The Queen’s Musick
When my buddy Rita Hunter was awarded the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II, she wrote a hilarious account of her afternoon in Buckingham Palace, including a fruitless search for a loo. (Only royalty pees in Buckingham Palace.) Rita, being a soprano, noticed especially the music used to accompany the festivities. A five member band was stuffed behind the drapery, playing Gilbert and Sullivan tunes before leading into “Some Enchanted Evening.”
The present Queen doesn’t pretend to be a music lover for one moment. She dutifully attended the dedication of the Aldeburgh Festival in 1967, and cut the ribbon for Benjamin Britten’s new concert hall, The Maltings. Her Majesty’s reaction when that facility burned to the ground two years later is not recorded. Evenings in the Royal Albert Hall or Covent Garden seem to be tolerated rather than enjoyed. There is the lovely story that the young Princess’s favorite song was “People We’ll Say We’re in Love” as she prepared to marry the present Duke of Edinburgh.
The Queen’s uncles were unenthusiastic concert goers. The Duke of Windsor, when briefly Edward VIII, turned down the offer of Germany’s Bayreuth Festival to export its production of Lohengrin for the coronation season. It is said His Majesty declined politely, but vehemently. (Mrs. Simpson preferred the Black Bottom.) Years later, the elderly Duke of Gloucester was taken to hear Maria Callas in Tosca. When La divina leapt to her death off the parapets His Royal Highness woke up and was heard to ask: “Is she dead now? She is? Good! Then we can all go home!”
Prince Charles is the patron of the Royal Opera. The late Princess Diana, who had the same office with the English National Opera, accepted it seems to irritate her husband. Diana danced a bit on stage with Wayne Sleep in tribute to her husband’s birthday-a nice event that did not amuse the Prince of Wales.
Princess Margaret traveled on behalf of the Royal Ballet. The august Queen Mother was always an enthusiastic presence at Covent Garden-and her friendships went back to Elgar and embraced Britten and Peter Pears. When the press was given a tour of Britten’s home and noted one bed for the two gentlemen of the house, the Queen Mum turned not a hair. One imagines a royal muffin basket being sent. Britten composed a lovely birthday present for Her Majesty’s 80th, “A Birthday Hansel”. But thirty years earlier, Britten’s coronation opera Gloriana was thought offensive to the new, young Queen in being subjected to an evening of her elderly royal namesake, singing no less. (Sorry your majesty, Gloriana is a magnificent opera.)
King Edward the VII enjoyed music even though Queen Alexandra was deaf. It was for them our Musica Sacra theme was written: Hubert Parry’s coronation anthem, I Was Glad:
Queen Victoria loved music. Bellini was dear to her and she was often at the opera for Norma or I Puritani. Mendelssohn was a dinner guest of the Queen and his compatriot the Prince Consort-and St. Paul was composed for the Leeds Festival. The Queen fancied herself a fine singer and who was to tell her no?
King George III , nutty or not, loved Handel. And let it be remembered that Georg Friderich Handel was in the service of the elector of Saxony. He went AWOL off to London, and who could predict that Ihr hoheit would become George I, and Georg Friedrich became George Frederick, writing the Water Music to mollify his former boss, now King of England?
King Henry VIII, when not killing off his wives, was a fine composer and brought Thomas Tallis to the chapel royal. His heir, King Edward VI, ignored music-not so Elizabeth I-who, young or old, presided over the age of Weekes, Morley, Campion, and Byrd.
But nothing beats the memory of the 80-year-old Duke of Gloucester bounding for a Taxi the moment he was told Tosca was dead!