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You might think that nothing is more British than young Prince George, the toddler who recently turned one and since his birth has plagued tabloids and televisions with such smiley aplomb. It’s not his fault, of course, that the royals have become entertainers and that their existence depends on tiresome modern forms of celebrity. The Brits are stupid proud of the tyke, even if dyspeptic responses to his exploitation do erupt now and again.
But history and royal blood are easily diluted. Hence most look right past the old irony that the Windsors are Germans: right down to his name, Prince George, is a Teutonic tot.
Three hundred years ago today the British Queen Anne died without heirs. It’s not as if she hadn’t tried to further her line: she’d been made pregnant seventeen times by her consort, Prince George of Denmark. Anne was daughter of the deposed King James II; he was a Catholic but also possessed the foresight to have his daughters raised Protestant. The so-called Act of Settlement, passed by Parliament in 1701 to settle the problem of succession to the British throne, granted that right to the Protestant descendants of James I. This meant that, with the death of Queen Anne, the British crown would go to the rulers of the German Duchy of Hanover. Although Queen Anne had as many as fifty closer blood relatives than Georg, the Duke of Hanover, it was he, by virtue of his Protestantism, who would became British King on August 1, 1714. The new king would arrive in England in September of that year and be officially crowned in October in Westminster Abbey.
It’s no coincidence that the royal prospects of the House of Hanover were augmented by the arrival in London of the greatest “English” composer of all—also a Georg and also a German. Like his king, Handel added an e to his first name and then bolstered his Britishness still further by scrapping the frightening Umlaut on his surname. Thus he became George Frideric Handel when he took up residence in England in 1711. After conquering the musical world in Italy, Handel had been hired as Kapellmeister to Duke Georg in Germany, but sought his fame not on the continent but in London as the city’s first great champion of Italian opera. Duke Georg was apparently displeased by the truancy of his chief musician and therefore dismissed Handel in 1713 after his unbroken absence in London. But the legend that Handel composed the Water Music of 1717 to slip gracefully back into Duke Georg’s favor after he had inconveniently (for Handel) become King of England has not withstood scholarly scrutiny.
Instead, it seems much more likely that the cosmopolitan Handel was deployed diplomatically to help smooth the way for Hanoverian rule. There was no more politically useful venue for such a mission than Italian opera, an extravagant form of entertainment in which the ruling classes mingled, plotted, and seduced. Handel’s unmatched musical potency and his fluency with the protocols of power in public and private venues became stealth weapons in the German takeover—never mind that there was rioting in some twenty English cities on the day of Georg(e)’s coronation.
By the time of the ascension of the next Hanoverian Georg to the British throne as George II in 1727, Handel’s position as the preeminent musical force of the island was unassailable—a state of affairs resented by more than a few of his native competitors. In February of 1727 Handel had been made an English subject by Act of Parliament, a new national status that allowed him to be given the commission to compose the four anthems for the coronation of George II in October of that year. The most famous of these was performed at the anointing (directly followed by the crowning) of the new king—Zadok the Priest.
The undulating string arpeggios and pulsing oboes of this celebrating anthem’s introduction evoke the hands of God—and those of his clerical agents on earth—approaching the earthly monarch with the oily blessing as if from heavenly heights. The gradual, unstoppable crescendo that ushers in the choral entry has the inexorable force of universal truth. The effects are bold, monumental, and—in a word favored by Handel’s eighteenth-century devotees—sublime. Anyone who thinks that the opening is a lullaby meant to lull the listener to sleep, will suffer—or enjoy—the shock of the choral cannonade. One can imagine Handel directing a performance of the piece, lowering his hands to usher in the deafening barrage of voices and trumpet like a field commander dropping his sword. And like a successful military strategist, Handel knew the terrain of his campaign: for the vast architectural and acoustic spaces of Westminster he mobilized simple, overwhelming forces.
Handel’s fame would surpass that of his monarchic patrons, not least because devotion to his music ran in the Hanoverian blood. Mad King George III was crazy about Handel’s music right through the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth. George III insisted on a massive festival to celebrate the centenary of Handel’s birth; this took place in 1784 (they got the year wrong; Handel was born in 1685) in Westminster Abbey and the Pantheon. The proceedings started with Zadok—the ultimate reflection of royal favor and foresight: without the Hanoverians, Handel’s music would not have achieved such ritualistic importance; and without Handel their royal power would not have shone—and resounded—so brilliantly, nor been so secure. The memorial festivities had been planned to end with the fourth concert, a program dedicated to the Handel hits most loved by George III: naturally, this playlist culminated with Zadok, which had been played at the king’s of coronation, too, just as it would for every British monarch afterward, including that of Elizabeth II. Zadok would therefore have framed the entire event if large crowds had not been turned away from the third day’s performance of Messiah and the oratorio repeated at an added fifth concert ordered by the King.
As the cult of Handel grew with the expansion of the British Empire and its engineering and industrial might, so did the size of the choruses. The original 1727 performance probably had as many as 40 singers; by the time of the centennial celebrations, the chorus had grown to 70, the orchestra to more than 400. Two hundred years after Handel’s birth choruses for Zadok could number in the thousands. One of the first Edison wax-cylinder made in England captures, if in faint and ghostly manner, a choir of 4,000 singing a chorus from Handel’s Israel in Egypt in 1888 at London’s Crystal Palace, the performance conducted by Sir August Manns, yet another celebrated German musical immigrant to England.
Given the oddly multi-cultural nature of the English monarchs with their German roots it is perhaps fitting that Zadok has thrived in an increasingly diverse Britain. For the twentieth anniversary of the British radio station Classical FM promoters organized a flash mob performance of Zadok in a London Supermarket in 2012. As the music gathered steam universal expressions of delight danced across the faces of the shoppers of a New Britain, young and old hailing from various corners of a once far-flung Empire. You don’t need German blood to be wowed by the Handelian sublime even in the supermarket vegetable section.
The inveterate showman Handel would have certainly been pleased with the stunt not only because the proof it offered that his music could attain sublime resonance even under fluorescent lights and low ceilings, but also because this insatiable eater would had the chance to fill his shopping cart with frozen pizzas and other binge-goodies and maybe reach for a foot-long salami—as in the famous cartoon by his one-time friend Joseph Goupy—to conduct the choir and orchestra that emerged stealthily from amongst the other shoppers.
The conservative musical tastes of the culture and media advisors of Prince George’s parents were heard in abundance at their 2011 wedding in Westminster Abbey. Given this aesthetic orientation, the eventual coronations of any or all of the three generations of Windsor men now waiting for Elizabeth II to kick the gilded bucket will doubtless have Handel’s Zadok the Priest as their musical centerpiece. I wouldn’t be surprised if the anthem has already been used for that game of musical thrones at Prince George’s first birthday bash. Zadok will still be waiting for him some decades from now in Westminster Abbey, the anthem having become even bigger, more obvious, and more necessary in the three hundred years since its conception. In spite of the current cooing over him, the future king will need that kind of musical artillery cover to keep the forces of skepticism at bay.