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has dragged
from oblivion some music
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33. A Royal Composer



Compositional ability -- indeed interest -- amongst the English Royal Family has been sparse. Henry VIII was an outstanding exception, and we have several compositions that he wrote or at least lent a hand in. But who was 'Roy Henry' of the Old Hall MS.? Scholars are still arguing whether he was H. IV, H. V or H. VI. Perhaps he was just plain Mr Roy Henry. (In any case, he only penned a couple of pieces.) A song castigating tobacco ('Tobacco, tobacco,/Thou pernicious weed!') has been attributed to James I, though the real author was probably his court composer, Alfonso Ferrabosco III (see Parrott, 1964: 3). Queen Victoria is said to have added two notes to one of Albert's songs, but this was done as a joke.

One monarch who has so far eluded the musicologists is Edward VII -- 'Good King Ted'. His musical talents were late to develop and, in retrospect, seem completely out of character. However, his wife, Alex, gave him enthusiastic encouragement, thinking it might divert his attention from Lily Langtry and Lady Besborough. For a couple of years (1903-5) he took composition lessons with Elgar. (The lessons often took place before or after the race meetings that the two men attended. Elgar was sworn to secrecy; the KG which he received in 1904 was a direct outcome of this tuition.) How the king managed to squeeze in his composing between race-going and his constitutional duties is little short of amazing, and in the circumstances his output is quite astonishing, including as it does a symphony, a piano concerto, a large-scale oratorio as well as solo songs. Inevitably one can detect the influence of his illustrious teacher in places, but his style is strikingly original even so. The following brief notes on some of the main works can only be an aperitif; hopefully they will form the basis of a full-length study.

  • Oratorio, The Spirit of Empire. An ambitious undertaking with a libretto supplied by W.E. Henley, Sir Henry Newbolt, Rudyard Kipling, A. C. Benson and E. Nesbit.
  • The Newmarket Overture. A racy portrait of the great horseracing centre. The prominent opening theme, marked nobilmente, ma non troppo, is said to depict his 1909 Derby winner, Minoru. In the quiet central section, we leave the bustle and excitement of the racecourse for the quiet charm of Newmarket Parish Church.
  • More robust and immediately attractive are the songs that he wrote for Lily Langtry and his favourite music-hall star, Dan Leno. Not unexpectedly, they have a popular flavour, with catchy tunes and rather saucy (indeed, risqué) words. 'Who's a pretty girl, then? ('Don't yer know?')' and 'I'm a right old Cockney Sparrer!' are two of the best.

Apart from a few private performances at Windsor, Ted had little opportunity to hear his music performed and since his death his MSS have remained a closely guarded secret at Windsor. Fortunately they survived the catastrophic fire of 1992, rescued by a discerning fireman. Any hope of public performance has been prohibited by the Royal Household.


Copyright © 28 December 2000, Trevor Hold, Peterborough, UK



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