King Charles III is a former cellist who once conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra

11 September 2022, 19:19 | Updated: 13 September 2022, 09:33

King Charles III: a former cellist with conducting ambitions?
King Charles III: a former cellist with conducting ambitions? Picture: Getty/Alamy

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

The King of the United Kingdom is a musician at heart, with a deep love for ballet and Beethoven.

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Charles III, King of the United Kingdom, is a long-time supporter and patron of the arts world, with patronages at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, Royal College of Music and beyond.

And it all stems, it appears, from His Majesty’s early years spent going to the ballet with the Queen Mother – and playing in the cello section of his university orchestra.

While modestly describing himself as “hopeless” at the cello, His Majesty recalled in a radio podcast diligently practising Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in his bedroom, ahead of a performance with the orchestra of Trinity College, Cambridge.

“I loved playing in the orchestra at Trinity – albeit rather badly,” he admitted. “I remember playing in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and trying to practise in my room at Cambridge to an old record conducted by Herbert von Karajan, who was the great conductor in those days, in the sixties.

“There was me sitting with my cello and my tuning fork, and I put this thing on, and of course he took it at an incredible lick – you’ve no idea how fast!”.

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Alongside his cello endeavours, the King learned to play trumpet and piano as a child, making his public debut aged 15 as a trumpeter in St Giles’ Cathedral, playing with the 80-piece orchestra at his school in Gordonstoun, Scotland.

“I find the whole experience of being with the orchestra or listening to it in a wonderful great hall, I mean it is extraordinary because the sound completely surrounds you and there is nothing to substitute for that I think,” the King has said of his music-making experience.

“It’s that wonderful sensation of being part of an immense whole.”

With royal duties, and the expectation of military service, calling, His Majesty laid down his cello when he joined the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force in his early 20s. “When I joined the Navy, I found it wasn’t so easy to take a cello in a ship,” he admitted. “It got abandoned for a bit, and I never managed to take it up again.”

“You suddenly realise how incredibly talented people are – the really good ones, that is – when we struggle away ourselves.”

Some years later, while on a royal tour to Australia in 1988, the King was persuaded to pick up a cello again. During a visit to the Victorian College of the Arts, he bowed a few notes and had a go at conducting the orchestra (watch below).

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King Charles III tried out cello and conducting on 1988 Australia tour

As a child, Charles III was a regular audience member, alongside his grandmother, the Queen Mother, at the country’s beloved opera houses and concert halls. He still credits those evenings to nurturing his long-lasting love for the arts and music-making.

“It anchors you and connects you. It’s a useful antidote to sitting in front of a screen every day.”

In an interview with Classic FM’s Alan Titchmarsh in 2020, the then-Prince of Wales said: “It’s so important, I think, for grandparents and other relations to take children at about the age of seven to experience some form of the arts in performance.”

The King impressed the urgent need for our society to protect and value the arts – particularly in times of need. “I’ve spent a large proportion of my life trying to help them survive or raise money,” he told Titchmarsh. “They are so utterly vital to this country and play such a huge part in culture and diplomacy.

“But at the moment, of course, they are completely silent and unable to operate, unable to work,” he reflected, highlighting the ‘desperate’ situation the coronavirus pandemic has created within the sector.

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Camilla, Queen Consort and King Charles III, pictured with performers from Northern Ireland in 2015
Camilla, Queen Consort and King Charles III, pictured with performers from Northern Ireland in 2015. Picture: Getty

Conducting ambitions?

On a 2004 visit to the Royal College of Music, where he has been President since 1993, King Charles III took up the baton and conducted the prestigious music college’s Elastic Band Orchestra, the precursor to its learning and participation programme, RCM Sparks.

A spark was lit, and three years later in a “special surprise” for the Queen Consort’s 60th birthday, he conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra (Classic FM’s Orchestra on Tour, of which he is patron) in a performance of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll.

In an interview, he described the symphonic poem as “possibly the most romantic music almost of all time”.