David Starkey's Music and Monarchy (2013) s01e03 Episode Script

Great British Music

1 Give or take the odd note, and the gender of the monarch of course, Britain's have been singing this since 1745, making ours the oldest National Anthem in the world.
In this series, I'm exploring how the monarchy has shaped the story of British music.
The 18th Century produced more than its fair share of patriotic classics, yet this was a time when the monarchy had never looked more fragile.
It had lost much of its political and religious power.
It imported its ruling house from abroad and it was under constant threat from rival claimants, from vicious family feuding, even from madness.
This was the age when Britain became the world's leading power.
Nevertheless, much of the century was spent searching for music that would reflect that new status.
One musician would eventually rise to the challenge, writing music for the Coronation, the Royal Fireworks and operas and oratorios for British audiences.
And yet the man who gave Great Britain its musical voice came, like the new royal dynasty, from Germany.
In 1707, the newly finished St Paul's Cathedral was the setting for a majestic ceremony presided over by Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart dynasty.
The event being marked was momentous.
It cried out for a triumphant classic of royal music.
Anne came here repeatedly to celebrate stunning military victories over the French, which were turning her nation into Europe's greatest power.
But the achievement of her reign that Anne was most proud of was a peaceful one: The union, in 1707, of England and Scotland under a single Crown and Parliament.
The result was no less than the forging of a new nation, Great Britain.
And Anne celebrated by holding the grandest thanksgiving service of her reign here in St Paul's.
No fewer than three composers were commissioned to provide the music: William Croft, John Blow and Jeremiah Clarke.
This is just a little of what they came up with.
Don't feel embarrassed if you don't recognise it.
It hasn't been performed for centuries.
This fragment by William Croft is in fact all that survived from the occasion.
So why, given the significance of the act of union in British history, has its celebratory music been so completely forgotten? Croft's anthem falls hopelessly short as the herald of a new nation.
Now, there are excuses, of course.
The words of "love as brethren" are banal and utterly fail to set the world on fire as, rather curiously, did the event itself.
The act of union of 1707 is of major political and constitutional significance.
But that, unlike, say, some spectacular military victory, is hardly the stuff of musical inspiration.
The grand celebrations of 1707 might look like business as usual.
In fact, they are the last gasps of a dying tradition.
In earlier centuries, the very greatest English music had been created by the musicians of the monarch's personal choir, the Chapel Royal for sacred ceremony.
In the 18th Century, however, power had clearly shifted away from the monarchy and the Church.
And music followed it.
London is certainly by this point the richest city in Western Europe.
It's also a city, which to a quite unusual extent, acts as a national capital.
It sucks the whole of the English elite into it.
London then has to feed this appetite for pleasure, for leisure.
Leisure is a function of wealth.
You therefore need what? Theatres.
What audiences flocked to see was exotic, flamboyant and fashionable Italian opera.
In 1710, the enthusiasm and the wealth of London's new opera-goers drew a 27-year-old German to the city.
Georg Friedrich Handel had spent three years studying opera in Italy.
His debut work for the London stage was called Rinaldo and it was an instant hit.
"Let me weep my cruel fate and sigh for liberty.
" This great lament is sung by Almirena, the heroine of the opera, whose just been entrapped along with the hero Rinaldo by the snares of the wicked sorceress Armida, Queen of Damascus.
It's a tale of derring-do and high passion set amidst the delights of the fabled East.
It gave Handel the opportunity to show his talents, genius, rather, as a composer, conductor and harpsichord soloist.
Handel never looked back.
Rinaldo is the first Italian opera to be specifically written for the English stage.
Handel's librettist-cum-impresario Aaron Hill made the most of the fact in his dedication of the opera to the Queen herself, proclaiming that this opera was "a Native of your Majesty's Dominions, and was consequently born your Subject".
But it's a funny kind of British subject, isn't it, that's written by a German and sung in Italian? But Queen Anne welcomed this immigrant music.
In February 1711, Handel and his Italian singers were summoned to St James's Palace to perform for her birthday.
Her Majesty was reported to be extremely well pleased with his music.
Some of her subjects, however, were less seduced.
"From foreign insult save this English stage.
No more th'Italian squalling tribe admit in tongues unknown.
'Tis Popery in wit.
" The learned author of these words, Richard Steele, was no xenophobic philistine.
He went on to found The Spectator.
But like many in proudly Protestant Great Britain, he was suspicious of anything which savoured of Catholicism.
"The songs, From Rome they bring And 'tis High Mass, for aught you know, they sing" Instead, Steele would invoke Britain's new greatness and call for a native culture whose distinction would match its military power.
"Let Anna's Soil be known for all its Charms; As fam'd for Lib'ral Sciences, as arms: Let those Derision meet, who would Advance Manners, or speech, from Italy or France.
Let them learn You, who wou'd your Favour find, And English be the Language of Mankind.
This search for a native music worthy of the greatness of Britain would be one of the crucial factors determining the development of music in the 18th Century.
The man who gave Great Britain its voice, however, would turn out to be the very same German who was writing Italian operas.
In 1711, Handel began studying the English language and its music.
In 1713, he was able to present this to Queen Anne.
This is the English, or rather, the anglicised Handel.
Eternal Source Of Light Divine is a birthday ode, which is an English form.
The words are English, by the sentimental poet Ambrose Philips.
Even the musical forces were English too, as Handel originally wrote this for a favourite countertenor of the Chapel Royal accompanied by trumpet in the manner of Purcell.
But the melodic genius which has led the piece to be appropriated by great sopranos and sung with gusto like this was Handel's own.
It is a tricky piece to sing.
It has incredibly long phrases.
And the point of Handel is not to try and sing it in one breath.
The point is to give it the beauty it deserves and the space that he really wrote into those bars.
It was written very much in the English style.
Handel is pretty much trying to emulate Purcell and you can hear that in the simplicity of it.
There's a lovely distance between the singer's notes and those of the orchestra and that gives you a lovely gap which is so typical of English music.
English music just has a depth and yet a simplicity, a sort of transparency which the Italian music tends to fill with notes.
Anne rewarded Handel with a royal pension, a handsome 200 pounds a year.
Barely three years after arriving in England, he had already overshadowed home-grown talents, a process that would accelerate when the monarchy, too, ceased to be home-grown.
In 1714, another German stepped off the boat here at Greenwich.
In July, Queen Anne had died aged 49 without having produced any children who lived to adulthood.
Parliament had ruled out a Catholic successor, then and for ever.
So the new King of Great Britain was Georg Ludwig, elector of Hanover and, as James' I's great grandson, Anne's closest living Protestant relation.
The House of Hanover had begun.
This allegorical wall painting shows George arriving here in a Roman triumph.
It's grand, if faintly preposterous to our eyes.
But the reality was much more sober.
George arrived at night and in ordinary travelling clothes.
But at least his taste in music was magnificent and, as King of Great Britain, he could afford to indulge it.
On July 17th, 1717, King George headed down the river in a royal barge.
Next to his boat travelled another barge, with 50 musicians.
It was the premiere of Handel's Water Music.
George already knew and liked Handel's music, since, before the composer came to London, he'd already held a post as head of George's Chapel Royal in Hanover.
But this time Handel was to make his music bigger, better and louder.
Handel cleverly scored the music with instruments loud enough to carry across the water.
Trumpets, oboes, bassoons, flutes and violins.
For volume and novelty value, he also used German hunting horns.
Handel's music was an instant hit, both with the King, who liked it so much that he commanded the musicians to repeat it twice, and with the public who clamoured to hear it, some of them lining the banks, others crowding on nearby boats.
The scene must have resembled this later Canaletto image of the Regatta on the Thames.
The Water Music is a masterpiece.
It's also perhaps the first example of royal music being used in a spectacle which had no spiritual or even very much obvious ceremonial purpose.
Instead, what George had done was take the River Thames here and to turn it into a theatre-cum-concert hall with himself and his subjects as an enthusiastic audience.
It was a turning point for George and his Hanoverian successors.
Royal ceremony and its musical accompaniment, deprived of any kind of religious or even very much national raison d'être, would become merely, gloriously, theatrical.
And it was in the theatre that King George would spend much of his time.
In person, George the I could be stiff, reticent and dour.
But he enjoyed nothing more than the high passions of opera, especially when written by Handel.
During a single season, George attended half of the 44 opera performances at the King's Theatre in London's Haymarket.
In Hanover, George had been unable to afford his own court opera.
The London theatre, however, provided new commercial opportunities for sponsoring his favourite kind of music.
In 1719, George I put up seed money for a new opera company called, grandiosely, the Royal Academy of Music.
It was based here in Haymarket in the newly developing West End of London.
George's contribution amounted to £1,000 a year for seven years.
Where the King led, members of the nobility were happy to follow and stump up substantial subscriptions as well.
This wasn't a court opera in Continental style.
Rather, it was a commercial venture with the King as patron-cum-impresario.
George put Handel in charge of the Royal Academy and sent him overseas to recruit the finest singers.
Handel's prize catch was the most famous singer of the day, Senesino, the Italian castrato.
He was lured to London by a salary of £1,000 for a single season.
That's pushing a million in today's money.
But then Senesino had paid the ultimate price himself, castration before puberty, which left him with abnormally long limbs and a voice of childlike purity and manlike power.
Senesino's performance in Giulio Cesare was praised by London newspapers as "beyond all criticism", though his vanity and insolence provoked the equally short-tempered Handel to call him a damned fool.
He certainly pulled in the crowds, however, appearing in 13 Handel operas during his first eight-year stint in London.
Italian opera was massively popular.
There was a huge public for it.
And the public at that time was a very different kind of public from the opera audience that you would have today.
It was almost an orgy.
I mean, anything could happen in the opera house.
They wouldn't necessarily pay attention the whole time.
They'd go to hear a certain singer.
Or if they'd been before they would know which arias they liked, which they would pay attention to.
- They had boxes.
- They had boxes.
So the most surprising things could happen.
So it was an incredibly different kind of theatre experience than we're used to today.
- There were fierce factions, weren't there? - Huge factions.
Particular singers Rather like soccer, particular singers would have a following.
- There would be enemies.
- That's an incredibly good comparison.
Like a soccer crowd.
Handel wrote over 40 operas.
In the early decades of the 18th Century, the royal and aristocratic appetite for Italian opera was insatiable.
Moreover, the desire for novelty meant that composers had to come up with new works all the time.
Fortunately, Handel was well suited to this kind of environment, as he was able to knock out an Italian opera in a matter of weeks rather than months.
Handel's success both in the theatre and at court made him a rich man and he took up residence in this fine Mayfair townhouse.
He'd embraced life in Britain just as Britain had embraced his talent.
The same could not be said, however, for the monarchy served.
King George I here, despite his years as King of Great Britain, never became remotely British because he was a member of an international court culture that made love, war and peace in French, which George spoke perfectly, and sang in Italian, in the operas which George adored and that Handel composed.
In 1727, George died and was buried, fittingly perhaps, in Hanover.
George I's musical legacy lies in music written for pleasure rather than grand ceremony.
George II, however, was very different.
George II actually enjoys ceremony.
And he produces the most impressive musical Coronation in the whole of the history of the Coronation.
He was crowned in October 1727.
And on this occasion Westminster Abbey served not just as the royal church but also as the grandest of grand concert halls.
There were two contenders to write the music: Dr Maurice Greene, the newly appointed Master of the King's Music, and Handel.
Precedent dictated that Greene should get the task as a leading member of the royal musical household but Handel was well placed too.
And also, perhaps not coincidentally, he'd just been naturalised as a British subject.
But what determined matters were George II's characteristically violent prejudices.
According to his grandson, George III, he considered poor Greene to be "a wretched, little, crooked, insignificant, ill-natured writer, player and musician", forbad him absolutely to have anything to do with the Coronation music and instead gave the honour to Handel.
The four Coronation Anthems he wrote for the occasion were a major step towards finding a musical voice for Great Britain.
Handel addressed, head on, a paradox which had troubled the Protestant Church of England since its creation nearly two centuries earlier.
The English Reformation, with its single-minded emphasis on the pure unadulterated word of God had been the great enemy of music.
Handel changed all that.
More imaginatively than any Englishman, he responded to the power and poetry of the key texts of the Church of England to invent a new musical language.
The texts of the Coronation Anthems were traditionally taken from those two great achievements of the English Reformation, the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible.
The verses were re-edited by the Archbishop of Canterbury to suit the circumstances of each Coronation.
But in 1727, the Archbishop, the story goes, was stunned to be told by Handel, "I have read my Bible very well and shall choose for myself.
" And he did, ruthlessly editing down the texts and rearranging the verses to serve his own musical ends.
He was searching for words and ideas that were royal and that he could then orchestrate royally.
What you get with Zadok The Priest is the most wonderful musical coup de théâtre.
You get a very very long sort of slow-burning introduction which has an immediate sense of dignity and a sort of gliding, undulating, pulsating, building up musical tension through harmonic means.
And it builds up and builds up and builds up tension until the choir comes in as one voice with the word "Zadok".
And the letter Z at the beginning of Zadok sung by all the choir at once with the addition at that moment of the trumpets and the drums provides a sort of spine-tingling effect.
The combination of this majestic musical language with English biblical texts was one that Handel would return to for the rest of his career, most famously with his oratorio Messiah.
It would prove as glorious in the service of the heavenly King as it did here for the Hanoverian monarchy.
Zadok The Priest with its resounding repeated acclamations of "God save the King" would have been the perfect National Anthem if it weren't so damned difficult to sing.
Indeed, for several decades following it served much the purpose of the yet to be written National Anthem and headed the programme at countless concerts, where it was described as "the Coronation Anthem" or even "the anthem God Save The King".
Handel was an opera composer and I think he captured more than many of his predecessors the sense of transcendent moment and the drama of the occasion, almost painting it in musical terms, a bit like sort of the epics of Cecil B DeMille or something like that.
It had this huge scale and the sense of kind of really portraying the significance and the sense of occasion in musical language.
George II's Coronation was remarkable not only for its magnificent music but for the conspicuous absence of George's son and heir Frederick, who had been banned from attending.
Frederick loved music.
He's pictured here playing the cello in front of the palace he made his own, Kew.
He had rather less love for his parents.
The clashed about everything from the size of Frederick's allowance to politics.
So when, in 1740, Frederick commissioned a new musical work, he did not employ his father's favourite composer Handel.
Instead, he chose Handel's closest rival, Thomas Arne.
Like Handel, Arne wrote for the theatre.
Unlike Handel, his productions were in English.
And he was too.
Arne wrote the music for a private entertainment staged in the grounds of the Prince's country estate, Cliveden.
The event was supposed to celebrate the birthday of Frederick's three-year-old daughter, Augusta.
In realty, it had much more to do with Frederick's own political ambitions.
Now openly estranged from his father George II, Frederick was keen to establish his own political identity.
So he launched a carefully orchestrated campaign to present himself as the patriot Prince, supporting a ruthless expansion of British power abroad.
The musical performance itself took place here in this amphitheatre, overlooking the wooded valley of the Thames.
The audience sitting on the terraces here was the créme de la créme.
For they had been summoned to see and hear the centrepiece of Frederick's "patriot Prince" campaign.
Everything was to be English.
Hence the choice of form, an English masque rather than an Italian opera.
The English Arne rather than the German Handel.
And, above all, of the subject.
The Anglo-Saxon King, Alfred.
Alfred was cultured and learned.
He was an heroic defender of his people against a barbarian invader.
And the founder of the Navy.
Alfred, the only English King to be called Great, would be Frederick's model.
Only Frederick would be greater.
Because he would be ruler not of England but of Britain.
Great Britain.
Four years later, Arne's tune was taken up by still fiercer opponents of George II.
It was sung by a rebel army marching south from Scotland who wanted to put a Catholic King back on Britain's throne in the form of Bonnie Prince Charlie.
London waited nervously.
From one of its theatres, however, came a statement of support for the embattled King George II thanks once again to the entrepreneurial Thomas Arne.
On the 28th of September 1745, here on this site in the old Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, three of London's favourite singers came on stage in front of the curtain at the end of the performance.
And there, to raise people's spirits in this time of crisis and emergency, they sang an old tune with new words and in a new arrangement by Arne.
It was greeted with tears, cheers and thunderous encores.
As the weeks went by, the numbers of performers swelled and a chorus of 20 would appear to sing it to a similar rousing reception at the end of each performance.
It was of course God Save The King.
By the end of the 18th Century, God Save The King was firmly established as the National Anthem, making Britain the first country in Europe to have such a patriotic hymn.
I suppose it's the royalist piece of music of them all.
But it had originated not in an official commission but, instead, in an instantaneous response to a political and military crisis.
And it depended on the public, not royal patrons, for its initial success.
Public taste also determined the initial success of a work that was first heard three years later, not in court, nor at church, but in public parks.
It was Handel's Music For The Royal Fireworks.
And such was the composer's fame, by the mid-18th Century even its rehearsal stopped the traffic.
The rehearsal took place on this very spot.
Now it's a scrubby patch of green.
Then it was the heart of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, whose verdant avenues and pretty pavilions were the principal place of public entertainment in 18th-Century London.
On the day of the rehearsal, London came to a standstill.
There was a three-hour coach jam on London Bridge as some 12,00 people struggled to get here.
12,000 people.
That's probably the largest audience that had yet listened to a piece of music anywhere in Europe.
But then everything about this occasion was on an epic scale.
It was commissioned to mark the end, after eight long years, of the war of Austrian succession.
The peace treaty proved unpopular, however, since the British agreed to give up many of the colonial gains they'd won from the French.
To win over sceptical popular opinion, the Government turned to the well-tried technique of bread and circuses and decided to throw a grand fireworks party.
It was a theatrical idea that was executed in a thoroughly theatrical fashion.
A 400ft-long set was built in Green Park, the site of the official celebrations.
Presiding over it all was a giant sun, representing George II and proclaiming "Vivat Rex", "Long live the King".
Actually, neither the event nor the music were the monarch's idea.
But once Handel had been commissioned, George made it clear what he wanted: Martial music.
George was a King who'd seen battle, the last British monarch to do so when it personally led the troops at Dettingen in 1743.
He sees himself as a soldier.
He wants his monarchy to have the sound of a soldier King, to have the sound of the drums and the trumpets and the horns that lead men into battle.
Despite Handel's efforts, however, the fireworks themselves were rather less than a triumph.
The King inspected the gigantic set as Handel's music played.
Then the fireworks themselves began.
At first all went well and the rockets were much admired.
But then, suddenly, part of the wooden set caught fire.
With great difficulty, it was extinguished.
But the delay threw the whole timing out.
And then event which had aroused such expectations dribbled on to an inglorious close.
The royal fireworks had begun as theatre.
They ended as farce.
In the midst of the chaos, however, Handel's music had established beyond doubt another characteristic of Great Britain's musical identity: A love of brass, volume and all things military.
But Handel was to make an even more important contribution to our musical culture.
And for this he took inspiration once more from the theatre.
Now, though, he was creating very different productions from those that George I had loved so much.
After 1741, Handel stopped writing Italian opera altogether.
It was ruinously expensive to stage.
It had almost bankrupted him despite his shrewd commercial instincts.
Instead, he concentrated on English language oratorio, a less elaborate concert drama which married operatic techniques to English sacred texts.
Usually performed without sets, costumes or action, the oratorio was much cheaper to stage.
It could be performed on religious feast days when the theatres were otherwise dark.
Whilst the biblical stories on which it was normally based appealed to the religiosity of an important new audience.
Not to the amoral cosmopolitan aristocracy who'd been the great patron of Handel's Italian operas but, instead, to the ever more prosperous, numerous and politically powerful middle class, who grew and thrived in the long economic boom of Georgian England.
These people were English.
And they were proud of it.
The subjects of Handel's oratorios were more English than they looked, too.
On the surface, Judas Maccabaeus was the story of an Old Testament military leader who heroically defeats rebellion and unites a doubting people.
The audience at the Covent Garden premiere in 1747 would have instantly thought of a much more contemporary figure, George II's younger son the Duke of Cumberland who had just smashed the Jacobite army at Culloden.
The parallel is made explicit in the dedication, which refers to the Duke as a "Truly Wise, Valiant, and Virtuous Commander".
Handel's oratorio had given voice to the nation's sense of triumph and relief far more effectively than any thanksgiving service.
The unique power of oratorio was its ability to dramatise the national myth of the new Holy Land, Great Britain.
For season after season at the London theatres, Handel would present a new instalment of the story of God's chosen people, the righteous struggle of an elect nation.
The idea of a divinely ordained monarchy no longer held sway in Hanoverian England.
Instead, it had been replaced by the idea of a divinely ordained nation.
Oratorio was the soundtrack to this new ideology.
Oratorio combined religious zeal with a strident national pride.
It stood on its head the old Puritan objection to religious music that it brought the theatre into church by bringing religion triumphantly into the theatre.
And it would be elevated into a new national cult and given royal endorsement by the next Hanoverian King, George III.
Unlike the previous Hanoverian monarchs, this King George was actually born in Britain.
When he acceded to the throne in 1760, he proclaimed to Parliament, "Born and educated in this country, I glory in the name of Briton.
" George III believed that Britain should be as preeminent in the arts as in military power.
And Somerset House, in whose magnificent courtyard I'm standing now, is the monument to his cultural ambitions.
The north block was built at George's insistence as a kind of clubhouse-cum-exhibition space for the elite of Britain's scientists, artists and historians.
George, who was a keen musician himself, was also the patron of the Academy of Ancient Music, which was set up to study and perform the works of the great composers of the British past.
And, incomparably, the greatest of them all in George's view was Handel.
One year before George III came to the throne, Handel had died at the age of 74.
His passing was marked with something close to a state funeral.
He was buried in Westminster Abbey on a regal scale with 3,000 people in attendance.
Many years before, Handel had observed of the young Prince George, "Whilst that boy lives, my music will never want a protector.
" George would fulfill that prophecy.
George III kept a private band to play for him in both London and his favourite residence of Windsor.
Its leader was the accomplished German violinist George Griesbach.
Each day it would seem, the King gave him a playlist of the music that he would want to hear in the evening.
A handful of these written on any scrap of paper that the King could find have survived.
And they consist of Handel, Handel and Handel.
And not just any old Handel.
Instead, they cover the whole range of the composer's music.
Overtures, concerti grossi and movements from operas and oratorios from every decade of the composer's career.
In other words, George not only loved Handel, he really knew his music.
And here is hands-on evidence in the King's own handwriting.
And Handel's music was not merely a private passion for George III.
It also led him to put Westminster Abbey to a quite unprecedented public use.
In 1784, 4,000 of the richest, most powerful and fashionable people in London packed into the newly decorated nave of Westminster Abbey here.
It was the biggest national event since George III's own Coronation 20 years previously.
But they didn't come to give thanksgiving for a great military victory.
Or a royal anniversary.
Instead, they came to honour a musician, plain Mr Handel, and celebrate the supposed centenary of his birth with a series of grand concerts of his works.
The King was chief patron of the event, involved in everything from the programme to the decorations.
And each day, seated in a great Gothic throne, the King led the nation in homage to the man who'd given it its musical voice.
Before the celebration began, the royal family visited Handel's tomb nearby, in the south transept, to pay their respects.
Then they processed to their box and listened, rapt, as Handel's Messiah was performed.
There is a story that explains why by the later 18th Century it was customary when there was a performance of Handel's Messiah that you actually rose for the Hallelujah Chorus and at some point the King must have risen.
When the King gets to his feet, everybody gets to his feet.
The reversals were astonishing.
Music at the Abbey had once honoured kings.
Now the King led the nation in worshipping music.
And music written to the glory of God became, instead, part of the cult of the musician Handel.
The 1784 celebrations featured 250 singers and 250 instrumentalists.
The British had acquired a taste for musical giganticism.
All the newspaper reports emphasised scale.
Numbers.
Power of sound.
So this is literally the music of a great power.
It's booming brass and sounding drum.
All the time the fusion of the sacred and the soldierly, the sacred and the military, it becomes the languages of ceremony.
The commemoration was repeated at the Abbey in following years with ever growing numbers of musicians, and then replicated across the country.
To this day of course, Messiah is a favourite of British choirs everywhere.
Everything that Handel gave to Great Britain is exemplified by this one work.
Above all, the way he uses the music to serve the power and the majesty of the English language itself.
It was the approach he'd first taken with the Coronation Anthems, then perfected with the oratorios.
At the beginning of the 18th Century, the act of union gave life to Great Britain.
By the end of the century, the new superpower had at last found its musical voice thanks to Handel and his royal patrons.
Next time, our story comes to its end.
The monarchy rediscovers its sacred role in response to scandal and crises.
Royal pageantry is reinvented, with spectacular success.
And royal patronage creates the greatest generation of British composers for several centuries and defines the sound of a nation in the age of imperial power.