Tag Archives: Handel

Women who Rule (part 2): Choral Music inspired by The Queen of Sheba, Catherine the Great & Queen Krystina Wasa

venus-symbolAccording to bookies, it would be in my best interest to place my loonies on the Venus symbol in favour of Prince William and Princess Catherine giving birth to the future Queen of England.

I am not a royalist nor even very interested in what sex the future monarch may be.  I hope the child is healthy and stays safe.  One thing that will be certain, is the truism given voice by William Shakespeare, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”.  

I love choral music and have a deep appreciation for a good story.  Intrigue, murder, deception, love, lust, the lives of  monarchs are painted with a big brush and vivid colours.  In my first post of this series, I  chatted briefly about the lives of  Eleanor of Aquitaine Dido,  Nefertiti , and  Mary Queen of Scots.

Queen-of-Sheba-Wiki-CommonsOne of the most famous female rulers was the Queen of Sheba.  She is mentioned in the Bible and the Koran.  One African legend starts her story on the death-bed of an Ethiopian King.  He names his beautiful daughter Makeda as his successor.  This Queen became very wealthy and her reign was prosperous.  It was through an Ethiopian merchant who took materials from Ethiopia to Jerusalem for King Solomon’s temple, that Makeda became aware of Solomon’s riches and wisdom.  The Queen’s interest was piqued and she paid King Solomon a visit.

George Frederic Handel – The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba

Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Sir Neville Marriner

She brought with her camels that bore spices, gold and precious stones.  The Queen of  Sheba was smitten with Solomon and his intellect and converted to Judaism.  Not only that, she was attracted to him…..and a son soon followed.  She named him Ibn al-Hakim, ‘son of the wise man.’  He became the ruler of Ethiopia.


In Handel’s oratorio, the Queen of Sheba remains virtuous with no physical relationship.  She simply marvels at his splendour.

Händel: Praise the Lord (SOLOMON) 

Catherine the Great  was born in Prussia in 1729 as Princess Sophia Augusta Frederica.  She moved to Russia in 1744 to marry Grand Duke Peter of Holstein, a grandson of Peter the Great and heir to the Russian throne.  She not only converted from her Lutheran faith to Russian Orthodoxy, but also embraced her new role by learning Russian, a challenge her husband never bothered to tackle.  He was scrawny. immature and impotent.  Catherine took a lover, an officer of the Imperial Guard.  Her husband reigned for six horrible months.  The soldiers loved Catherine and offered her protection from her incompetent husband.  She was sworn in as Empress and her husband was killed.  Under her rule, Russia became a world power.  Catherine developed the beginnings of a more general education system for Russia.  Journalism was a priority and hospitals were founded.  Catherine also established boarding schools for girls, and later in 1783, the Russian Academy of Letters, a teacher’s college. catherine-the-great-1-sized

Catherine softened Russia’s image as an uncultured country by encouraging the arts.  She brought many Italian composers to her court.  She also encouraged native musicians to travel to Italy to learn the skills of their craft.  Baldassare Galuppi was one such composer who set up a studio in St. Petersburg in 1760.

Baldassare Galuppi – Kyrie eleison in G minor (1746)

Giulio Prandi, Ghislieri Choir & Consort


Empress Catherine the Great of Russia was a strong woman and one who wasn’t shy about taking what she wanted.  Although she had at least 21 known lovers, her affairs of the bedroom apparently didn’t interfere with her affairs of state.

There are some Russian academics that think Catherine wasn’t a very good monarch.  They consider her liberalism a facade and pretense.  They claim that the last years of her rule, those following the outbreak of the French Revolution, were brutal.  On the other hand, some scholars think she was good for Russia.

One Russian composer that profited from the influence of the influx of Italian composers was Dmitri Bortnyansky.  He developed into an exceptional composer, in particular in the field of choral music.  Catherine died in 1796 of a stroke at 67 years of age.  Among her papers was her credo:

Be gentle, humane, accessible, compassionate and liberal-minded.  Do not let your grandess prevent you from being condescending with kindness toward the small and putting yourself in their place….Behave so that the kind love you, the evil fear you, all respect you”. 

Dmitry Bortniansky, The Cherubic Hymn

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Paul Hillier

On a cold December in 1626 Krystina Wasa was born to Maria Eleanora of Brandenburg and King Gustav II Adolf of Sweden.

chris2Maria Eleanora was disappointed that she gave birth to a girl and showed little interest towards her daughter.  The King was just pleased that he had a child and offered Krystina an education of the highest caliber and insisted she be schooled in all of the subjects that would be available to a boy.

When Krystina was 6, her father died on the battle field and she was made Queen-elect.  As she was growing up, she was given the nickname ‘The Girl King’.  Krystina was an excellent student, speaking fluent French, German, Spanish, Italian and of course Swedish.  She was also trained in aspects of battle and sportsmanship.  Under her rule, Stockholm became known as ’Athens of the North.’

Queen Krystina led a most unusual life, even by a monarch’s standards.  She was one of the important forces in ending the 30 Years’ War with the Peace of Westphalia.  A few years later, she seriously questioned the tenants of Lutheranism and at this time begins to consider abdication.   In 1651, at 52 years of age, she suffers a nervous breakdown, and 2 years later, makes good on her earlier misgivings of rule, and abdicates.  She names her cousin Charles X Gustav as her successor.

Here is a quote from the Oregon  State University website: ‘One story says that her adherents in court refuse to remove her crown, so she removes it herself and places it on Gustav’s head.  She leaves Sweden immediately with her personal possessions and court women.  As soon as Krystina crosses Sweden, she sends her women back, dons men’s clothing, and according to one romantic account, rides a ‘white charger’ throughout her lengthy tour of Europe.”

Corelli: Trio Sonata in D-Major, Op. 3 No. 2 – IV – Allegro

Ensemble ad Libitum

queen_christina1That was not the end of Krystina’s story.  She converts to Catholicism but still considers herself to be a free-thinker in practice of her faith.  I’m not sure why, but she plots to become Queen of Naples.  The Pope gets a whiff of this by a loose tongued  servant.  When Krystina learns that he betrayed her, she has her servant assassinated.  After a time, she returns to Sweden to study the theory of the Philosopher’s Stone.  Through all of the twists and turns of her adventurous life, Krystina remained a patron of the arts, founding an academy and being instrumental in the development of the first public opera house in Rome.

She also was a patron of  Corelli and Alessandro Scarlatti.  In 1681 Corelli dedicated the first of his 12 church sonatas to Krystina.  Shortly before her death in Rome in 1689, Corelli directed two solemn masses to celebrate her recovery from illness.  One of them could easily have been Alessandro Scarlatti’s ‘Messa di Santa Cecilia.

Queen Krystina was portrayed by none other than Greta Garbo in the 1933 film, “Queen Christina“.

Alessandro Scarlatti – Messa di Santa Cecilia

Stay tuned for the final installment of Women who Rule.  This post will feature the lives and music of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II.