Royal harmony

In the wake of the Queen’s 90th birthday, we take a look back at our history of musical monarchs.

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Royal harmony
Queen Elizabeth II
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Henry VIII, as everyone knows, is considered the most musical of English kings. He’s the composer of ‘Greensleeves’, isn’t he? (Actually he’s not, though he did compose lots of other things and arranged many more.) Evidence of his musicality includes The Henry VIII song book, which contains the words and music of the songs he composed and, most revealing of all in terms of the king’s personal commitment to music, his specially written and illuminated book of psalms, in which the illustrations show Henry as a music-maker king at the heart of a musical court. But my first discovery, and the biggest surprise, was that I shouldn’t start with Henry VIII after all but with another Henry – the Fifth. But isn’t Henry V the heroic (if you’re English) or brutal (if you’re French) victor of Agincourt, the ideal soldier-king of Shakespeare’s play? He is. He is also, we discovered, a great patron of church music and – most astonishingly of all – a composer of such music himself.

But the real point is that Henry V was using music as a weapon too. He took the magnificent choir of his Chapel Royal with him to France, and on the morning of Agincourt they performed mass: not hurriedly, but elaborately sung and with rich vestments. For that was the way, Henry was sure, to win God’s favour. And it worked. Victory was his and magnificent religious music remained at the heart of the monarchy from that day to this.

Henry V as composer and liturgical reformer was not the only surprise. Who would have thought that Henry VIII spent his last years worrying about the legitimacy of church music along with the state of his immortal soul? That Charles II, vulgarian that he was, insisted on the unforgivable sin of beating time to music? (Or perhaps in his case it isn’t so surprising after all.) That one of the most frequent entries in the young Queen Victoria’s journal is a complaint about how dreadful the singing of the Chapel Royal at St James’s was and how impossible it was to sort it out. ‘The Bishop of London ought really to be spoken to about it,’ she had said to her fatherly old prime minister, Lord Melbourne. Melbourne had replied, ‘They’re such obstinate dogs, those bishops; I believe if you was to say it was very good, he would be more likely to change it!’

Musicians speak to monarchs as well, and often boldly. William Cornysh the Younger, composer and master of the boys of Henry VIII’s Chapel Royal, was on joking terms with his formidable sovereign. Courtiers, like Cornysh, were entitled to ‘bouge of court’, a daily allowance of wine and bread. Once, when horse provisions were running low, Cornysh spoke for his fellow courtiers by playing on the ‘bouge of court’ idea and petitioning the king for its equine equivalent: could he have, he asked with a flourish, ‘a bottle of hay and an horse-loaf!’. Alas, another court musician, Mark Smeaton, dared to sigh for Anne Boleyn… and paid for it with his head.

Perhaps it is as well that Handel did not have a Henry VIII to contend with. But he argued vigorously with George II about the orchestration of the Music for the Royal Fireworks: the king wanted it to be scored for war-like instruments – brass, wind and timpani – only; Handel, with an eye on profiting from future indoor performances, insisted on violins as well. And he seems to have won. Handel had earlier taken on the Archbishop of Canterbury over the text of the Coronation Anthems. ‘I know my Bible very well’, he is supposed to have said, ‘and shall chose for myself’. Which he did, to the immense benefit of both the words and the music.

There are gentler scenes too. Georges I, II and III, who agreed about nothing else, were at one in adoring Handel. George IV and Rossini got on famously. The composer accompanied the king, who had a fine singing voice. He even – to the scandal of the starchier English courtiers – dared to sit next to him informally. Mendelssohn, too, was admitted to the intimate circle of Victoria and Albert. The three made music together and chatted away animatedly (in German of course), while Mendelssohn made himself at home in the recently completed Buckingham Palace – ‘the only really comfortable house in England’, he observed complacently.

With Elgar and Edward VII the relationship is different again. Elgar was never one of the king’s intimates; indeed he might have been shocked at the court carryings-on if he had been. Instead, he idolised the king-emperor from afar as the embodiment of royal style and magnificence and saw himself, in his own words, as a troubadour, transmuting his own royalist fervour into big, popular tunes that catch the throat – as they still triumphantly do.

Elgar was correspondingly disappointed with Edward’s son and successor, the down-to-earth, sailor-king George V. He railed in his private correspondence against ‘the irredeemable vulgarity’ of George’s court and his fondness for cheap little tunes, like the numbers from No, No, Nanette!.

George V indeed marks a watershed: he is the first really unmusical monarch in our history – or at least for hundreds of years. This may surprise too. We tend not to have a high opinion of the artistic patronage of the British monarchy and dismiss and denigrate its cultural role. At least as far as music is concerned, the truth is very different. It was royal patronage that sustained the great tradition of late medieval English polyphony and made it, in terms of both composition and performance, the envy of Europe. It was the monarchy, in the shape of Elizabeth I, which prevented the shipwreck of that tradition in the destructive upheavals of the Reformation and nurtured a new Golden Age of English church music in the late 16th century. And when royal patronage was withdrawn, under the rigorously Calvinist William III in the late 17th century, English music died.

Instead of nourishing native talent, Hanoverian England – the richest, most powerful country in the world – became the land of opportunity for foreign composers: Handel, JC (the ‘English’) Bach, Haydn, Rossini, Mendelssohn. Only with the foundation of the Royal College of Music in the later 19th century was there a belated English musical renaissance. It was patchy. But it did produce some masterpieces. They cluster together in the first two decades of the 20th century. Some of them were written for the coronations of 1902 and 1911 and most of the rest during the royal and patriotic fervour of the First World War.

In other words, even at this late stage in our history, the best music was royal; indeed, apart from Handel, this early 20th-century burst of creativity provides the core of royal ceremonial music to the present day.

David Starkey

This article was first published in the June 2013 issue of BBC Music Magazine. 

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