Masters of the Monarchs' Musick - Part I: 1626 to 1834 Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Masters of the Monarchs' Musick - Part I: 1626 to 1834

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Part I: 1626 to 1834 | Part 2: 1834 to 1934 | Part 3: 1934 to the Present Day
(L to R) John Stanley, Nicholas Lanier and William Boyce
WANTED: musician, composer preferred
Contract: up to 10 years
Duties: as much or as little as you feel like doing
Stipend: £15,000+ pa

Apply in writing to: HM The Queen, Buckingham Palace, London.

Fancy the job? Well it's not actually on offer, but if it were perhaps you should first see what's involved and peruse the CVs of previous appointees.

The Musick

Today, England is the only country to maintain an official court composer, known as 'The Master of the King's (or Queen's) Musick' – the archaic spelling was retained until well into the 20th Century. The post was created in 1626, during the reign of Charles I.

The practice of heads of European kingdoms, princely states and other noble realms keeping a band of musicians at court to entertain during dinners and banquets, to travel with him, and to generally provide music whenever the ruler demanded, goes back as far as polyphonic music itself. In England, the custom of the monarch employing a private band of musicians as part of the royal household started in the 15th Century, in the reign of Edward IV, who had 13 minstrels, 'whereof some be trumpets, some with shalmes and small pypes'. The number of musicians gradually increased and was known as 'the Musick'. Henry VIII's band in 1526 consisted of '15 trumpets, three lutes, three rebecks1, three tamborets, a harp, two viols, nine sackbuts2, a fife and four drumslades'3. During the reign of Charles II, the private band developed into 24 string players, in emulation of the French Bourbon court's famed Vingt-Quatre Violons du Roi.

The duties of the Master4 in the early days were wide-ranging: obtaining parts and copying them for performance, rehearsing and conducting, as well as being responsible for the behaviour of the musicians, both inside and outside the concert-room.

The significance of the role has slowly declined. By the early 20th Century, the band no longer performed at concerts, although they still sometimes played at court functions. Since George V, the position of Master has been an honorary one, the appointment being made by the ruling monarch in consultation with advisers, and is equivalent to that of the Poet Laureate. The duties are nominal, although the Master may compose pieces for special royal or state occasions if he feels inclined to do so.

Since 1893 the post has been held by a composer, and until 2003, the appointment was for life; only three Masters have relinquished their post prior to their demise. The tenure of the present incumbent (and presumably that of his successors) is for a period of ten years.

Sadly few if any of the Masters listed in this Entry will be familiar names to the modern reader.

Nicholas Lanier

1st Master 1626-66
Monarchs: Charles I, Charles II

Evidence exists that James I employed a specific court composer, but the post was not officially recognised until 13 June, 1626, when Charles I made provision for the position as part of the royal household. He awarded the title to the composer who had faithfully served his predecessor, and on 11 July, 1626, Nicholas Lanier became the first Master of the King's Musick. He had joined the Musick ten years earlier in 1616 as a lutenist and a singer, the same year his father, a sackbut player in the Musick, had died. At this time, the composer John Dowland was also a member. Lanier wrote the music to accompany four court masques by the English Renaissance poet and playwright Ben Jonson.

As well as being a musician, Lanier was also a painter and art dealer. As soon as Charles I ascended the throne, Lanier was sent to Italy to purchase pictures to enlarge the Royal Collection. When the English Civil War broke out in 1642, he went first to Oxford with the court, but by 1645 had left England for France and the Netherlands, where he stayed until 1660, returning occasionally with paintings, presumably purchased abroad for English clients. The absence of a monarch following Charles' execution in 1649 rather made the post of Master of the King's Musick redundant, but Lanier was reinstated to it by Charles II after the Restoration in 1660. By this time, however, he was past his prime musically and died in early 1666.

Louis Grabu

2nd Master 1666-74
Monarch: Charles II

Louis Grabu probably originated from Catalonia, but came to England in 1665 and was appointed as Charles' personal composer. A violinist, he had trained in France, and arrived at a time when French music was very much the preferred style of the day. On 25 March, 1666, he was appointed Master of the King's Musick at a salary of £200.

Samuel Pepys for one was not impressed by him:

... to Whitehall and there in the Boarded Gallery did hear the music with which the King is presented this night by Monsieur Grebus [Louis Grabu], the master of his music – both instrumental (I think 24 violins) and vocall, an English song upon peace; but God forgive me, I was never so little pleased with a consort of music in my life – the manner of setting of words and repeating them out of order, and that with a number of voices, makes me sick, the whole design of vocall music being lost by it.
– Diary of Samuel Pepys: 1 October, 1667

For reasons not recorded5, Grabu was replaced as Master in September 1674. Afterwards, he successfully petitioned the King for arrears in his salary and then left England for France.

Nicholas Staggins

3rd Master 1674-1700
Monarchs: Charles II, James II, William and Mary, William III

The son of a court violin and shawm player, Nicholas Staggins was appointed (jointly) Master of His Majesty's violins in August 1674, and took over as Master of the King's Musick a month later following the departure of Louis Grabu. His first task was the court masque Calisto: Or, The Chaste Nymph by the young playwright John Crowne, for which Staggins wrote the songs and led the violins. Given on 22 February, 1675, this was an elaborate and extravagant production, featuring a number of young ladies and gentlemen of the court, chief among them the princesses Mary and Anne, both future Queens of England, as well as singers, dancers and the musicians6.

Staggins received a Doctorate of Music from Cambridge University in 1682, and became the first Professor of Music there in July 1684. He died, a bachelor, at Windsor Castle in June 1700.

John Eccles

4th Master 1700-35
Monarchs: William III, Anne, George I

Born in London, John Eccles first established himself in the early 1690s in Drury Lane, composing songs and music for plays, before being appointed to the Musick in June 1694. He succeeded Nicholas Staggins as Master on 30 June, 1700, at a salary of £300, continuing his career in the theatre, now in the Haymarket, as musical director of the Lincoln's Inn Fields company. With the decline of the Restoration theatre, Eccles retired from the theatre in 1710, whereafter his passion was for fishing. He felt that he had suffered from continually being compared with Henry Purcell, and gave up composing for the stage, although he continued to compose for the court until his death on 12 January, 1735.

Maurice Greene

5th Master 1735-55
Monarch: George II

First a chorister and subsequently the organist at St Paul's Cathedral, Maurice Greene was appointed organist and composer of the Chapel Royal in August 1727, probably without the knowledge of George II, who was a supporter of George Frideric Handel. This infuriated Handel, who had naturally anticipated his own appointment to the post. Relations between Handel and Greene were already strained over another matter, and as far as Handel was concerned, this was the end. The new monarch's wishes were complied with, as Greene did not officiate at the coronation of George II; the task of composing the Anthem at the coronation in Westminster Abbey was given to Handel.

In July 1730, like Nicholas Staggins before him, Greene received a Doctorate in Music from Cambridge University and was elected to the vacant professorship in music. The title was purely honorary and Greene never taught nor examined at the university.

In January 1735, he succeeded John Eccles as Master. During his lifetime he composed a great deal of church music and also, on the secular side, much keyboard music. A collection of English cathedral music, left unfinished at his death on 1 December, 1755, was completed by his former pupil and successor as Master, William Boyce.

William Boyce

6th Master 1757-72
Monarchs: George II, George III

Having first been a chorister at St Paul's Cathedral, from 1727-34 William Boyce was a pupil of the cathedral's organist Maurice Greene, and in 1736 was appointed as a composer to the Chapel Royal – once again under the senior composer Greene.

In 1737 he conducted the Worcester festival and became associated with the Three Choirs festival – as would a later Master, Edward Elgar – prior to his own appointment as Master of the King's Musick. He received his doctorate of music from the University of Cambridge in 1749.

Greene died in 1755 and Boyce succeeded him as Master, although he was not officially sworn in until June 1757. After Handel's death, Boyce composed the music for state occasions, including the funeral of George II in November 1760, and the coronation of George III on 22 September 1761. It was Boyce who established the tradition, continued to the present day, of performing Handel's anthem Zadok the Priest at all subsequent coronations.

From the mid-1760s Boyce suffered from increasing deafness, which had first manifested itself in his youth, and he was forced to retire as Master in 1772. He died 7 February, 1779.

During his lifetime, Boyce amassed a great collection of music manuscripts, including Maurice Greene's anthology, which are now housed in various national libraries including the Bodleian Library, the British Library, the Royal College of Music, the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge and University College, Aberystwyth.

His best-known compositions, a set of eight symphonies published in 1760, are actually a set of overtures in the Italian style, derived from earlier compositions.

John Stanley

7th Master 1772-86
Monarch: George III

Blind from the age of two, John Stanley, a one-time student of Maurice Greene, exhibited a prodigious talent at an early age for playing the organ. In 1729, aged 17, he became the youngest person to graduate BMus at Oxford University. For more than 50 years he held the post of organist at the Society of the Inner Temple. His prowess was such that:

... it was common, just as the service at St Andrew's church, or the Temple, was ended, to see forty or fifty organists at the altar, waiting to hear his last voluntary: even Mr Handel himself I have many times seen at each of those places.
– Universal Magazine, July 1786

As well as the organ, John Stanley played the violin and performed regularly at concerts on both instruments. He benefited from a prodigious memory, only needing to heard a new piece played to him once to fully memorise it. He also published a great many compositions – cantatas, organ voluntaries and concerti grossi – as well as music for stage plays.

When Handel went blind and could no longer accompany his oratorio performances, Stanley was recommended to him as a substitute, but Handel objected, on the grounds, he said, to the blind leading the blind. After Handel's death in 1759, Stanley was determined to maintain the performance of oratorios – in particular those by Handel – at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, and did so until his retirement in 1785. For the first series in 1761, he composed an oratorio Zimri. In March 2012, Zimri received probably its first public performance in 250 years, since Stanley's.

John Stanley died at his house in Hatton Garden, London on 19 May, 1786.

Sir William Parsons

8th Master 1786-1817
Monarch: George III

Trained as a chorister at Westminster Abbey, as a young man Parsons went to Italy to further develop his musical skills, returning to England as a voice and harpsichord teacher. In 1783 he became a member of the Royal Society of Musicians7, and in 1784 was assistant director for Handel's birth centenary8 celebrations in London – four concerts at Westminster Abbey and one at the Pantheon9. In 1786, he succeeded John Stanley, with a salary of £200 per annum as Master and £100 per annum as Conductor of the Musick. In 1795 he was the first professional musician in Great Britain to be knighted. For many years he was also a magistrate. William Parsons died of apoplexy at his home in London on 19 July, 1817.

William Shield

9th Master 1817-29
Monarchs: George III, George IV

Originally from County Durham in the north-east of England, William Shield studied the violin. On completion of his apprenticeship he moved to Scarborough, where he met the Italian violinist and composer Felice de Giardini who offered him a post as a violinist in the orchestra of the Italian Opera at the King's Theatre in London's Haymarket. He soon became their principal viola. The 18 years experience in this theatre stood him in good stead to compose 36 operas for the opera house in Covent Garden. The overture to one of these –  Rosina, composed in 1782 – included a tune written to resemble bagpipes. This tune became much better known as the music to Auld Lang Syne, although it is likely that Shield incorporated the tune into his overture rather than wrote it.

William Shield became a member of the Royal Society of Musicians in 1779 and succeeded Sir William Parsons as Master of the King's Musick in 1817. He died at his home in London on 25 January, 1829; he is buried in the south cloister of Westminster Abbey.

Christian Kramer

10th Master 1829-34
Monarchs: George IV, William IV

During his time as Prince Regent, the future King George IV had a private band of some 40 wind and percussion instruments which gave concerts and provided music for entertainment at parties held at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton. The Music Room, one of the great state rooms there, was created for the band; Christian Kramer was leader of that band which, on the Prince's accession to the throne, became known as the King's Household Band.

As leader, Kramer endeavoured to seek improvements to the musicians' terms and conditions, which, given that dinners started at 6pm, and that the dancing and entertainment could continue until 3am the next morning, were probably sorely needed. It is also recorded10 that Kramer ran a china emporium supplying chamber pots and water bottles to the Royal Pavilion.

About 1817, Kramer is said to have devised improvements to the serpent, a now-obsolete bass member of the family of woodwind instruments, which made every note 'equal in strength and roundness of tone'. The serpent player in the band, a man named André, was probably the finest serpent-player of all time.

At one of the many concerts at the Royal Pavilion – that of 29 December, 1823, – the composer Gioachino Rossini attended by special command of His Majesty and was introduced personally to Kramer and others by the King. The overture to Rossini's opera The Thieving Magpie was played that evening in honour of the composer.

Hanover-born Kramer was one of the representatives of London musical society in the funeral procession escorting the body of the composer Carl Maria von Weber to the Catholic Chapel, Moorfields, on 21 June, 1826. The composer had died suddenly at the house of the conductor Sir George Smart on 5 June. Kramer and George Anderson (a future Master) were chief mourners at the funeral of the German composer and violinist Christophe Kiesewetter on 10 October, 1827.

Kramer succeeded William Shield as Master of the King's Musick in 1829, and was himself succeeded by François Cramer (no relation) in 1834.

He would undoubtedly have composed pieces for the King's entertainment and for special occasions as required. One of these, The Duke of Wellington's March, was later played at Windsor Castle for the pleasure of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert after dinner on 9 April, 1849.

In the next part, we shall look at the holders of this unique office in the century from 1834 to 1934, including illustrious names such as Sir Edward Elgar.

1A stringed instrument resembling the violin but having a lute-shaped body.2An obsolete brass instrument resembling a trombone.3Available at: [Accessed: 29 September, 2012].4To date all the Masters have been men.5Probably because only Communicants of the Protestant Church could hold public office.6Andrew R Walkling, in Early Music, Vol.24, No.1, February 1996.7Founded in 1738 as a 'Fund for the Support of Decayed Musicians or their Families', members paid a subscription into the fund as protection against a future inability to earn their living resulting from infirmity, accident or old age. Many, if not most, London's players and teachers were members of the Society, which continues its good work to the present day.8The eagle-eyed reader will have noted that Handel was actually born in 1685. The centenary celebrations took place a year early in 1784 since this was the 25th anniversary of Handel's death, and at the time it was believed that the composer had been born in 1684.9A venue for masquerades and concerts that stood on the south side of Oxford Street. Opened in 1772, it burned down in 1792. Although rebuilt, it never again functioned as a concert venue and after a number of uses, including an opera house and a theatre, was finally demolished in 1937. The site is currently occupied by Messrs Marks and Spencer.10Jessica Rutherford, A Prince's Passion: The Life of the Royal Pavilion, 2003.

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