Queen Victoria: My Musical Britain – BBC 1

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This was an unexpected treat. Really entertaining!  I love the idea of Queen Victoria helping to popularise the “wicked waltz”, being serenaded by Prince Albert with songs he’d written himself, holding “impromptu jamming sessions” with Mendelssohn and being so obsessed with Jenny Lind (of Barnum fame) that she cut short a formal dinner with the Prime Minister to go and see her. Not to mention having her favourite celeb singers at her 16th birthday party – how cool is that? We even got brass bands and the Halle Orchestra – hooray!!  And the music halls. I think Lucy Worsley was pushing it a bit by saying that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s romance was responsible for a century of British music; but, in this year which marks the bicentennial of their births, this was an interesting and original take on their lives and influence.

I was half-expecting Lucy to dress up as an opera singer and prance about on stage, but she actually managed to act like a serious historian for once. OK, she changed into a black dress when talking about Queen Victoria’s later years, but it wasn’t a particularly Victorian black dress! It’s usually Suzy Klein who presents the BBC’s musical history programmes, and I hadn’t realised that Lucy was so into music. We saw her playing the piano very impressively!

I’d never particularly thought of Queen Victoria in terms of music, either. Ask me to name a “musical monarch”, and I’d have said George II, Henry VIII or Elizabeth I. Young Victoria apparently found George II’s type of music boring, but was really into Italian opera. We got this rather lovely image of her, at a time at which she was given virtually no freedom by her mother and Sir John Conroy, being allowed to go to the opera and getting quite obsessive over some of the singers. Some of them came to sing at her 16th birthday party, and she took singing lessons from them. Lucy’s theory was that it was a way for an emotional person leading a very restricted life to express herself. I like that.

We’re all rather past the idea of Queen Victoria as a repressed and grumpy person who was “not amused”, and we know that she was into dancing. I didn’t know that Johann Strauss actually wrote a waltz for her, though. This was at a time when the waltz was still considered quite scandalous, so Victoria was out there at the cutting edge of things! It was rather pushing it to claim that it was Victoria who popularised the waltz, though, especially as she wasn’t actually allowed to waltz – all that bodily contact! – until she married Prince Albert.

Prince Albert did a lot of good things, but he was undeniably rather boring, and he wanted Italian opera and Viennese waltzes out and German classical music in. But he wrote his own love songs for Victoria, and serenaded her with them. That’s so romantic ❤ !! OK, it’d only work if you had a partner with a good singing voice, but Albert and Victoria both did have good singing voices. They played duets on the piano, as well. So sweet!

They did still go to the opera, as well – and I think it was a valid point that their presence helped to make opera-going, which had become associated with drunken posh blokes trying to seduce opera girls, respectable. And they held musical soirees at home. It was overplaying it to say that it was their interest in music which led to the increase in interest in musical entertainment generally, though! It was part of the general growth of leisure activities during the Victorian period, and, to be fair, Lucy did point out the importance of the development of mass production of musical instruments at more affordable prices. We got to see a brass band. Yay, I love brass bands! I’m not sure that Queen Victoria was particularly into brass band music, but, if she wasn’t, she didn’t know what she was missing! And we heard about the birth of the Halle Orchestra. Always nice to get some Mancunian history into any history programme 😉 . Lucy noted that Sir Charles Halle always made sure that some seats at the Free Trade Hall and anywhere else that the Halle were playing were made available at low prices. Music for all!  One thing that wasn’t mentioned was church music, but maybe that wasn’t particularly Queen Victoria’s thing.

Of course, Charles Halle was originally from Germany, and, as Lucy kept saying, the music scene in Britain at that time was dominated by Germans.  Mendelssohn notably spent a fair amount of time in Britain in the 1830s and 1840s.  I’d never realised that Victoria and Albert were so pally with him: the Queen’s patronage was a real boost to his career, and he even used to go round to see them and they’d all sing and play the piano together. That’s brilliant! And, whilst I’m vaguely familiar with Mendelssohn’s Scottish symphony, I wouldn’t have thought to connect his interest in Scotland with Victoria and Albert’s well-known love of Scotland. Er, having just looked on Google to see when his Hebrides Overture was composed, I see that it was after a visit to Scotland in 1829, well before Victoria even came to the throne! So that’s another area where Lucy’s arguments were pushing it; but they did undoubtedly create interest in Scottish culture outside Scotland.

Going back to the subject of opera becoming respectable, Lucy then started talking about a Swedish opera singer – and I knew before she said the name that she meant Jenny Lind. How cultured am I?! Well, OK, not very, in fact – I only know about Jenny Lind because of the Barnum connection! But Victoria was apparently a huge fan of hers. She went to see her sixteen times in one season, threw flowers at her, gave her a dog, and cut short a formal dinner with the PM in order to go to one of her shows! She was really keen. And then Prince Albert died … and she never went to a public concert again. That’s really sad – and we got some poignant images, from things she’d written in her journals, of how it’d taken her a while even to listen to music again, but that, when she did, particular pieces reminded her of Albert. I think everyone can identify with that. We’ve probably all got songs/pieces of music which remind us of loved ones who are no longer with us. But she chose to have the Royal Albert Hall and the Royal College of Music founded in his memory – and that, as Lucy pointed out, says a lot about how important music was to both of them.

We then moved on to the music halls. Much more my sort of thing than German Lieder or Italian opera! And the “By jingo” song, which always annoys me because the peoples of the Balkans got a very raw deal due to the obsession with restricting Russian influence!  Anyway. Lucy then claimed that Queen Victoria wearing black all the time was partly an image thing, and facilitated the branding of the monarchy because everyone knew that she always wore black. I wasn’t impressed with that. It was mourning black, OK – she was in mourning for her dead husband, not trying to look cool l like I did when I was 14 and wanted to wear black because the Stone Roses did!  I’m not even sure what wearing black was supposed to have to do with music – although the idea seemed to be that it was all part of the idea of Queen Victoria as the face of the British Empire, and that music played a big part in promoting imperialism via both music hall patriotic songs and the music of Elgar. Hooray for Elgar – finally, a top-level British composer.  I take the point about music and imperialism, but trying to connect that with Queen Victoria wearing black wasn’t overly convincing!   Oh well.

The programme finished by talking about Wagner’s Lohengrin being played at Queen Victoria’s 80th birthday party, and how Wagner’s music was to become synonymous with the Nazis, and Queen Victoria would have been devastated to know what lay ahead for Anglo-German relations. Things had rather wandered off the point by this time, and topping it off by saying that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s romance was responsible for a century of British music was definitely going over the top, but it was a very interesting programme. The bicentennial of Victoria and Albert’s birth, in addition to the popular ITV series about them, means that we’re going to be hearing a lot about them this year, and it’s going to be difficult to find different and original angles. The BBC managed it with this programme, and Lucy Worsley, who can sometimes be very irritating, did an excellent job with it. Queen Victoria wrote in her journal that she was “very, very amused”, with three underlinings, after one Italian opera performance. I was pretty amused by this programme!

 

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Albert: The Power Behind Victoria – Channel 5

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This was very watchable, and impressively accurate by Channel 5’s standards. I don’t know why it claimed to be telling an “unknown story”, given that it didn’t say anything that hasn’t been said a zillion times before – although it’s the first time I’ve ever heard anyone describe Prince Albert and Sir Robert Peel as having had a “bromance” (I love that idea!) – but it was still interesting.  What have Channel 5 got against Queen Victoria, though?  First, they showed that series which wildly exaggerated the tension between her and her children, and then, in this, they pretty much made out that she was hysterical and unstable.  Give the woman a break.   Be virtually imprisoned by your mother until you’re eighteen, and then produce seven children in nine and a half years (and another two later), and I think most people would be a little less than cool, calm and collected.

I think Queen Victoria must have been really worried about people thinking she was unstable. There are various theories about what caused George III’s problems, and I still go with the porphyria theory even though a lot of people don’t, but, at the time, it would just have been classed as “madness”.  Given the 18th and 19th century ideas about the “taint” of hereditary madness, any sort of irrational behaviour in his descendants – and Victoria was certainly temperamental, and prone to some extreme reactions – would have caused mutterings.  She’d have been so upset by this programme L .

I myself could well have done without all the comments about hysteria and instability and the suggestions that politicians preferred to deal with Albert because Victoria was “unstable”, not to mention the remarks about Victoria being entirely reliant on her husband. It sounded more like a run-through of some of the main arguments put forward against women’s suffrage than anything else.  OK, there was some element of truth in it, but it wasn’t half exaggerated – just as much of what was in Queen Victoria and her Tragic Family was exaggerated.

The stuff about Prince Albert, though, was fairly good – even if it was by no means “an untold story”. It was presented as a docu-drama, which seems to be the “in” format these days, and is more entertaining than the old-bloke-sat-behind-desk format.  I’m not sure why they had to give young Albert such a weird hat and haircut, though.  He looked more like Windy Miller from Camberwick Green than a handsome prince!  We got all the usual stuff about him initially being unpopular and seen as a scrounger, kicking out Baroness Lehzen, Osborne House, Balmoral, Christmas – as was pointed out, Albert didn’t actually introduce Christmas trees to Britain, but he probably can be credited with popularising the idea of the cosy family Christmas that we still know and love today! – and his closeness to his eldest daughter.  The presenters did seem determined to show Albert as an ideal father, in contrast to Victoria who was shown as being a rather cold mother, and jealous of Albert’s relationships with their children.  Victoria certainly wasn’t going to win any mother of the year awards, but I’m not sure that Albert would exactly have been up for father of the year either.  The Prince of Wales certainly wouldn’t have thought so.  The term “control freak” springs to mind!  But not according to Channel 5.

OK, the way they presented the personal stuff wasn’t great! Much better was what they said about Albert’s contribution to public life.  This was the great age of progress, reform, improvement … all those Victorian ideas.  Science and industry – not only the advances themselves, but the way people got on with them.  Contrast the way in which railways sprang up all over the country with today, when it takes the councils months just to fill in a pothole!   And the idea of civic duty – think Josephine Butler and her campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts, or  Elizabeth Fry and her campaign for prison reform, or all the girls’ schools (like the one I went to) founded in northern cities by local bigwigs, not as businesses but out of a sense of public duty.  Think the Co-operative Movement, and the friendly societies. Athenaeums.  Public libraries.  Victorians really got on with things!  All right, all right, none of those examples involved Prince Albert, but that was the sort of culture that he was involved in promoting.

Random thought. If Robert Peel hadn’t died in 1850, relatively young, might Albert’s work have been a bit less London-centric?   The programme went on about the Royal Albert Hall, the Science Museum, the V&A, etc – yes, all very nice, but all in That London.  OK, railways made it easier for people to travel to London from elsewhere in the country, but Albert doesn’t seem to’ve made too much effort to get involved with projects anywhere else.  Hmm.

On a more positive note, it was pointed out – and this was also shown in the ITV drama series Victoria – that he first made his mark, particularly impressing Sir Robert Peel, with a speech at an Anti-Slavery convention.  The history of abolitionism in Britain, the US and elsewhere is fascinating, and very important: it was probably the first big “cause”.  Incidentally, it should be remembered that Prince Albert arguably stopped Britain from being dragged into a war with the United States in 1861.  But, whilst it would have been a step too far for the Queen herself to have addressed the meeting,  it was considered quite appropriate for her husband to do so, and also for Robert Peel to be at the meeting – and this was at a time when, obviously, slavery was still legal in several places, notably the United States and Brazil.  Royals have their wings clipped now, and, to some extent, political leaders do too.  Be diplomatic.  Imagine a senior politician today making a speech like Gladstone’s “bag and baggage” one.  But Albert was able to speak out about the number one cause of the day.  And he did.

He got involved with so much else, as well – as a “support and patron”, as the programme said, but royal support and patronage does such a lot to boost any cause. And a lot of it was in really unfashionable areas.  Calling him “a champion of the working classes” was probably exaggerating, but his interest in improving public sanitation is well-known, and hardly the sort of thing people would have expected a prince to be getting involved with.  I think it was reasonably fair comment to say that he made some of these causes “mainstream” – although people like Edwin Chadwick (three cheers for the Mancunian!) and James Kay-Shuttleworth (from Rochdale) had been calling for improvements in living conditions for the working classes long before Prince Albert came along.  The programme didn’t mention them.

And the Great Exhibition was probably his greatest triumph. All the nastiness and sneering in the press, trying to knock something down before it’d even got going, saying it was going to be a waste of time and money – some things never change, do they?!    That was where the money for the museums came from.  Yes, it made a huge surplus – funny how that rarely seems to happen with big public projects these days!  Albert’s triumph.  Britain’s triumph.  The programme sadly, though, failed to mention one of the most important things about the Exhibition, that it had the world’s first modern pay toilets, for which you had to spend a penny, hence the expression.  Sorry, that’s really lowering the tone, isn’t it?!  It did mention that cheap tickets were available, so people from all classes were able to attend.  Albert’s triumph.  Britain’s triumph.

How much did Prince Albert influence the world we live in today? It’s very hard to say.  He was a part of something: he didn’t create the Victorian world.  But he certainly played a huge part in it.

And did he work himself into an early grave? We still don’t know how he died, and we probably never will.  Typhoid fever from bad drains, the original version?  Stomach cancer?  Crohn’s Disease, as suggested in this programme?  Coupled with obsessive overwork, weakening his health.  Very sad.

He was 42. His son-in-law, Emperor Frederick III of Germany, died at 56.  He had 14 years longer than Albert but, as his father lived to be 90, he only had 88 days as emperor, and he was too ill by then to do anything.  For all the good work Albert did in Britain, I think what he wanted even more was to see his daughter Vicky, who, as the programme said, was very like him, and her husband, bring about liberal reforms in Germany.  Well, Albert died ten years before German unification, but it was probably something he hoped would come.  That side of things never got a look-in in this programme.  Fair enough – the programme wasn’t meant to be about Germany.  But no-one questions the fact that Frederick was a great admirer of his father-in-law.  Had he (Frederick) lived longer, Germany would probably have developed very differently, and maybe there’d never have been a First World War, and then there’d never have been a Second World War.  Everything could have been so different.  And a lot of that would have been down to Prince Albert.

It wasn’t to be. But Albert certainly achieved a fair amount, and is well worthy of admiration and respect.  I just wish that the makers of this programme hadn’t found it necessary to knock Queen Victoria so much.  Channel 5 really does seem to have it in for her.  Thank goodness that ITV hasn’t!