The Prince of Wales is a former cellist who once conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra

31 May 2022, 16:56

The Prince of Wales: a former cellist with conducting ambitions?
The Prince of Wales: a former cellist with conducting ambitions? Picture: Getty/Alamy

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

The future King of England is a musician at heart, with a deep love for ballet and Beethoven.

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Charles, The Prince of Wales 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 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 Royal Highness 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!”.

Read more: 15 of the best classical music pieces for The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee

Alongside his cello endeavours, the Prince of Wales 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 Prince has said of his music-making experience.

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

Listen on Global Player: Classic FM’s Platinum Jubilee Celebration

With royal duties, and the expectation of military service, calling, His Royal Highness 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 with his then wife, the Princess of Wales, in 1988, the Prince 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).

As a child the Prince of Wales 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, he 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 Prince 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.

Read more: 83 percent of musicians unable to find regular work since pandemic, charity says

Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall and The Prince of Wales, pictured with performers from Northern Ireland in 2015
Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall and The Prince of Wales, 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, the Prince of Wales 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 his wife, The Duchess of Cornwall’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”.

Listen to Classic FM’s Platinum Jubilee playlist on Global Player for a celebration of regal classical music.