FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

The Windsors’ Musical Artillery

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.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

More articles by:

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

March 19, 2019
Paul Street
Socialism Curiously Trumps Fascism in U.S. Political Threat Reporting
Jonah Raskin
Guy Standing on Anxiety, Anger and Alienation: an Interview About “The Precariat”
Patrick Cockburn
The Brutal Legacy of Bloody Sunday is a Powerful Warning to Those Hoping to Save Brexit
Robert Fisk
Turning Algeria Into a Necrocracy
John Steppling
Day of Wrath
Robin Philpot
Truth, Freedom and Peace Will Prevail in Rwanda
Victor Grossman
Women Marchers and Absentees
Binoy Kampmark
The Dangers of Values: Brenton Tarrant, Fraser Anning and the Christchurch Shootings
Jeff Sher
Let Big Pharma Build the Wall
Jimmy Centeno
Venezuela Beneath the Skin of Imperialism
Jeffrey Sommers – Christopher Fons
Scott Walker’s Failure, Progressive Wisconsin’s Win: Milwaukee’s 2020 Democratic Party Convention
Steve Early
Time for Change at NewsGuild?
March 18, 2019
Scott Poynting
Terrorism Has No Religion
Ipek S. Burnett
Black Lives on Trial
John Feffer
The World’s Most Dangerous Divide
Paul Cochrane
On the Ground in Venezuela vs. the Media Spectacle
Dean Baker
The Fed and the 3.8 Percent Unemployment Rate
Thomas Knapp
Social Media Companies “Struggle” to Help Censors Keep us in the Dark
Binoy Kampmark
Death in New Zealand: The Christchurch Shootings
Mark Weisbrot
The Reality Behind Trump’s Venezuela Regime Change Coalition
Weekend Edition
March 15, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
Is Ilhan Omar Wrong…About Anything?
Kenn Orphan
Grieving in the Anthropocene
Jeffrey Kaye
On the Death of Guantanamo Detainee 10028
Stan Cox – Paul Cox
In Salinas, Puerto Rico, Vulnerable Americans Are Still Trapped in the Ruins Left by Hurricane Maria
Ben Debney
Christchurch, the White Victim Complex and Savage Capitalism
Eric Draitser
Did Dallas Police and Local Media Collude to Cover Up Terrorist Threats against Journalist Barrett Brown?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Straighten Up and Fly Right
Jack Rasmus
Trump’s $34 Trillion Deficit and Debt Bomb
David Rosen
America’s Puppet: Meet Juan Guaidó
Jason Hirthler
Annexing the Stars: Walcott, Rhodes, and Venezuela
Samantha M. - Angelica Perkins
Our Green New Deal
Mel Gurtov
Trump’s Nightmare Budget
Steven Colatrella
The 18th Brumaire of Just About Everybody: the Rise of Authoritarian Strongmen and How to Prevent and Reverse It
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Riding the Wild Bull of Nuclear Power
Michael K. Smith
Thirty Years Gone: Remembering “Cactus Ed”
Dean Baker
In Praise of Budget Deficits
Howard Lisnoff
Want Your Kids to Make it Big in the World of Elite Education in the U.S.?
Brian Cloughley
Trump’s Foreign Policy is Based on Confrontation and Malevolence
John W. Whitehead
Pity the Nation: War Spending is Bankrupting America
Priti Gulati Cox
“Maria! Maria! It Was Maria That Destroyed Us!” The Human Story
Missy Comley Beattie
On Our Knees
Mike Garrity – Carole King
A Landscape Lewis and Clark Would Recognize is Under Threat
Robert Fantina
The Media-Created Front Runners
Tom Clifford
Bloody Sunday and the Charging of Soldier F
Ron Jacobs
All the Livelong Day      
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail