take place in a church, give some thought to the hymns. Now, (and this has to be put delicately), let me issue a note of caution; it is normally polite to let the church organist play for the service – but just because the church gives you the services of good old Mrs Timpson on the organ, it doesn’t mean that you have to accept them. (There’s probably a reason they’re giving them to you for free – think about it). Don’t be afraid of asking her to play through some hymns to see firstly whether she can, and secondly whether her speeds are right – too slow and nobody will have the breath to get to the end of a line. If you’re going to entrust the music to her as you walk down the aisle on the most special day of your life, you probably want to check that she can actually see the music and give a recognisable rendition of it, (believe me – that’s not always a given!) If you’re not happy, you can request a different organist, and most vicars will be happy to oblige and name a couple of replacements.

So, what should you ask the organist/pianist/harpist/ukulele strummer to actually play? Well, the good news is that it doesn’t have to be a problem. You can see past The Prince of Denmark’s March by Jeremiah Clarke, as catchy as it is. You can boldly choose new and exciting music – with a whole array of gorgeous pieces on YouTube at your disposal, a few well-placed recommendations from an organist or musician friend can get you out of this hole. If you don’t know any organ pieces, try Googling not only the great J S Bach but also Handel, Purcell, Dubois and Widor, and take it from there – one video leads to another and before long you will have a recommendation list as long as your arm. Just go with what you think sounds right for you – but bear in mind that out of a ten minute clip, you’ll need to agree on a short section that the musician can get the score for (or do by ear) and that fits the bill. Agree early on who will pay for any music that needs to be bought – will it be on top of the musician’s fee or will it come out of it?

For the signing of the register, you may be suddenly overcome with the almost unshakeable urge to request a piece known as Canon in D. You may not even know it or like it, but like a lemming towards an enticing cliff edge, you feel yourself drawn towards it under the weight of popular lore and opinion. Well, if you really love it and have set your heart on it, then go for it. But can I suggest that other good tunes are available? Don’t limit yourself to Satie or that Love Actually soundtrack – think about people such as Schumann (his Romance in F# major is one to consider), Brahms, Chopin and his preludes, or Mendelssohn (the Songs Without Words, for example, are truly exquisite). After all, there’s a reason these guys have stuck around in the repertoire for so long. Put their names into Spotify (other online music platforms are available) and see what happens – what have you got to lose?

‘Classical’ music (or to use most people’s definition, anything written before about 1960) doesn’t have to be scary or inaccessible, especially with all the tech and apps at our fingertips. None of your choices are right or wrong – but it can be the most amazing thing when you come across a piece that moves you to tears or puts a joyful skip in your step. Sure, if you want to feel like you’re in Downton Abbey or Gosford park, indulge yourself – but don’t be afraid of talking to musicians about what you like – baroque, romantic or classical – these are not dirty or foreign words, they’re not stale or dusty, they are gems just waiting for you to discover them and bring them to life at your wedding, so go ahead and let your imagination run wild. You may just find some new music that will stay with you for the rest of your life.

Find me on Twitter here