The British, only among European nations, like to classify our cultural eras according to the reigns of our monarchs.
We label our great painters, musicians, architects and authors as Tudor, Jacobean, Georgian, Regency, Victorian or Edwardian, rather than trying to recall the actual decades in which they flourished.
Or at least we were used to it. But after a few fanciful attempts at the time of the 1953 coronation, no one spoke of the culture of Britain in the late 20th or early 21st century as “new Elizabethan.” And as we prepare to celebrate the Queen’s 70th year on the throne in 2022, it seems like a perfect opportunity to wonder why this is so.
Is it because the inevitable comparisons to the glories of the “first” Elizabethan age – the era of Shakespeare, Byrd, Tallis, Dowland, Spenser and Marlowe – are they too depressing? Or because monarchs in general now seem unrelated to what’s going on, or what’s happening, in the modern cultural world? Or is it because Elizabeth II in particular is not much of an art lover?
Hmm. At the risk of losing this MBE retreat, allow me to reflect on these questions. First, you don’t have to be a delusional patriot to feel that the cultural achievements of the British since 1953 are comparable to those of any previous age, Elizabethan or otherwise.
From McCartney to Britten, from Hockney to Bacon, from Osborne to Stoppard, from Frayn to Alan Bennett, from Pré to Rattle, from Bogarde to Dench, from Attenborough to Minghella: the parade of the imposing artistic figures of these small islands pierced the world at over the past 60 years. And the musicians have been in the foreground. I could easily name 100 living British composers, instrumentalists, singers and conductors who could rightly be described as ‘world class’.
In short, the reign of Elizabeth II coincided with a musical renaissance in Britain. But the very word “coincident” implies that the queen herself has little to do with it. Is this a fair assessment? It may sound like that. Although her great-great-grandfather was a minor Victorian composer (Prince Albert), she did not command any music and employ very few musicians except in her chapel choirs – although our military bands were probably saved from the ax several times because of the role they play. in royal ceremonies.
The Queen avoids opera (even the Royal!) And doesn’t go to many concerts. She was 68 years old before attending her first Bbc prom, even if the biggest music festival in the world is just a bugle blow from its garden. (Remember, she’s been back ever since; at this rate, she’ll be asking for a subscription soon.) And unlike her sister, Princess Margaret – who hadn’t thought of summoning male pianists to Kensington Palace at 1 a.m. in the morning when she couldn’t sleep – the queen never favored the company of arty types.
Yet I attribute this not to Philistinism but to its overwhelming sense of duty. She is always extremely scrupulous in sharing her time so that people from 1,000 different backgrounds can occasionally meet her. From this point of view, great musicians are no more important than table ladies or masons.
And it’s not true that she didn’t do much to support the music. If I had been the monarch, I think I would have abolished the post of Queen’s Music Master after enduring 28 chaotic years of Malcolm Williamson. Instead, the Queen counterintuitively appointed a very anti-establishment figure, Peter Maxwell Davies, who has become a brilliantly outspoken and effective champion of music and musicians. The subsequent appointment to the post of Judith Weir, meanwhile, was a powerful gesture to both recognize and defend the many exceptionally talented female songwriters currently working in the UK.
The Queen’s Medal for Music was instituted. And at a time when Britain has had a succession of political leaders with no interest in the intellectual arts, the Queen has supported a number of cultural projects that have done much to lift morale in a beleaguered arts world.
Yet his successor, Prince Charles playing the cello, would surely like to become the most proactive royal patron of music since Prince Albert. The problem is, the Prince of Wales’ musical tastes are pretty much the same as Albert’s and (unlike his impeccably non-partisan mother) he’s not shy about voicing his opinions. I do not know who he will choose as the first Music Master (or Mistress). But if Hubert Parry was still there, he would be a fool.