23 March 2018
RCM student Alec Coles-Aldridge explores the long history of music and politics
Music and politics have a long history of being closely entwined. George Frideric Handel’s famous Zadok the Priest was composed as a means to confirm the legitimacy of George II’s ascent to the throne in 1727. The music triumphantly and mercilessly exclaims the authority of the monarchy over its subjects, declaring “God save the King! Long live the King!"
Moving to a more sinister territory, the Nazis famously purged music that was composed by 'inferior' humans such as Felix Mendelsohn whilst celebrating the Germanic triumphs of Ludwig van Beethoven and Richard Wagner. And the deep connection between music and politics is ongoing.
In 2016 Valery Gergiev conducted the Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra at Palmyra in Syria, the resulting concert being broadcast on Russian state television with the addition of footage showing the Russian military assisting Syrian government forces. It is clear that music is frequently politicised, but is the opposite true? Are politicians frequently musicians? More specifically, do (or can) politicians play the piano?
The short answer is yes, some politicians are musicians and a few play the piano. The most obvious modern British politician is Edward Heath, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1970 to 1974. Heath always maintained an interest in classical music, notably installing a Steinway grand piano in 10 Downing Street.
Across the channel, the French President Emmanuel Macron stands as another example having studied piano at the Amiens conservatoire. Further east, Vladimir Putin is not shy in demonstrating his piano abilities and is one of the minority of politicians who has let his skills be filmed.
Of course, no complete list of piano playing politicians could be complete without the 37th President of the United States of America, Richard Nixon. Nixon’s ability at the piano is perhaps the best documented with plenty of YouTube videos of him playing. Nixon was not only a performer but also a composer having written his Piano Concerto No.1.
Staying in America, a mention should be given to Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State under George Bush, who has performed with a string quartet from the London Symphony Orchestra and has accompanied Yo-Yo ma.
Whether these politician’s piano skills allowed them to complete their terms in office with greater accomplishment is a much harder question to answer. Condoleezza Rice admits in an interview in 2015 that it certainly did, stating the piano allowed her “to keep her centre”.
What is certain, however, is music’s ability to manipulate emotion, making it a particularly powerful political tool. Nelson Mandela effectively communicated the relationship between music and politics with the words “politics can be strengthened by music, but music has a potency that defies politics."
By Alec Coles-Aldridge. Alec is a student at the Royal College of Music studying for a Bachelor of Music Degree.