Saturday, 20 May 2017


Royal Standard of Canada (flag)
As Canadians look to the long weekend to celebrate the ‘birth’ of the nation’s former Head of State, celebrated annually in the country on the last Monday preceding the 25th (the ‘actual’ date of birth of the 19th century British monarch Queen Victoria), I - a Canadian-born citizen - am reminded of our much beloved former ruler’s penchant for beautiful music, and her role as patroness to the celebrated French-Canadian operatic soprano, Emma Albani.

Of course, Victoria’s association with the musical arts goes far beyond the mere stewardship of this national idol. The Queen famously patronized an up-and-coming Edward Elgar, who would go onto serve as Master of the King’s Musik under Victoria’s grandson, King George V, and helped a struggling Johann Strauss (the elder) resurface from the depths of a dismal abyss that threatened to erase the composer from the pages of London's historical almanac before his career in the English capital could even get started. 

The musically literate monarch famously wed German Prince Albert of Saxe-Gotha – a royal consort who openly admitted he’d rather have spent a life solely in the pursuit of music than as a slave to the monarchy. Together, they would host private soirées with the composer Felix Mendelssohn, of whom Victoria in particular found herself enamored (a feeling that was more than mutual). Together, the threesome would engage in song - perhaps now singing a lied penned by Albert, and then, on another occasion, improvising on the piano - each taking turns performing on the instrument (a favorite piece being an arrangement of Felix Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte, or, Songs Without Words, Op. 85, No. 6), [1] which both husband and wife could play together whilst the composer of the work looked on in amusement.

Victoria’s contributions to realm and stage weren’t solely relegated to Great Britain. She also extended much generosity and gratitude to Canada and the Commonwealth:

Canada both revered and honored their Queen – many times over: her name would become permanently fixed on provincial city titles and on both major and minor roadways and streets; and her wishes to permanently designate and name the nation’s Capital as "Ottawa" was granted without discourse. Her very namesake would become affectionised: following the country’s Confederation in July of 1867,  during which the monarch still occupied the throne, our “Queen Victoria” became known colloquially as the “Mother of Confederation.”

Emma Albani
There is one Canadian in particular who owed much of her success and livelihood to the Queen. She was Marie-Louise-Emma-Cécile Lajeunesse of Chambly (in present day Quebec) – later Dame Emma Albani following a name change (to sound more English) and an entrance into knighthood under King George V (grandson to Victoria and Albert) in 1925.

An undisputed favorite of the Queen, Albani would make herself available for her royal patron's beck and call – and, it seems, Victoria ‘called’ often: after a brief, yet successful run in Messina (Sicily), Emma would turn her sights to London. 

Following her debut as Amina in Vincenzo Bellini’s La Sonnambula in 1872 and a brief stint in St. Petersburg, the blossoming chanteuse came to the attention of Queen Victoria, who had undoubtedly heard of the singer’s recent success in Russia (it is said the Tsar Alexander II was present in the audience during one of her performances) and wished to hear for herself this crown jewel of French Canada. The Queen would invite Albani to her royal lodgings at Windsor castle to perform before her in a private setting. To visit the monarch meant that Emma would have to forgo the upcoming season at Covent Garden where she was currently riding the wave of newfound success in the English capital. She decided the trade-off was worth it: throwing caution to the wind, she traveled west to Windsor to serenade the Queen. On the musical menu were arias, both sacred and secular (and folk) song, and local popular music: "Caro nome" from Verdi’s Rigoletto, the folk ballad "Robin Adair," Bach/Gounod’s arrangement of "Ave Maria," and the popular song "Home! Sweet Home!"

Victoria was sufficiently pleased by the starlet – enough to invite her back to Windsor Castle to perform a repertoire especially chosen by the monarch herself: works by Johannes Brahms, Edvard Grieg, George Frederic Handel and Felix Mendelssohn – to be peppered with traditional French and Scottish compositions – in essence, whatever best suited her royal fancy.

Final portrait of Queen Victoria
Albani's appearances at the Windsor court would help solidify her status as Canada’s first international vocal performer, and secure her place at the very top of the hierarchical pyramid which represented the elite soprani of 19th and 20th century Western Classical music.

Victoria’s favoritism of the Canadian vocalist would prove most unyielding: together the two would greet their golden years, with a fifty-something Albani privately serenading an octogenarian Victoria – again at Windsor - always at Windsor – in 1898 with Wagner (as Elsa from Lohengrin). This performance in particular, would in fact reveal the true depths of the ladies’ mutual adulation: it would be one of the last – if not the last – vocal performances received by the Queen whilst she was still living, and the appearance at the side of her most loyal employer would cement Albani’s place card at the monarch’s royal funeral 3 years later in 1901, when the celebrated singer performed solo – an endearing tribute to the patron and friend of both Canada and chanteuse.

Listen below to an early wax cylinder recording (c. 1903) of Emma Albani (56) performing Handel’s famous aria Ombra Mai Fu from the composers’ 1738 opera Xerxes. It is a distinct possibility the whimsical aria was one of the works by Handel performed by the singer before the Queen during her first arrival at Windsor Castle in 1874:

Did You Know?

Queen Victoria laying the foundation stone at Royal Albert Hall in London
On this 20th day of May in the year of our Confederation, Canada’s Queen Victoria was busy on her own home turf at Kensington in London, laying down the foundation stone on a site that would grow to become that most prestigious of concert halls, the Royal Albert Hall.

Victoria, who had ceremoniously arrived to much fanfare (before a crowd of some 7,000 monarchists who had gathered under a massive marquee especially erected for her arrival), is said to have employed a golden trowel to lay the stone. As a thoughtful gesture to future generations, Her Royal Highness slipped underneath the stone a ‘time capsule’ made of glass, in which she had inserted a private inscription, and, for good measure, a quantity of both gold and silver coins.

The ceremony itself was a much fêted event for both monarch and civilian: just prior to laying the stone, Queen Victoria had been greeted not only by a very vocal and adoring crowd, but also a 21-gun salute at Hyde Park (which, along with the trumpet fanfare - performed by
HM guards - that immediately followed, echoed through the crowd). A performance of her husband’s (Prince Albert) composition “Invocation to Harmony,” led by the esteemed conductor and Italian émigré Michael Costa and a Benediction delivered by the Archbishop of Canterbury were also performed for the monarch at the ceremony.

Addressing the crowd, the much admired Queen of Great Britain and the Commonwealth proclaimed the site
“Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences:”

“It is my wish that this Hall should bear his name to whom it will have owed its existence and be called The Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences”
-Queen Victoria, South Kensington, London, May 20, 1867

Learn more about the laying of the stone and Victoria (and find out where in the venue you can take a peek at the stone itself) at

[1]The solo version of Lieder Ohne Worte, Op. 85, no. VI comes from the collection's 7th book. The manuscript for the "duet" version, arranged for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, titled "Lied ohne Worte für das Piano vierhändig" (Song Without Words as a Piano Duet), is currently in the collection of the Royal Trust under Queen Elizabeth II. View it here.
Further reading:
To learn more about Queen Victoria, her relationships with 19th century composers, Canada, and the Victoria Day holiday, visit "PATRON PROFILE: QUEEN VICTORIA - ROYAL PATRON, FAN & MUSICIAN" here on Unraveling Musical Myths.

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