Music blog

2 posts from December 2019

19 December 2019

Celebrating the music of Prince Albert

Earlier this month we published a blog on Prince Albert the composer to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth. To celebrate his bicentenary further we have digitised a number of his music manuscripts in the Royal Music Library. The following manuscripts can now be viewed online: R.M.18.a.5; R.M.18.a.10; R.M.21.e.24; and R.M.21.e.26.

R.M.18.a.5 and R.M.18.a.10 are sources for Prince Albert’s cantata Invocazione all’armonia; R.M.21.e.24 a source for his Te Deum; and R.M.21.e.26 a source containing miscellaneous vocal compositions.

A music notebook

From the above manuscripts R.M.21.e.26 is of particular interest: the manuscript contains sketches, drafts and finished works primarily of Prince Albert’s songs written in his own hand. The volume also contains some sketches for his anthem ‘Out of the deep’, his Te Deum and his Invocazione all’armonia.

Apart from being a volume with autograph compositions, the manuscript is also interesting for revealing the private side of Prince Albert the composer: we can see how some of his musical ideas originated and how he worked on these developing them into finished works. In this respect, the volume resembles a music notebook.

The papers Prince Albert used to write the music in this volume are of different types, as evident from the slight variations in paper sizes, the colour of the paper, and the different number of staves per page; some leaves also show marks of having being folded. This suggests that the leaves were bound in a single volume at a later stage.

Autograph manuscript with music by Prince Albert
Opening page from Prince Albert’s song ‘Ein Blümchen zart’ showing some corrections. Shelfmark: R.M.21.e.26, f.10r. Autograph.
The Royal Library © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019
A page from Prince Albert’s song ‘Erlschen ist das Barden Gluth’ showing corrections and additions. Shelfmark: R.M.21.e.26, f.54v. Autograph.
The Royal Library © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Prince Albert’s music handwriting

The manuscript R.M.21.e.26 is also an interesting source for the study of Prince Albert’s music handwriting. The appearance of his handwriting is not consistent in the volume, reflecting the different compositional stages of individual pieces as well as the different times and circumstances the music was being written.

Some works are neatly copied in ink and are in finished form, whereas others are copied in a hasty manner and often lack the accompaniment or have it only partially filled in; other leaves contain mere sketches in pencil. The differences in handwriting appearance can be seen in his notation of certain elements, such as clefs, especially the G clef as can be seen in the following snippets:


Fragment from a manuscript by Prince Albert showing his notation of treble clefs

Fragments from R.M.21.e.26, f.1r, f.10r, f.54v, f.13r and f.8r respectively showing Prince Albert’s notation of treble clefs

Music collecting

Apart from music by Prince Albert the Royal Music Library includes numerous printed and manuscript volumes with music either collected by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria or presented to them. Although it is difficult to establish the exact volumes that originally formed part of the royal couple’s music collection, the bindings of certain volumes, dedications, inscriptions, or letters kept inside volumes can serve as proof that these formed part of their music collection, as the examples shown below:

Front cover of a manuscript volume belonging to Queen Victoria
Front cover of a manuscript volume belonging to Queen Victoria. Shelfmark: R.M.18.a.18
Front cover of a manuscript volume belonging to Prince Albert
Front cover of a manuscript volume belonging to Prince Albert. Shelfmark: R.M.18.a.8.

One important volume that formed part of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria’s music collection is a volume that was presented to them by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy during one of his visits to London where he had also met the royal couple.

The volume includes arrangements from his Sieben Lieder ohne Worte op.62 and op.67 for piano four-hands in Mendelssohn’s autograph which he composed for the royal couple. The volume also contains a letter to Prince Albert from the composer, dated 9 June 1844, where he writes ‘[...] May Your Royal Highness occasionally play from these pieces and consider them as an earnest of sincerest gratitude for the gracious reception and the unforgettable hours in which you have allowed me to participate once again during my present visit in the past weeks.’ .[1]

Title page of Felix Mendelssohn's arrangements of his Sieben Lieder ohne Worte
Autograph title page of Felix Mendelssohn's arrangements from his Sieben Lieder ohne Worte op.62 and op.67. Shelfmark: R.M.21.f.24, f.1r

The Royal Music Library contains many more valuable sources for the study of Prince Albert’s music, as well as his and Queen Victoria’s musical tastes and collecting practices. It is hoped that the bicentenary anniversary of their births will spark further interest and research into their music collection and activities.

[1]. Quoted in O.W. Neighbour, ‘An unknown Mendelssohn autograph’, The British Library Journal, 4 (1978), pages 200-201.

Loukia Drosopoulou, Curator, Music

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.

Prince Albert's portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter
Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Replica by Franz Xaver Winterhalter 1867, based on a work of 1859. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

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.

Erased notes in the margins of Prince Albert’s sketch for Invocazione all’Armonia
Erased notes in the margins of Prince Albert’s sketch for 'Invocazione all’Armonia'. British Library R.M.21.e.26, f.46v. The Royal Library © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019.

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.

Manuscript showing the last page of the melodic sketch of Prince Albert's Te Deum
The last page of the melodic sketch of the ‘Te Deum’ which includes some indications as to the desired harmony. British Library R.M.21.e.26, f. 30r. The Royal Library © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019.

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.

Manuscript showing the first page of Prince Albert's ‘Te Deum’ transcribed for orchestra by Ernst Lampert
The first page of the ‘Te Deum’ transcribed for orchestra by Ernst Lampert, January 1845. British Library R.M.21.e.24, f.2r.

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

Research Fellow

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.