Six of the best: musical politicians

As the 2015 General Election concludes, we name six politicians with extraordinary musical talents

Former Prime Minister Edward Heath conducting a carol concert in 1963

Last December, Ed Balls, the former shadow chancellor and MP for Morley and Outwood, passed his Grade 4 piano exam. Having taken an interest in music for some years, he finally decided in his late 40s to put that interest into practice, and has been slowly but surely moving up the grades since.

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We at BBC Music Magazine are delighted to welcome another musical politician – or, rather, ex-politician – to the musical fold, but Balls is by no means the first. In fact, some have taken their musical interests to an exceptionally high level.

With the 2015 UK General Election now done and dusted and Parliament back up and running, we mark the occasion by naming six political leaders who have somehow managed to fit diplomatic manouvring and soapbox speechmaking around perfecting preludes and mastering minuets.

1. Frederick the Great (1712-86)

Imagine a political leader today who insisted on hiring and performing with the world’s best composer-musicians, building a state-of-the-art opera theatre and always being in the audience. No, we can’t either, but Prussia’s Frederick II did it all, even providing the great JS Bach with his theme for A Musical Offering. Johann Joachim Quantz wrote hours of flute music for ‘Old Fritz’ to perform, while Frantisek Benda and CPE Bach took on strings and keyboard. The king himself was a dab hand at the trio sonata, penning a few ‘galant’ numbers in between invading Silesia and Poland, organising indirect taxation and transforming the Prussian military into one of Europe’s most feared forces.

2. Jan Ignacy Paderewski (1860-1941)

Great musicians have often used their celebrity for political protest, but it’s rare for one to take up the role of Prime Minister and to play such a key role in securing a country’s independence.  In the late 19th century, Paderewski inspired an almost mystical devotion among audiences as a globe-trotting virtuoso. His opera Manru (1901) and Symphony in B minor Polonia (1909) are both deeply patriotic works.  He became a member of the Polish National Committee in World War I and represented his country to Woodrow Wilson in 1918, persuading the US president to take on a commitment to Polish independence as part of the Treaty of Versailles. He was Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs for a single year in 1919, then Polish Ambassador to the League of Nations.

3. Edward Heath (1916-2005)

Prime Minister from 1970-4, Edward Heath would probably have preferred to spend his life conducting an obedient orchestra than grappling with intransigent unions, the minefield of a hung parliament and the ambitions of Margaret Thatcher. His musical talents, though, were limited, and we have the Royal College of Music’s Sir Hugh Allen to thank for steering the undergraduate Heath towards politics (journalist Alexander Chancellor recalled seeing a French newspaper in the late 1970s after Heath had conducted the European Union Youth Orchestra which read ‘Heath a massacré Mozart’.) Surely he was the last Prime Minister to have had a Steinway grand piano wheeled into No. 10, played the organ at Holy Trinity Brompton, hosted the likes of Yehudi Menuhin, Isaak Stern and Clifford Curzon at Chequers, or to have conducted the LSO in Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture?

4. Vytautas Landsbergis (born 1932)

There can’t be many professors of music history who have also had a hand in drafting a new constitution for their nation. Landsbergis, currently Chairman of Lithuania’s Conservative Party and member of the European Parliament, was Lithuania’s first head of state following its independence declaration. He graduated in the 1950s as a pianist and musicologist, eventually becoming professor of music history. He joined the independence lobby, Sajudis, in 1989 and the following year was elected in the first free elections, and not only chaired the commission drafting Lithuania’s new constitution but the delegation that negotiated the Soviet withdrawal. Now he’s a member of the European Parliament and heads up the Lithuanian Conservative Party. With a pianist wife, two musician daughters, and a film-making, song-writing son, Landsbergis remains a musical force in Vilnius.

5. Condoleezza Rice (born 1954)

‘Condi’ was the first African-American female secretary of state – and the first to perform with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and singer Aretha Franklin (not at the same time). She always intended to be a pianist, and made her concerto debut in Denver at 15, but encounters with greater talents at Aspen Music Festival persuaded her to go into international relations.  She was national security advisor (2001-5) and then secretary of state (2005-9) under the George W Bush administration, and is now professor of political science at Stanford University. Even when she was in Washington she had a regular chamber music group led by violinist Soye Kim, and often performed what’s known as ‘Condi’s piece’: Brahms’s F minor Piano Quintet. As she said in a New York Times interview, ‘When you’re playing there is only room for Brahms. It’s the time I’m most away from myself, and I treasure it.’ Her dream? To learn Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto. Watch this space.

6. Ivo Josipovic (born 1957)

Josipovic is the only actual president on our list – of Croatia between 2010-2015. This energetic legal expert and award-winning composer played a key role in the transformation of the League of Communists of Croatia into the Social Democratic Party. He went from teaching harmony at the Zagreb Academy of Music to promulgating it in the rather more testing environment of a post-Communist, post-civil war government. Long-time director of the Music Biennale Zagreb of contemporary music, he also has over 50 compositions to his name (check out his ebullient Samba da Camera on YouTube). On becoming president he announced he was going to write an opera on the death of John Lennon; so far the day-job has rather got in the way…


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