Prince Albert: how music shaped the life and death of Queen Victoria's consort
It’s well known that Queen Victoria’s husband was a champion of the arts, but Prince Albert’s composing talents and his terrific contribution to the musical life of 19th-century Britain remains unsung, explains Andrew Green
Christmas 1860. Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and offspring are at Windsor Castle, enjoying one of their famously idyllic Yuletides. Along with the seasonal scribblings of Charles Dickens, these occasions helped fix in the public mind the notion of the traditional family Christmas that persists to this day.
Albert may not have introduced the Germanic ‘Christmas tree’ to Britain, but the nation followed suit when his family made it a feature of their celebrations – candles, gifts and other goodies heaped on and around the branches. Albert and Victoria were also the first royals to issue ‘official’ Christmas cards.
The music of Prince Albert's funeral
Fast forward 12 months to 23 December 1861. The thoughts of the nation are centred less on Christmas than a sombre ceremony in the freezing St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle: Albert’s funeral, following his death nine days previously. The Queen is down at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, too grief-stricken to attend. In a pre-echo of the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, two of Albert’s sons (the future Edward VII and 11-year-old Prince Arthur) follow the coffin into the chapel.
The St George’s choir played a central role in the funerary choreography, all the more appropriate given Albert’s love of music. The early 18th-century English composer William Croft’s settings of the Book of Common Prayer’s funeral sentences were fixtures at state funerals, as they have remained since.
Possibly at the insistence of the absent Victoria, reference was made to Albert’s Saxe-Coburg/Lutheran background in the form of German chorales. Luther’s Great God! What do I see and hear? (showcasing choir member John Tolley, the 29-year-old son of an Exeter tailor) had one reporter scribbling vivid purple prose: ‘Peals as of thunder rolled through the building, reverberating from the arched recesses and the lofty aisles, and seemed to shake the very walls.’
The impact made by this, plus music by Handel and Beethoven, was down to more than the emotion of the occasion. Under the organist and master of the choristers George Elvey, the St George’s choir exemplified the improvement in standards working its way round the country’s cathedrals.
At Windsor, Elvey transformed shabbiness into splendour. He also coached Prince Albert in composition, one fruit of which was a Te Deum – written in Christmas 1844, perhaps using the breathing-space in the royal schedule the festive season afforded. Albert’s other church music, including a not insubstantial anthem, Out of the Deep, further demonstrated his ability to identify with Anglican worship.
These and many more of Albert’s compositions can be viewed online in the collected edition assembled by Sir William Cusins, Master of the Queen’s Music under Victoria. No forgotten masterpieces, but a little ungracious of one commentator to bark that if the compositions weren’t by a prince no one would take any interest in them. Whatever, various Albertian numbers were apparently widely performed in Victorian Britain.
And an interesting dollop of Christmas trivia: Albert’s sonorous setting of Hark! the Herald Angels Sing actually pre-dates the matching of Mendelssohn’s music and Charles Wesley’s words so familiar today. No doubt Albert’s effort had regular Christmastide outings in the royal chapels alongside, perhaps, the odd favourite German carol imported from his homeland – the English had a soft spot for the genre.
Ever modest, the Prince Consort said he wrote music ‘…to enable me to judge the works of others’. Composition was part of the musical training taken for granted at his family’s Bavarian home, Rosenau Castle. Albert also studied piano and organ, and sang well enough to appear in public as bass soloist in Beethoven’s cantata Der Preis der Tonkunst.
How music played its part in Victoria and Albert's relationship
When the handsome prince was first sized up by the teenage Victoria – in 1836, before her accession – music was an integral part of the getting-to-know-you. They played keyboard duets at Kensington Palace and Albert was taken to see Bellini’s I Puritani.
In the early years of their marriage the royal couple worked their way through Mozart and Beethoven symphonies in piano duet form. Albert also composed a sequence of duets for them to play, the last of which morphed into the National Anthem. They sang in vocal ensembles and choruses at private concerts. Albert steered Victoria’s limited tastes towards Verdi and Wagner, although she baulked at the ‘cats and dogs’ she detected in the music of Berlioz.
Playing the organ was Albert’s ultimate stress-buster, easing the strains of tight-lipped devotion to duty. ‘It is the first of instruments; the only instrument for expressing one’s feelings,’ he said. After a visit to Buckingham Palace, Mendelssohn described encouraging Albert to demonstrate his skills: ‘…he played a chorale, with the pedals, so charmingly and clearly and correctly that it would have done credit to any professional’. A touch fawning maybe, but there is other evidence of the Prince Consort’s perfectionist aversion to the playing of wrong notes.
Looking wider, we see Albert transforming music at court, converting the royal wind band into a full orchestra and planning its performances himself. The first British outings of Schubert’s Great C Major Symphony and Bach’s St Matthew Passion took place at royal concerts. Choral music was a regular feature, including novelties such as Sterndale Bennett’s The May Queen, a significant nod at native composing talent at a time when it struggled for recognition. No royal Christmas was complete without music from Albert’s orchestra, not least with visiting family to entertain.
Newspapers and journals chronicled these concerts and also the programmes devised by Albert for two noted performing bodies. The Ancient Concerts society showcased neglected works of the past at a time when novelty ruled. Albert’s knowledge of the compositional back catalogue led to many first UK performances. Wheezy and scratchy period instruments were dusted down and put back into service. Albert even organised a Renaissance concert, which to crusty patrons must have seemed like music from a distant planet.
Over the course of 17 years Albert likewise personally selected music for a significant number of concerts given by the distinguished Philharmonic Society, with such performers as violinist Joseph Joachim, soprano Jenny Lind, and composers Louis Spohr and Mendelssohn on the bill. And to varying degrees, a string of musical organisations
in London received Albert’s support at one time or another.
How did Albert influence music?
Sure, adventurous middle-class taste was already gradually transforming the nation’s musical life without Albert’s help, but awareness of the passions of a clearly cultured Prince Consort didn’t harm the cause. And Albert was no ivory tower enthusiast. He was publicly passionate about the role music should play in education… at school and beyond.
When the whacking profit from the greatest of his pet projects, the 1851 Great Exhibition, made possible the purchase of a vast swathe of land south of Hyde Park, the Royal College of Music (now one of the best the best music colleges and conservatoires in the world) was one proud feature to spring up in the complex of scientific, cultural and educational institutions (initially dubbed ‘Albertopolis’) which remains our heritage today. Aware that too much British musical talent was flitting to Germany to receive a proper polishing, Albert had tried to get the Royal Academy of Music to up its game. To no avail. A new foundation seemed the only answer and a Society of Arts enquiry, reporting four years after Albert’s death, recommended the solution that became the RCM.
And talking of Albertopolis, the Albert Hall has its origins in the Prince Consort’s desire for the area’s development to include a ‘Central Hall of Arts and Science’, where music would be one key element. Equally, without the Great Exhibition there would have been no ‘Crystal Palace’, whose re-erection at Sydenham created the ideal venue for the bumper Handel Festivals which so stimulated choral singing across the nation. Albert was there at the very first. And conductor August Manns’s legendary Crystal Palace concerts played a key role in stimulating musical adventure in the later 19th century.
Let’s not forget, too, that the Hallé Orchestra (one of the best orchestras in the world) was born out of the need for a musical gesture to mark Prince Albert’s opening of the gargantuan 1857 Art Treasures exhibition in Manchester, a project he enthusiastically backed.
Ultimately, though, the story is tinged with sadness. Increasingly, you sense, music carried more solace than delight for Albert. A phenomenal workload utterly exhausted someone always dogged by illness. In his Victoria-authorised biography, Theodore Martin wrote that Albert would often stand apart during concerts at Windsor, ‘rapt in reverie… the pressure on a brain often too severely taxed for the moment removed’.
Doubtless the self-effacing Prince Consort would have been mildly embarrassed with the notion that his death was to disrupt the 1861 Christmas entertainment season so key to promoters and impresarios. Concerts and theatrical performances were postponed, while at Crystal Palace the superstar tightrope artiste ‘Charles’ Blondin refused to perform until Boxing Day on account of the ‘sad affliction which has befallen the nation’.
On the other hand, musical organisations were ideally placed to pay due tribute to a kindred spirit. Among them, the National Choral Society (‘the largest in England’) adapted its Grand Christmas Performance of Messiah by importing solemn numbers from other Handel works ‘…as a tribute of respect to the memory of HRH the Prince Consort’.
Prince Albert's compostionsL’Invocazione all’armonia
This rather fun cantata for choir and soloists, performed at the Birmingham Festival, is ranked as his best large-scale work. It was played at the ceremony when Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone at the Royal Albert Hall in May 1867.
Among his sacred works for Anglican worship are a Te Deum, Jubilate and Sanctus. The Te Deum in C may not have much harmonic interest to write home about, and the composer’s word stresses may be up the Swanee, but it’s a rollicking piece that brings a smile to the face. It was scored for choir, solo voices and orchestra by Ernst Lampert in 1845.
Melody for the Violin
A catchy piece for violin and piano written in F major with a lilting 3/4 time signature. It’s got a certain ‘humoreske’ quality to it, and was apparently played by Yehudi Menuhin, whose verdict was that it was ‘pleasant music without presumption’.
Die Liebe hat uns nun vereint
For his wedding to Victoria, Albert wrote this passionate duet. He composed over 40 songs, strongly influenced in terms of subject matter and style by both Schubert and Mendelssohn, all of them tuneful and quite workmanlike. Two of the songs embrace a cello obbligato, while the Lied des venezianischen Gondoliers features an accompaniment for flute, basset-
Image credits: Getty Images