Music and Monarchy: A History of Britain in Four Movements

Tim Blanning enjoys an exploration of the role of music in Britain's history

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Reviewed by: Tim Blanning
Author: David Starkey and Katie Greening
Publisher: BBC Books
Price (RRP): £20

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What music will be played at the next coronation? A safe bet is that it will include Handel’s ‘Zadok the Priest’, played at every coronation since George II’s in 1727. Indeed, that date has a pivotal position in David Starkey and Katie Greening’s stimulating and entertaining romp through half a millennium of music and monarchy, for they tell us that it was then that England “found its musical voice at last and had been given it by a German!”. This was second time lucky, as the first version of an English national music, the gorgeous polyphony tradition that developed during the late Middle Ages, had been snuffed out by the Reformation.

There is never a dull moment, as we are whisked briskly, but never superficially, through the centuries in a historical symphony in four movements: ‘God and King’ (16th century), ‘Revolutions’ (17th century), ‘The Sound of Great Britain’ (18th century) and ‘Revival’ (1800 to the present). Along the way we learn a great deal about both music and British history. As the authors claim: “This is not a book about music. It is a history of England written in music, in which both the history and the music are reappraised to their mutual benefit.”

Written to accompany Starkey’s TV series of the same name, this thoroughly enjoyable book provides further evidence that music is too important to be left to the musicologists. As with the music itself, however, there is something of a tailing off as the 20th century is reached.

Despite their best efforts to talk up Arthur Sullivan (whose 1872 Festival Te Deum is said to “rival the greatest ceremonial music in the royal repertory”) or Hubert Parry (composer of “one of the most impressive pieces of ceremonial music ever written”), one only has to hear a few bars of ‘Zadok the Priest’ to appreciate that Handel was not so much from a different country as from a different planet.

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Tim Blanning is the author of The Triumph of Music (Allen Lane, 2008)