This Christmas, my husband gave me a copy of the DVD set of the BBC's series, "David Starkey's Music & Monarchy", a beautifully produced overview of musical history in England, considering the influence of the monarchy on mostly ceremonial church music.
Starkey begins with Henry V, who even wrote music for parts of the Mass, and ends the series with the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. During the four episodes, choirs and ensembles perform great music by well known composers like Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, Henry Purcell, George Handel, Thomas Arne, Hubert Parry, Charles Villiers Stanford, Edward Elgar, and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Also, there are works by lesser known composers like Thomas Tomkins, William Lawes, Henry Lawes, Pelham Humphrey, William Croft, and Albert, Prince Consort of Queen Victoria. Eton College, King's College, Cambridge, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul's Cathedral, and Canterbury Cathedral are among the venues, while the Choirs of Eton, King's College, Canterbury Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, and St. Paul's Cathedral perform in situ. Fretwork, Alamire, the Academy of Ancient Music, The Parley of Instruments, The Band of the Life Guards, and several soloists also perform.
The musical selections and the performance are uniformly excellent, and Starkey's narration and his interviews with performers, conductors, and music historians are enlightening. The story of English music and monarchy basically follows, from Henry VIII on, the outline of English Reformation history during the Tudor dynasty, with the repercussions of religious division during the Stuart Dynasty, the Interregnum, Restoration, Glorious Revolution, Protestant succession through the House of Hanover, the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and finally, the House of Windsor succeeding. In the latter part of the history, Starkey considers the impact of the Oxford Movement on English church music, but he really does not consider the impact of secularization on English church music.
There were a couple of very great surprises: that Willliam and Mary dissolved the Chapel Royal and ended Henry Purcell's career as a royal composer of religious music--and that Thomas Arne wrote both "Rule, Britannia" and "God Save the King" in the midst of conflict between George II and his estranged son, Frederick the Prince of Wales (who was the father of King George III). Arne wrote "Rule, Britannia" for Frederick as part of a masque honoring King Alfred the Great and supporting the expansion of the British Navy, and then wrote "God Save the King" to support George II.
To me, the most noticeable gap is how little he considers the crucial restoration of Tudor church music during the reign of Mary I--when Tallis and Byrd and others were able to write polyphony again. That gap also means that Starkey does not consider the influence of great Spanish composers like Victoria, de Monte and Guerrero on English polyphony, or the exile of Catholic composers like Peter Philips, John Bull, and others. Starkey would only have had to consult Harry Christophers and The Sixteen to explore that crucial period through their CD The Flowering of Genius. Instead, Starkey skips over that period, perhaps because it does not fit his rather Whiggish narrative of English history.
That issue aside, the musical performances and the venues make this two-disc set a prized possession. As my husband commented, we could watch the first episode over and over again: