Magazine article The Spectator

Behind the Masque

Magazine article The Spectator

Behind the Masque

Article excerpt

Music has always been integral to the image and power of monarch. Our present Royal family should take note, says Jonathan Keates

Music & Monarchy:

A History of Britain in Four Movements by David Starkey & Katie Greening BBC Books, £20, pp. 378, ISBN 9781849905862 British royalty, considered from a purely mechanistic angle, cannot function adequately without music. Deprived of marching bands, trumpeters and choristers or even of those ever so well-mannered regimental ensembles which dispense selections from favourite musicals at an investiture or a garden party, the royal performance would lose much of its authenticity. Playing the king in this country has always depended on being able to do the whole shtick to the right tunes. If, from time to time, a genuinely gifted or truly inspired composer should become available, so much the better. Dash and panache for parties and parades, decorous gloom for funerals and the occasional wedding anthem or victory Te Deum sound more like the real thing when knocked off by a Purcell, a Handel or an Elgar.

In Music & Monarchy David Starkey and Katie Greening trace the growth of this now indispensable symbiosis across five centuries. Their book is a television tie-in and presumably because the Agincourt Song provides a rumbustious accompaniment to the forthcoming series, they choose to start with King Henry V, 'the man who was our greatest king and finest general'. This sounds like Starkey in typically combative mood, implicitly seeing off the kind of reader who might be tempted to object that Henry II and Edward I were just as effective monarchically speaking or that Cromwell, Marlborough and Wellington were not too shabby when it came to winning battles.

Said to have written music when not urging his dear friends once more into the breach, Henry beefed up England's Chapel Royal to make it the best in Europe. His son Henry VI, generally viewed as a saintly halfwit, was compos mentis enough to promote similar musical excellence within his two collegiate foundations at Eton and King's, Cambridge, where the choral tradition, however battered and beleaguered by historical mishaps, somehow always managed a miraculous renewal over succeeding centuries.

The Reformation targeted not merely the liturgy gracing the chapels themselves but the very performance style of their masses and motets. As early as 1516 Erasmus, in his Commentary on Corinthians 1.14, had criticised the vogue for increasingly complex polyphony, 'a certain elaborate and theatrical music' for which English clerics cherished a special fondness. 'Those who are more doltish than really learned are not content unless they can use a distorted kind of music called descant.' Thirty years later, with the walls whitewashed, shrines desecrated and idolatrous images torn down, Archbishop Cranmer, backed by Queen Catherine Parr, took up the cry. 'In mine opinion, ' he told Henry VIII, 'the song that shall be made would not be full of notes, but as near as may be, for every syllable a note, so that it may be sung distinctly and devoutly.'

Starkey and Greening neatly demonstrate how much of what we treasure in Tudor church music is due to skilful religious fudging and compromise by Catholic court musicians, as also to the unfathomable quirks and ambiguities of Elizabeth I's spiritual outlook and artistic tastes. Sovereigns in her time were noted, not always sycophantically, as accomplished performers, vocal or instrumental. …

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