Kew the Music: George III and Queen Charlotte’s Instruments

A recital of Handel’s Sarabande in D minor played on the Chamber Organ at Kew Palace.

The reign of George III and Queen Charlotte between 1760 and 1820 saw a great flourishing of arts and culture in Britain. Both the Royal Academy of Arts and the Royal Society of Arts were founded, the Royal Academy of Music followed soon after, and many leading artists and thinkers came to England. The country’s prospering cultural scene was undoubtedly encouraged by the royal couple’s personal love of the arts. George and Charlotte shared interests in science, literature and theatre, and at the heart of their relationship was a love for music.

Queen Charlotte trained in music and was taught by Johann Christian Bach, son of Johann Sebastian Bach, who wrote numerous pieces of music for her. The couple were avid fans of George Frideric Handel, who had been employed as State Musician in London under George I and II. In 1764, Queen Charlotte invited the talented eight-year-old Wolfgang Mozart to England to stay for a year. During his visit, Mozart dueted with the Queen, as well as dedicating his sonatas for harpsichord and flute to her. Years later, when Joseph Haydn’s Austrian patron died, Queen Charlotte invited the composer to England where he stayed for a number of years.

Queen Charlotte Raising the Genius of the Fine Arts,Thomas Burke 1772, Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth 2017

When Charlotte came over from Germany in 1761, she brought two harpsichords with her and the couple purchased three more in 1764. One of their harpsichords is currently on display at Kew Palace, along with a number of other instruments owned by the family. George and Charlotte were certainly excellent players themselves, Charlotte particularly of keyboard instruments as well as the guitar and together they held frequent recitals at St. James Palace.

As well as being well connected with the music celebrities of the day and great fans of playing for audiences, music was also central to the royal family’s private life. When they were young, Charlotte and George would duet together, he on flute and she on the harpsichord, and music continued to be a favoured pastime throughout their lives.

In 1800, George had a chamber organ fitted in the dining room at Kew Palace, the home where they spent many summers. This was reputedly later given away to St Anne’s Church on Kew Green nearby, where it had disappeared by the end of the nineteenth century, but it is thankfully now restored to its place at Kew. The organ is largely original and contains re-used pipe work dating back to the mid-seventeenth century.

It was customary at this time for music to be played during meal times for the pleasure of guests, and the organ would likely have been used as such. Additionally, given the king’s fondness for music, during his periods of mental illness, he found it consoling to play when he was taken to Kew for treatment. A popular song that he enjoyed was Sarabande in D minor from Handel’s only opera, Xerxes.

Learn more about Queen Charlotte’s love for music at Kensington Palace’s exhibition Enlightened Princesses, opening on 22 June 2017.

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