In January 1936, King George V was in seriously declining health. He had suffered from pleurisy and pulmonary disease for a number of years, and it had become apparent to his doctors that the end was near. (So much so that his doctor, Lord Dawson of Penn, on January 20th took the step of announcing that "the King's life is moving peacefully towards its close."). The King died on the night of January 20th, apparently hastened by a lethal injection of cocaine and morphine from his doctor.
At the time, German composer Paul Hindemith was in London, and meant to be performing the next night the English premiere of a viola concerto he had written, 'Der Schwanendreher'. With the death of the King, the concert was cancelled. The BBC, however, decided that they wanted Hindemith to be involved with the musical choice for the occasion of the King's death.
After debating that morning about what to perform, eventually it was decided that Hindemith should write something new for the occasion. And so, between 11am and 5pm on January 21st, he did, and it was performed live that evening in a radio broadcast. The result is the beautiful 'Trauermusik' ('mourning music', or 'funeral music'). The strange combination of tonality (giving a clear melody) but non-diatonic structure (giving the non-standard chord progressions) give a sense of sadness and complexity that seems appropriate for the death of a monarch of over 25 years reign.
This beautiful piece was written in six hours.
Trauermusik for the King.
Trauermusik for the Empire.
Trauermusik for the age when a dignified and solemn British public mourned their departed monarch by listening to classical music on the radio.