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Songs of State

Other than the basic press blurbs, I could find no detailed reports of the music performed at this week’s state banquet held in the Buckingham Palace ballroom. The largest space in the palace, the ballroom is presided over by a substantial and rather gaudily decorated organ originally built for another even more decadent royal folly, the Brighton Pavilion on England’s south coast. The King of Instruments looked down from his balcony at the Trumps and Windsors and their hangers-on in mute disapproval of the state of the human monarchy and the visitors it claims to be forced to welcome.

In a previous century the organ would have resounded over the convocation. Prince Albert was keen to have the instrument set up in his London residence; it was duly installed in renovated and expanded form in the ballroom in the 1850s. The Royal Consort was himself a talented amateur organist and man of culture.

Just down the west block of Buckingham Palace from the ballroom, Queen Victoria’s Erard piano stretches out grandly in the White Drawing Room. The instrument is lavishly decorated in the French style of an era that was then already bygone: the case is painted with monkeys and cherubs, bouquets and garlands that emit a visual scent of perfumed sensuality. Victoria and Albert loved to play through the orchestral favorites of the day—Beethoven symphonies, Mendelssohn overtures and the like—in versions for piano four-hands. Music was then a necessary accomplishment of royals as it now no longer is. But like her princess forbears in the Hanoverian line, among whose keyboard tutors can be counted no less a figure than Handel, the current Queen had piano lessons as a girl. Elizabeth is rumored to be able to bash out some boogie-woogie, though the vintage Erard is hardly the model of choice for such sport.

One of our piano-playing presidents—Harry Truman or Dick Nixon—might have been pleased to sit down on the piano bench with the Queen during a palace walk-about for a duet on the gilded grand—a bit of Elgarian pomp or Souza circumstance. Not so Donald T, whose main talent is for cheating at golf and taxes, though the first of these skills could have been demonstrated along the Buckingham enfilade with its sumptuous fairways of rich carpeting, and high ceilings perfect for an indoor pitch-and-put round.

Looking at the palace interiors pictured in official photos from the state visit, one isn’t sure that the level of (bad) taste is that different from Trump’s high crimes and misdemeanors against architecture and design. The best of the Buckingham P décor must be the Old Masters on the walls, but press shots showed the monarch and tyrant strolling past these paintings without even a turn of the head. The show-and-tell instead focused on the gewgaws, photos, and other collectibles such as a manuscript copy of the Declaration of Independence.

Not unlike these easy attractions, the bill of musical fare at the banquet was a smorgasbord at which the high-minded Hanoverians of yore would have turned up their inbred noses. The menu featured a Broadway classic (“Tonight” from Westside Story) and a more recent British pop mega-export, “Thinking Out Loud” by suitably redheaded Ed Sheeran. These were served up alongside Classical favs: highlights from Handel’s Royal Fireworks Music and the Hoedown from Aaron Copland’s Rodeo, a bit of artsy, rusticated Americana meant to answer the shock and awe of Handel’s pyrotechnics.

You might think that the American numbers were concessions to the visitors. But it is the Queen who loves American musicals, especially those mythologizing the West, like Oklahoma! and Annie, Get Your Gun, hits of her youth.

As for Trump, he lost a wadge of cash backing a musical when he was in his early twenties. If that show had made money, Trump might now be the scourge not just of the New York cityscape but of Broadway, too. He doesn’t give a fig about music, musicians, or even musicals, as is immediately clear to anyone with enough fortitude to endure footage of him and Melania in the clinch at the main Inaugural Ball in January of 2017, teetering, punch- and power-drunk to Sinatra’s crooning of “I Did It My Way.”

Rodeo fits more easily into royal tastes than the presidential lack of any. Still, the cowboy ballet might have jostled some vague culinary memories in Trump thanks to those beef ads of the 1990s in which Copland’s Hoedown accompanies beauty shots of read-meat recipes—from pasta concoctions, to fajitas, to subs—all narrated by veteran carnivore Robert Mitchum, a former screen actor with many westerns to his credits.

Given these associations, Copland’s music might have set Trump’s paunch to gurgling for something more downhome than the first course served up by the Queen’s chef: steamed fillet of halibut with watercress mousse, asparagus spears and chervil sauce. A teetotaler, Trump also passed on the wines, including the Chateau Lafitte Rothschild 1990 that goes for upwards of a $1,000 a bottle.

So hated by his detractors is Trump that his every move and utterance is a lightning rod for allegory and innuendo. Thus all the musical choices made for the banquet could be heard by his detractors as thinly veiled attacks. Handel’s Fireworks are all about grandstanding. In Rodeo a cowgirl dresses up as a cowboy then puts on a dress and wins over the head wrangler—a kick-up-yours heels rejoinder from gay Copland to Trump’s homophobia. “Tonight” by Copland’s protégé Leonard Bernstein figuratively locked the Queen and the Donald in embrace of the Special Relationship. West Side Story easily refers to the blight of the story Trump has written on West Side in garish stone, steel, and glass. “Thinking Out Loud” is the only way Trump can attempt such mental exertions, whether tweeting or in the fits and starts of his paleolithic speech patterns. Sheeran’s song sent other barbs at the president:

When my hair’s all but gone and my memory fades
And the crowds don’t remember my name …

All this was doubtless lost on Trump, nervously thumbing at the phone tucked into his too-small waistcoat that refused to admit several inches had been added to his midsection since last he donned such formal rig.

Over the dessert of strawberry sable with lemon verbena cream, the president’s fugitive thoughts drifted from Sheeran’s Ballroom ballad. Gazing across at the Queen, Trump’s head was filled with the sound of Frank Sinatra singing “Our love is here to stay.”

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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