Queen Victoria and the Romantic Movement

Queen Victoria was the longest reigning British monarch of all time. Her influence on the life and culture of the 19th century can hardly be overemphasized. In her long reign (1837-1901) she was friend and sponsor to many composers and musicians and also provided most of the royal houses of Europe with brides and bridegrooms from her family of nine children. She is, in fact, considered the “Grandmother of Europe”. As is the British custom, she has given her name to a period of history from which it is possible to draw an enormous and varied repertoire of grand choral music. The Romantic period in Europe – Victoria’s reign – was a time of dramatic forms, lush harmonies, experimentation and revivalism. In fact, some of our pieces for this concert tonight aren’t British at all, as Victoria’s influence was so wide-ranging in Europe.

We open tonight’s concert with our processional piece, a folk song, “I Wonder as I Wander”, arranged by the American composer John Jacob Niles. Niles began writing down folk music as a teenager, and became a student of Appalachian folk music by transcribing traditional songs from oral sources. He pursued his musical studies in France and at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. He sang in opera and on early radio, and toured in concert throughout Europe and the United States. Like the Englishman Ralph Vaughan Williams, who features later in our program, he collected and preserved a significant portion of the folk song heritage of his country, which might have otherwise been lost.

You may be wondering why we would sing a piece by Felix Mendelssohn on a Victorian, and therefore rather British, concert, and also why we are singing it in English, when it has always been our practice to sing our repertoire in its original languages. The piece in question is a movement from Mendelssohn’s unfinished oratorio, Christus, “When Jesus our Lord”. Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, was, of course, German himself. It is to him we owe the introduction into Britain of the happy custom of the decorated Christmas tree, which has now spread over much of the world. Mendelssohn was a close personal friend of the royal couple, especially Albert, and spent quite a lot of time in England. His pieces were performed there in his lifetime, with English translations (we hope vetted by himself) which have become over the years almost as “authentic” (at least in English speaking countries) as the original German.

Mendelssohn's reputation has always remained high in England. Queen Victoria demonstrated her enthusiasm for his music by requesting, when the Crystal Palace was being re-built in 1854, that it include a statue of Mendelssohn. His “Wedding March” from A Midsummer Night's Dream was played at the wedding of Queen Victoria's daughter to Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia in 1858 and it is still performed today at marriage ceremonies. His sacred choral music remains enduringly popular in the choral tradition of the Church of England.

In Europe before the 19th century, music was considered solely a contemporary art and the works of composers of the past were considered to be just that - in the past, and were not often performed. Mendelssohn was at the centre of a revival of interest in the music of previous centuries, specifically of J. S. Bach and his family, in Victorian England, and so we present tonight two Christmas chorales by Johann Sebastian Bach, “O Jesulein süß”, and “Ach, mein herzliebes Jesulein”. In Victorian England there was also a renewed interest in the culture of the Middle Ages. We supply tonight from the very cusp of the period, the Elizabethan (Tudor) work, “O Lord, in thee is all my trust” by Thomas Tallis.

The late-Romantic composer, and friend of Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, was, like many British composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, very interested in the music of the Medieval period. We perform tonight his interpretation of the spirit of that age, “Lullay, my liking”, on a 15th century text.

Other 19th-century “foreign” (not British, but Victorian in character) pieces on tonight’s program are the American, “There’s a Song in the Air” (the present conductor’s favourite), and “Joy to the World!”. And we make a quick visit to Italy with the song, “Dormi, dormi bel bambin”. We also have the stirring “Gloria” from the Mass in D Major by Antonin Dvorak which is set in the bright key of D and is lavish with bold vocal imitations of trumpet calls.

Victoria’s offspring also married into the Russian royal family (photographs of Victoria’s son “Bertie”, the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, are almost indistinguishable from those of his nephew, Czar Nicholas II. Bertie was related to nearly all the crowned heads of Europe and indeed was called the Uncle of Europe). We celebrate this relationship with the wonderful piece “Bogoróđitse Devo” from late-Romantic composer Sergei Rachmaninov’s All Night Vespers.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the death of the great British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. He, like Victoria, was long-lived and not only can he be considered a late-Romantic composer, but he also developed a strong post-Romantic idiom in his later symphonies. Vaughan Williams was also a prolific composer of chamber music, opera and choral music, and an avid collector of folk songs. The pieces with which we are celebrating his life tonight, products of his deep understanding of folk music, are three of his lovely and unusual songs for choir on Christmas themes.