03 December 2019
A ‘fittingly impressive work’: Prince Albert the composer
‘A holy blessed day, which we hail with gratitude & joy.’
Thus began Queen Victoria’s journal entry on Christmas Day, 1843. A few sentences later she continued, ‘Albert was occupied that whole evening in composing a Te Deum which is a very difficult thing & it gave him great trouble.’
Prince Albert (1819-61) is most frequently memorialised for his contribution to various aspects of British life in the mid-19th century, and, perhaps more so, for his early death in 1861 at the age of 42. This year, the joint 200th Anniversary of his and Queen Victoria’s birth, has revived interest in both him, and the lives and works of the royal couple. Amidst a diverse programme of activities celebrating the anniversary, Prince Albert has been the focus of a substantial collaborative digitisation project to make a large body of materials related to him available to the public.
Having received a broad education in his youth, Prince Albert sustained many interests, amongst which was a devotion to music, whether as a listener, an organiser, a singer, or an instrumentalist. He achieved some distinction in each of these categories, with even Mendelssohn commending his skill at the organ. It is, however, to Prince Albert the composer that this post is dedicated.
In the early years of their marriage, Queen Victoria wrote not infrequently that Albert was ‘occupied in composing’ some new piece. However, by the end of 1845, Prince Albert was writing music ever less regularly. A leaf from a sketch for one of his last pieces, the Invocazione all’Armonia, reveals the extent to which his work began to intrude into his time composing, with rubbed out notes about another matter appearing in the margins of the page. As Theodore Martin, author of Prince Albert’s somewhat hagiographic official biography, The Life of His Royal Highness the Prince Consort, noted:
‘The Prince’s life, after he came to England, was too crowded to admit of his indulging freely his love of musical composition. The Muses are exacting mistresses, and will not send their best inspiration to a merely casual worshipper. But he produced enough to entitle him to a very high rank among amateur composers.’
This assessment is in many respects a fair one: in his short and rather busy life, Prince Albert found time to write a not insubstantial number of songs, as well as a handful of instrumental and choral works. The most complete published collection of his music (The Collected Compositions of His Royal Highness The Prince Consort) contains forty pieces, written before the commitments of his public life occluded further work in this area.
The genesis and material cultures of Prince Albert’s composition can, to some extent, be explored in the Royal Music Library at the British Library, though some relevant items remain in the Royal Collection. These collections reveal much, though far from all, about the journey from sketch to completion that the Prince’s pieces followed, and are well-supported by evidence from sources, including Queen Victoria’s journals, that include reference to performances of the works, and their reception.
From its beginnings on Christmas Day, 1843, the Te Deum underwent several developmental stages, though their ordering is not entirely clear. It appears in skeletal form twice: once sketched out in pencil, occasionally underlaid, work clearly ongoing; and again, with underlay inked out in a hand quite different to Prince Albert’s own, the melody sketched-in, in pencil; both are noted with occasional indications of harmony. Another, rather more complete, draft exists in the Royal Collection, as does a manuscript fair copy in a beautifully bound collection of his compositions; later versions include an appearance of the Te Deum as part of a compilation of Prince Albert’s church music in reduction for piano. Whether the two melodic sketches encapsulate the earliest work on the piece is uncertain, though it seems likely.
Whatever the case, the piece was written quite quickly, and, on the 27th of December, Queen Victoria wrote that ‘Albert sang over his beautiful Te Deum, which is quite finished now.’ It was clearly sent to be written out in fair copy almost immediately, for on the 30th of December, Queen Victoria wrote that, ‘Just as [Michael] Costa had left the room, Albert’s Te Deum, properly written out, arrived & we called him back, & sang it with him.’ Queen Victoria was herself an accomplished singer, and a few days later the couple sang the piece again with Costa (a prominent conductor, who also arranged Prince Albert’s Invocazione for orchestral forces) and another friend. Two weeks later, the Te Deum was sung in full for the first time by the choir at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, and George Elvey had worked up the elements of a morning service from the material; Queen Victoria noted that the solo parts were ‘unsatisfactorily sung’.
The piece was performed at regular intervals thereafter, becoming a feature of important services attended by the Queen. It was sometimes given orchestral treatment, and a version for chorus and orchestra appears in the Royal Music Library, orchestrated by Ernst Lampert, the Kapellmeister of Prince Albert’s brother Ernst’s court at Coburg.
Amongst the most prominent performances of the Te Deum, for Queen Victoria at least, must have been the one given at the thanksgiving service for her Jubilee, on the 21st of June, 1887, in a version revised for chorus, organ, brass, and drums by the then organist of Westminster Abbey, John Bridge. The following day, it was described in The Times as a ‘fittingly impressive work’. Queen Victoria herself, writing at the end of a ‘never to be forgotten day,’ was more effusive.
‘The Te Deum by my darling Albert sounded beautiful’.
Dr Andrew Cusworth
The Prince Albert Digitisation Project
Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford; Royal Collection Trust; Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851.
References and links
Theodore Martin, The Life of His Royal Highness the Prince Consort, Vol. I.