Frederick the Great (1712-1786)
Imagine a political leader today who insisted on hiring and performing with the world’s best composer-musicians, building a state-of-the-art opera theatre and always being in the audience? No, I can’t either, but Prussia’s Frederick the Great – at least in his ‘Enlightened’ period 1740-60 – did it all, even providing the great JS Bach with his theme for A Musical Offering. Johann Joachim Quantz wrote hours of flute music for ‘Old Fritz’ to perform, while Frantisek Benda and CPE Bach took on strings and keyboard. The king himself was a dab hand at the trio sonata, penning a few ‘galant’ numbers in between invading Silesia and Poland, organizing indirect taxation and transforming the Prussian military into one of Europe’s most feared forces.
Jan Ignacy Paderewski (1860-1941)
Great musicians have often used their celebrity for political protest – just think of Casals, Rostropovich and Barenboim – but it’s rare for one to take up the role of Prime Minister and to play such a key role in securing a country’s independence. In the late 19th century Paderewski inspired an almost mystical devotion among audiences as a globe-trotting virtuoso. His opera Manru (1901) and Symphony in B minor Polonia (1909) are both deeply patriotic works. He became a member of the Polish National Committee in World War 1 and represented his country to Woodrow Wilson in 1918, persuading him to take on a commitment to Polish independence as part of the Treaty of Versailles. He was Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs for a single year in 1919, then Polish Ambassador to the League of Nations. In World War II he headed up the Polish National Council of the exiled government, until his death in 1940.
Ted Heath (1916-2005)
Conservative MP (and Prime Minister 1970-4) Ted Heath would probably have preferred to spend his life conducting an obedient orchestra than grappling with intransigent unions, the minefield of a hung parliament and the ambitions of Margaret Thatcher. His talents, though, were limited, and we have Sir Hugh Allen to thank for steering the undergraduate Heath towards politics (journalist Alexander Chancellor recalled seeing a French newspaper in the late 1970s after Heath had conducted the European Union Youth Orchestra which read ‘Heath a massacré Mozart’.) Surely he was the last Prime Minister to have had a Steinway grand wheeled into No. 10, played the organ at Holy Trinity Brompton, hosted the likes of Menuhin, Stern and Clifford Curzon at Chequers, or to have conducted the LSO in Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture?
Vytautas Landsbergis (1932-)
There can’t be many professors of music history who have also had a hand in drafting a new constitution for their nation. Landsbergis, currently Chairman of Lithuania’s Conservative Party and member of the European Parliament, was Lithuania’s first head of state following its independence declaration. He graduated in the 1950s as a pianist and musicologist, eventually becoming Professor of Music History. He joined the independence lobby, Sajudis, in 1989 and the following year was elected in the first free elections, and not only chaired the commission drafting Lithuania’s new constitution but the delegation that negotiated the Soviet withdrawal. Now he’s a member of the European Parliament and heads up the Lithuanian Conservative Party. With a pianist wife, two musician daughters, and a film-making, song-writing son, Landsbergis remains a musical force in Vilnius.
Condoleeza Rice (1954-)
‘Condi’ was the first African-American female Secretary of State – and the first to perform with Yo-Yo Ma and Aretha Franklin (not at the same time). She always intended to be a pianist and made her concerto debut in Denver at 15, but encounters with greater talents at Aspen Music Festival persuaded her to go into international relations. She was National Security Advisor (2001-5) and then Secretary of State (2005-9) under the Bush administration, and is now back being Professor of Political Science at Stanford University. Even when she in Washington she had a regular chamber music group in led by violinist Soye Kim, and often performed what’s known as ‘Condi’s piece’, Brahms’s F minor Piano Quintet. As she said in a New York Times interview, ‘When you're playing there is only room for Brahms. It’s the time I’m most away from myself, and I treasure it.’ Her dream? To learn Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto. Watch this space.
Ivo Josipovic (1957-)
Josipovic is the only actual President on our list – of Croatia between 2010-2015. This energetic legal expert and award-winning composer played a key role in the democratic transformation of the League of Communists of Croatia into the Social Democratic Party. He went from teaching Harmony at the Zagreb Academy of Music to promulgating it in the rather more testing environment of a post-Communist, post-civil war government. He directed the Music Biennale Zagreb of contemporary music and has over 50 compositions to his name (check out his ebullient Samba da Camera on Youtube). On becoming president he announced he was going to write an opera on the death of John Lennon; so far the day- job has rather got in the way…