The British, uniquely among European nations, like to categorise our cultural epochs according to the reigns of our monarchs.
We label our great painters, musicians, architects and authors as Tudor, Jacobean, Georgian, Regency, Victorian or Edwardian, rather than trying to recall the actual decades in which they flourished.
Or at least we used to. But after some whimsical attempts at the time of the 1953 Coronation, nobody has spoken of the culture of Britain in the late 20th or early 21st century as being ‘New Elizabethan’. And as we prepare to celebrate the Queen’s 70 years on the throne in 2022, it seems to be an ideal opportunity to question why this is so.
Is it because the inevitable comparisons with the glories of the ‘first’ Elizabethan age – the era of Shakespeare, Byrd, Tallis, Dowland, Spenser and Marlowe – are too depressing? Or because monarchs in general now seem irrelevant to what goes on, or who gets on, in the modern cultural world? Or it is because Elizabeth II in particular isn’t really much of an arts lover?
Hmm. At the risk of forfeiting that retirement MBE, let me ponder those questions. First, you don’t have to be a raving patriot to feel that the cultural achievements of the British since 1953 bear comparison with any earlier age, Elizabethan or otherwise.
From McCartney to Britten, from Hockney to Bacon, from Osborne to Stoppard, from Frayn to Alan Bennett, from du Pré to Rattle, from Bogarde to Dench, from Attenborough to Minghella: the parade of towering artistic figures from these small islands has transfixed the world over the past 60 years. And musicians have been at the forefront. I could easily name 100 living British composers, instrumentalists, singers and conductors who could justifiably be described as ‘world-class’.
In short, the reign of Elizabeth II has coincided with a musical renaissance in Britain. But the very word ‘coincided’ implies that the Queen herself has little to do with it. Is that a fair assessment? It may seem so. Though her great-great-grandfather was a minor Victorian composer (Prince Albert) she commissions no music and employs very few musicians except in her chapel choirs – though our military bands have probably been saved from the axe many times because of the role they play in royal ceremonials.
The Queen avoids the opera (even the Royal one!) and doesn’t go to many concerts. She was 68 before she attended her first BBC Prom, even though the world’s greatest music festival is only a bugle-call from her back garden. (Mind you, she has been back since; at this rate she will soon be applying for a season ticket.) And unlike her sister, Princess Margaret – who thought nothing of summoning male pianists to Kensington Palace at 1am when she couldn’t sleep – the Queen has never favoured the company of arty types.
Yet I attribute this not to philistinism but to her overwhelming sense of duty. She is always extremely scrupulous about dividing her time so that people in 1,000 different walks of life occasionally get to meet her. From this perspective, great musicians are no more important than dinner-ladies or bricklayers.
And it’s not true that she has done nothing much to support music. If I’d been the monarch I think I would have abolished the post of Master of the Queen’s Music after enduring 28 chaotic years of Malcolm Williamson. Instead, the Queen counter-intuitively appointed a very anti-establishment figure, Peter Maxwell Davies, who became a brilliantly outspoken and effective champion of music and musicians. The subsequent appointment to the post of Judith Weir, meanwhile, was a powerful gesture in both recognising and championing the many exceptionally talented women composers currently working in the UK.
The Queen’s Medal for Music has been instituted. And at a time when Britain has had a succession of political leaders with zero interest in the highbrow arts, the Queen has supported a number of cultural projects that have done much to boost morale in a beleaguered arts world.
Yet her successor, cello-playing Prince Charles, would surely relish becoming the most pro-active royal patron of music since Prince Albert. The trouble is that the Prince of Wales’s taste in music is about the same as Albert’s, and (unlike his impeccably non-partisan mother) he isn’t reticent about expressing his opinions. I don’t know whom he will choose as his first Master (or Mistress) of Music. But if Hubert Parry were still around, he would be a shoo-in.
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