Bicentenary of Prince Albert part I
Francis Albert Augustus Charles Emmanuel, Prince of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Prince Consort to Queen Victoria (b.Schloss Rosenau, near Coburg, 26 August 1819; d.Windsor Castle, 14 December 1861)
married 10 February 1840, Chapel Royal, St. James’s Palace, to
Alexandrina Victoria, Queen of Great Britain (b.Kensington Palace, 24 May 1819; d.Osborne House, 22 January 1901)
‘In feeling for the sister art he was – and, we are inclined to think, in this only – true to the German type of race. He loved music with all a German’s heart … At all times he was accustomed to seek solace from the cares and fatigues of his life in the expression of musical thoughts’.
(Lady Eastlake, The Quarterly Review, January 1862.)
Prince Albert is said to have been ‘passionately fond of music’ as a boy and by 1836 played the piano well enough to impress his musically minded cousin (and future wife) in London. At Bonn University he studied organ and thorough bass and was described by one of his fellow-students as ‘a master of the art’. In Florence in 1839 his organ playing was thought to rival that of his teacher. (Mendelssohn later said that it would have done credit to a professional). In 1838 and 1839 he was involved in the running of the Gotha Choral Union and sang the bass solo in a performance of Beethoven’s Der glorreiche Augenblick at one of their concerts.
It was at this period of his life that he began to compose (a by no means unusual activity for members of European royal families in the 18th and 19th centuries: within his immediate family Albert’s grandfather, uncle, aunt and brother all tried their hands at composition). On his engagement Albert was able to present Queen Victoria with three volumes of privately printed Lieder und Romanzen and by 1842 a total of 31 songs had been neatly copied into a volume which he entitled Ausfluss musikalischer Gefühle (‘Outpouring of musical feelings’). A group of larger-scale works written between 1843 and 1845 includes English church music and the Italian cantata Invocazione all’ Armonia.
There are plenty of indications that music was Prince Albert’s main refuge from loneliness when he first took up residence in this country and he lost no time in declaring his interest to the British. Within a month of the wedding an English edition appeared of Songs and Ballads, written and set to music by their Royal Highnesses Albert and Ernest, Princes of Saxe Coburg-Gotha, dedicated, by express command, to Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Kent. This collection contained eleven songs by Albert, some of which achieved a certain popularity in spite of an early rumour that they had been ‘ghosted’.
But it was as an enlightened patron that Prince Albert made his real contribution to English music. In March 1840 he was appointed a director of the Concerts of Ancient Music, a body which had given annual seasons of concerts in London since 1776. Its directors were individually responsible for choosing programmes and performers. The twelve programmes planned by Prince Albert during the next nine years reveal a musical taste far surpassing that of his fellow-directors in maturity and adventurousness, and it is no surprise to find The Musical World recommending (after the last concert, in June 1848) that he be given sole control. (In fact the society’s library was handed over to the Prince and kept at Buckingham Palace until 1883, when Queen Victoria presented it to the Royal College of Music).
The Philharmonic Society also attracted the Prince’s immediate patronage in 1840. Between 1843 and 1860 he chose the programmes for 13 ‘command’ concerts, gaining a first British hearing for Schumann’s First Symphony and Paradise and the Peri, and for works by Mendelssohn and Schubert. The conductors at these concerts included Spohr, Mendelssohn and Wagner, and Jenny Lind and Joachim were among the soloists.
At home Prince Albert re-formed the Queen’s Private (wind) Band as a full orchestra and embarked on a programme of private music making of exceptional scope and quality. Between 1840 and 1861 the concerts at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle included first English performances of Schubert’s C major Symphony, Lohengrin and Mendelssohn’s Athalie and Oedipus at Colonnos. Some of the world’s greatest singers and instrumentalists were heard at these concerts, which remained for the Prince a ‘never-failing source of delight’ even when state business reduced his time for music, – ‘a dream-world, in which the anxieties of life were for the moment forgotten’.
© OLIVER DAVIES
The above is extracted from the programme of the concert Prince Albert the Musician, given at the Victoria and Albert Museum, 14 December 1983, and elsewhere.