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The Musical Gifts of the Kings and Queens of History

Features - Classical Music | Orchestral | Chamber | Instrumental | Vocal & Choral | Opera

The Musical Gifts of the Kings and Queens of History

We take a look at the rulers who brought musical talent into the palace.

1. Introduction 2. King David 3. Henry V 4. Henry VIII 5. Ivan The Terrible 6. Frederick The Great 7. Tsar Alexander II 8. Queen Salote of Tonga 9. King Bhumibol Adulyadej

royal court – the ideal place for music-making. With generous financial support and appreciative audiences, composers and performers often flourish under royal patronage. In European royal palaces of the 17th and 18th centuries, the music staff could include a full orchestra, opera company and chapel choir, as well as soloists and composers. Some of the most important chapters in musical history have been initiated through royal patronage, such as French opera in the court of Louis XIV, or the German Classical style under Frederick the Great. 

Members of royal families are often keen musicians themselves, singing and cultivating instrumental skills as part of a well-rounded education. And music by monarchs can prove very useful. When history comes to reassess a ruler better-known for military might or political cunning, music they have written can show us a gentler side, giving them a human face. 

Composing monarchs rarely see it that way though. Their aims are usually more modest, writing music to entertain a small audience, typically themselves or the royal family and its closest circle. So the one thing a royal composer usually lacks is impartial criticism. But in all other respects, theirs is an ideal position for a composer. They have professional musicians to guide them, instrumentalists and singers to perform their works, and a captive audience. 

There are no masterpieces here, but much of this music is skilfully composed, and tells us a great deal about the kings and queens who wrote it, and about the musical culture of their times.


Music written or inspired by our Monarchs

1. Introduction 2. King David 3. Henry V 4. Henry VIII 5. Ivan The Terrible 6. Frederick The Great 7. Tsar Alexander II 8. Queen Salote of Tonga 9. King Bhumibol Adulyadej


KING DAVID
c. 1040-970 BC


King David playing the harp by Gerard Honthorst

The archetypal composing king. His psalms are verse texts designed to be sung (the word “psalm” derives from the ancient Greek “psalmós”, meaning a tune played with a harp). Any ideas about the original musical settings are speculative, but long traditions of singing the psalms have been handed down in the liturgical cultures of both Judaism and Christianity.

The psalms are traditionally linked with King David, evidence of his poetic and musical sensibilities. But David’s relationship with them is complex. The Book of Psalms attributes about half of the 150 texts to him. Some are traditionally associated with specific events in his life. There are also references in other books of the Old and New Testaments stating his authorship of seven of the psalms. In fact, the composition of the psalms took over five centuries, and although some are more closely linked to David than others, there is no hard evidence that he composed any of them. 

But the issue of authorship may be beside the point. The texts effectively celebrate his rule and his legacy. Whoever wrote them, they remain the “Psalms of David”, songs fit for a king.

1. Introduction 2. King David 3. Henry V 4. Henry VIII 5. Ivan The Terrible 6. Frederick The Great 7. Tsar Alexander II 8. Queen Salote of Tonga 9. King Bhumibol Adulyadej


HENRY V
1386-1422


King Henry V by unknown artist

The 15th century was a time of extraordinary creativity in English church music, with composers developing ideas from the European mainland into a sophisticated and distinctive style. Much of this music was lost during the Reformation in the following century, with the destruction of monasteries and their libraries. But a few volumes survive, giving us a tantalising glimpse of the era. One of these, the Old Hall Manuscript, now in the British Library in London, contains two Mass movements, a Sanctus and a Gloria, and gives the composer as “Roy Henry”. This is almost certainly a reference to King Henry, although it is not clear if it means Henry V, or his father, Henry IV. The style of the music, freely elaborated from an unidentified plainchant source, suggests a date of around 1410, near the end of Henry IV’s reign. But contemporary accounts suggest the younger Henry was the more enthusiastic and gifted musician, a proficient recorder player and harpist as well as singer. The skill and originality of these short choral movements therefore points towards him as the author.

1. Introduction 2. King David 3. Henry V 4. Henry VIII 5. Ivan The Terrible 6. Frederick The Great 7. Tsar Alexander II 8. Queen Salote of Tonga 9. King Bhumibol Adulyadej


HENRY VIII
1491-1547


The Psalter of Henry VIII by unknown artist

The young Prince Henry received an impressively broad education, and by his teenage years he was skilled in the noble arts of fencing, jousting, hawking and dancing, as well as writing poetry and singing. Music was an early passion that remained with him throughout his turbulent reign. He was a proficient instrumentalist, and amassed a huge collection of instruments for his own use, including recorders, trombones, trumpets and bagpipes.

Henry’s composing career also began at a young age, and the earliest of his surviving compositions dates from when he was 11 years old. Many of his works are now lost, but he is known to have written in a variety of genres, including liturgical choral music, as well as songs and dances.

Sadly, Henry’s best-known work, Greensleeves, probably isn’t by him at all. The attribution goes back centuries, and some evidence has been presented to support the idea that it’s the work of the king. Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife, is said to have spurned his early advances, and the opening couplet  “Alas, my love, you do me wrong, To cast me off discourteously” has long been seen as a reference to her. However, the style of the music is very Italianate, and such Italian influences only reached the English courts after Henry’s death, suggesting the song dates from the Elizabethan era.

"The song was heard in courts, and even in the streets, as it became a stape of folk music repertoire"

But many surviving works are indisputably by Henry himself. Another volume in the British Library, known as Henry VIII’s Songbook, dates from Henry’s reign and contains over 100 songs that were performed in his court. Thirty-three of these songs are by Henry, and they show his lighter, more playful side. There is a hit among them, Pastime with Good Company, also known as The Kynges Balade. It is thought that Henry wrote the song shortly after his coronation for his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Its popularity soon spread, and within a few decades the song was heard in courts throughout Europe, and even in the streets, as it became a staple of folk music repertoire. Henry’s successor to the throne, Elizabeth I, herself a skilled musician, especially at the keyboard, described Pastime with Good Company as her favourite work.

1. Introduction 2. King David 3. Henry V 4. Henry VIII 5. Ivan The Terrible 6. Frederick The Great 7. Tsar Alexander II 8. Queen Salote of Tonga 9. King Bhumibol Adulyadej


IVAN THE TERRIBLE
1530-1584


Tsar Ivan The Terrible by Viktor Vasnetsov

Mass-murderer, bloodthirsty tyrant, merciless oppressor... and composer of serene church music. The compositions of Tsar Ivan IV give us a glimpse of his more pious sensibilities. He was a devout believer, though he had an uneasy relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church. Ivan was excommunicated as a result of his marrying for a fourth time, but even then he remained the official head of the Church. Orthodox Church music developed fast under Ivan’s reign, with a new notation system allowing chants to increase in complexity and sophistication. Ivan himself composed many liturgical works, often writing both the texts and the music. In 1971, the Russian musicologist Nikolai Uspensky published a volume of Orthodox chants containing many of Ivan’s compositions. Two of these were recorded by the Voronov vocal quartet in 1989. The two works are both stichera hymns, each about half an hour long. The music is intended for all-night vigils, and is appropriately calm and meditative. No hint here of the mental instability or the murderous violence that his name evokes today. 

1. Introduction 2. King David 3. Henry V 4. Henry VIII 5. Ivan The Terrible 6. Frederick The Great 7. Tsar Alexander II 8. Queen Salote of Tonga 9. King Bhumibol Adulyadej


FREDERICK THE GREAT
1712-1786


The Flute Concert of Sanssouci by Adolph Menzel (1852)

Of all the composing kings and queens of history, Frederick II of Prussia was the most talented, and probably the most prolific too. His instrument was the flute, for which he wrote over 100 sonatas. He also composed four symphonies, all of them technically proficient and displaying considerable charm. Frederick’s court of Sanssouci in Potsdam, near Berlin, was a focal point for Enlightenment culture, and with it the newly emerging Classical style in music. He engaged some of the most talented and forward-looking musicians of the day, among them C.P.E. Bach and the flautist and composer Johann Quantz. As the king’s flute teacher, Quantz exerted considerable influence on his compositional style, and many works were written in collaboration between them.

Frederick inherited a kingdom that exerted considerable military power over much of central Europe. He undertook military training reluctantly, preferring instead to concentrate on his musical and artistic pursuits. But in 1756, the fragile allegiances between Prussia and its neighbours collapsed, leading to the onset of the Seven Years War. From then on, Frederick was required to take the role of military leader, which he did, and with great success. But his composition career came to an abrupt halt, and he wrote almost no music for the last 30 years of his life. One exception, though, is particularly significant: In 1773, Johann Quantz died, leaving unfinished his 300th Flute Concerto. The king returned to composing to provide the missing finale: a touching memorial to a much-loved teacher.

1. Introduction 2. King David 3. Henry V 4. Henry VIII 5. Ivan The Terrible 6. Frederick The Great 7. Tsar Alexander II 8. Queen Salote of Tonga 9. King Bhumibol Adulyadej


TSAR ALEXANDER II
1818-1881


Tsar Alexander II

In the late 1990s, Russian researcher Bella Abaeva began a project to recreate a particularly musical period in the history of the Russian monarchy. Under the reign of Tsar Alexander II, in the mid-19th century, musical performances often took place in royal palaces, private affairs for which members of the royal family would write songs and other short works. In the end, the research took 15 years, and involved archives as far afield as Switzerland and Thailand. The result was a concert, given initially at the Tavrichesky Palace in St Petersburg in 2011 and then toured to other Russian cities. Alexander himself was well represented on the program, which also included music by his sister-in-law Grand Duchess Alexandra Iosifovna and nephew Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich. Stylistically, the music is very much of its time – Romantic and expressive, if conservative. Despite the huge public interest in the project, the organisers ensured that the modern-day performances retained a sense of intimacy, of music written to entertain a small family group.

1. Introduction 2. King David 3. Henry V 4. Henry VIII 5. Ivan The Terrible 6. Frederick The Great 7. Tsar Alexander II 8. Queen Salote of Tonga 9. King Bhumibol Adulyadej

QUEEN SALOTE OF TONGA
1900-1965


Queen Salote of Tonga's visit to the University of Sydney (photo: University Archives)

Salote Mafile'o Pilolevu Tupou III is fondly remembered today as the ‘poet on the throne’ of Tonga. She dedicated her reign to the promotion and celebration of Tongan culture, actively encouraging archaeology and historical research, while also contributing to the culture by writing poems and songs in the Tongan language. Salote’s works were collected together and published in 2004, in both Tongan and English. Many were written for state occasions and have a formal tone. Others are more intimate, including songs of lament written shortly after the death of her consort, Viliami Tung Mailefihi, in 1941.

1. Introduction 2. King David 3. Henry V 4. Henry VIII 5. Ivan The Terrible 6. Frederick The Great 7. Tsar Alexander II 8. Queen Salote of Tonga 9. King Bhumibol Adulyadej


KING BHUMIBOL ADULYADEJ
b.1927


King Bhumibol Adulyadej

The current King of Thailand is also a jazz saxophonist! He is the world’s longest-serving monarch, having ascended to the throne in 1946. Since then, he has combined his royal duties with a range of musical activities. For many years he led the Au Sau Wan Suk big band, giving live broadcasts every Friday night. He has duetted with some of the biggest names in jazz, including Benny Goodman, Stan Getz and Lionel Hampton. (Hampton later described him as “the coolest king in the land”.) And although he retired from public performance in the 1980s, the king is still active as a musician, jamming every weekend with a band made up of close friends.

"Although retired from public performance, the king is still active, jamming every weekend"

King Bhumibol’s most famous compositions are jazz numbers written in the first years of his reign, in the late 1940s. They include Saeng Tien (Candlelight Blues), Yam Yen (Love at Sundown) and Sai Fon (Falling Rain). He continued to compose up to the mid-1990s, and now has approaching 50 works to his name. Most are in a trad jazz style, but he has also branched out into music for state occasions, including writing marches for the bands of the Thai Royal Marines and Royal Guards.

The popularity of King Bhumibol’s music has even made it the subject of legal controls. In a country where strict laws prohibit defamation or even mild criticism of the king, similar protections have been required to protect his music. Arrangements and adaptations of his works are strictly prohibited, and in order to ensure that the king’s musical intentions are properly honoured, every performance must be approved beforehand by a royal committee. None of which has prevented the king’s best-known works from achieving an impressive level of popularity among his music-loving and patriotic subjects