The Composer and the Queen

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Many queens have gone through the history of opera. Some were very real and others very imaginative, but all were crowned on stage with beautiful music of contrasting quality.

Delightful arias shot from the pen of the great masters, including Queen Dido (Dido and Aeneas; Purcell), Queen of the Night (The Magic Flute; Mozart), Lady Macbeth (Macbeth; Verdi), Queen María Isabel of Bourbon (Elisabeth castello di Kenilworth; Donizetti), Queen Anne (Anna Bolena; Donizetti), Queen Maria (Maria Stuarda; Donizetti), and Queen Roxana (Król Roger; Szymanovski), among others.

A special mention goes to Queen Elizabeth I of England, as she has starred in at least three interesting operas: Rossini’s ‘Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra’, Donizetti’s ‘Roberto Devereux’ and Britten’s ‘Gloriana’.

Despite the fact that the Bergamo musician wrote the well-known Tudor tetralogy for the three English queens (Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth, Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux), today he loses some of his fame to the figure of the English composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), who had a special relationship with the recently deceased Queen Elizabeth II of England.

Gloriana is the opera about Elizabeth I that Britten created to the libretto by Willian Plomer and the result of a personal commission from Queen Elizabeth II to celebrate her coronation. On June 8, 1953, there was great anticipation at the Royal Opera House in London, as it was over 200 years since a monarch had attended the opera in England. The plot of the play focused on Queen Elizabeth I’s relationship with the Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux. The work did not please Elizabeth II for the way it described the character of her predecessor from the Tudor dynasty, and music critics of the time were not fond of it either.

Elizabeth I was known as Gloriana because that was the name of the character the poet Edmund Spenser created for her, and she was also called the Virgin Queen because of her non-religious celibacy and the fact that she had no offspring. This was why one of the North American states was named Virginia in her honor.

Gloriana was not very successful and was rarely performed. On the day of the Dallas bombing that killed Kennedy, Britten celebrated his fiftieth birthday with a revival of this opera in the concert version. Ten years later, the composer who had just completed the opera Death in Venice undergoes urgent heart surgery and is complicated by cerebral edema. The resulting sequels had a remarkable impact on his capacity for autonomy, weakening his creative right hand and limiting his movements to the point where he needed the assistance of a wheelchair.

Benjamin’s physical and emotional condition had deteriorated and Queen Elizabeth II decided to stimulate his imagination so that he could continue composing music. To do this, he begins a letter relationship with the master and makes him a private assignment on a work. These letters, which are kept by the Britten-Pears Library in Suffolk, were handwritten by the Queen herself, which was unusual as this was a job for one of her ladies-in-waiting.

Elizabeth II’s request was due to family reasons as she prepared for the Queen Mother’s 75th birthday: “Dear Ben […]my request is not like a queen, but like a daughter […]”Please try,” were his words. As you can imagine, Britten immediately agreed, but refused to compose a symphony because of its length, suggesting songs for voice and harp based on poems by Robert Burns. Undoubtedly, he took into account the fact that the Queen Mother was Scottish and that short songs based on these lyrics might please her.

Elizabeth II and Britten continued to exchange letters to specify all the details and select the most appropriate poems, notably increasing the composer’s enthusiasm in preparing ‘A Birthday Hansel’, a Scottish word meaning a birthday present to the person who it receives good luck.

The monarch’s appreciation for Britons didn’t end here, as months later the Queen’s music teacher position became vacant and Elizabeth II wrote a personal letter in her own hand under the heading ‘Dear Ben’ to find out if she was an official would accept a proposal for that position. Britten had no choice but to graciously decline the offer due to his precarious health, but informed him that the songs were already done.

When the Queen Mother opened the gift containing the manuscript of ‘A Birthday Hansel’, she was pleasantly surprised because he was one of her most esteemed composers, whom she supported financially as patron of her Aldeburgh Festival. One morning she asked Lady Fermoy, her lady-in-waiting (and Lady Diana’s grandmother) to play the harp music on the piano, which moved the Queen Mother so much that she personally wrote Britten a shocking letter of thanks for the honour. wonderful birthday present.”

After Christmas of that year, Britten went with her nurse to Lady Fermoy’s house to hear ‘A Birthday Hansel’ sung by tenor Peter Pears and harpist Osian Ellis. The rest of those in attendance were Queen Elizabeth II, the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret. The evening was endearing and magical for all. Britten was already very ill, aware that it was his last months of life, but the illusion the crown created for his person and his talent finally paid off. His late works, including the cantata Phaedra and the third string quartet, will forever remain among his best works.

Thank you Elizabeth R.

God save the queen.

Source: La Verdad

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