What does it take to play second fiddle?
- Credit: PA
In peoples’ remembrances about Prince Philip, his reputation to speak his mind, or at times to put his foot in his mouth, seems to be what many people think about first and foremost.
“I wish he’d turn the microphone off”, His Royal Highness apparently muttered whilst listening to Elton John perform at the 2001 Royal Variety Performance.
During a visit to Scotland in the mid-nineties, he mocked their reputation, north of the border, for alcoholic over-indulgence, when he asked a driving instructor, “How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to pass the test?”
Even his wife wasn’t immune from the Duke of Edinburgh’s acerbic tongue: “Yak, yak, yak; come on get a move on” he shouted to her from the deck of the Britannia, whilst Her Majesty was chatting to her hosts on the quayside, during a royal visit to Belize in 1994.
Prince Harry, in his tribute to his grandpa this week, described him as “the legend of banter”. But surely there is so much more to the legacy of Prince Philip than his quick wit?
The influence he has had in the lives of a multitude of people was exemplified by his patronage to over seven hundred organisations and charities.
Whether it was the British Heart Foundation, the Marine Biological Association, or the Cartoon Museum, the Prince was engaged in the concerns of ordinary folk the length and breadth of the nation.
Rosemary Watt-Wyness, Chief Executive of London Youth (formerly known as the London Federation of Boys Clubs), which was Prince Philip’s first ever patronage in 1947, movingly wrote, “We remain eternally grateful for all the support His Royal Highness gave as our patron for over seven decades. His many visits to our member youth organisations remain etched within the memories of so many, and his championing of young people and youth work in London has been truly inspiring”.
The Duke of Edinburgh’s concern for the development of young people was most clearly seen in the instigation of the “Awards Scheme” that bears his name. A “DIY kit for growing up” was how he described it in 1956, and around seven million youngsters have benefited during the past 65 years.
But perhaps the one person who has gained most from the Duke of Edinburgh’s support and insight has been the woman whom he was married to for almost three quarters of a century.
“He has quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years”, were Queen Elizabeth’s words of tribute to Philip as they celebrated their golden wedding anniversary.
There’s a phrase that comes to mind as I reflect on the many sacrifices Prince Philip made, such as relinquishing his cherished naval career, to offer the steadfast support that his wife needed when becoming monarch: “playing second fiddle”.
Unsurprisingly, the expression finds its origins in the world of music, where the most high-profile member of the orchestra was the musician who played the lead violin.
The famous composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein once said: “I can get plenty of first violinists, but to find someone who can play the second fiddle with enthusiasm – that’s a problem. But if we have no second fiddle, we have no harmony”.
In his long life as consort to the Queen, always walking the customary two steps behind her in public, the Duke of Edinburgh humbly demonstrated what it means to play second fiddle. Journalist Monica Hesse, writing in last weekend’s Washington Post, observed, “She could not have performed her role as well if he had not performed his. She sat, he stood. She spoke, he deferred. She decided, he acquiesced. He called her “Lilibet” in private, but in public he always called her “the Queen”.”
In embracing this subordinate role, Prince Philip was also a worked-out example of the Apostle Paul’s instruction to Christian people in Philippians 2:3, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves”.
As he reflected on such an attitude to life, the 19th century Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon remarked, “It needs more skill than I can tell, to play the second fiddle well.”