There's really only one song we could pick for Britain's first weekend out of the European Union since 1972. Come the eleventh hour on Friday night, the lads sang it in Parliament Square and down the pub - although not terribly well, it has to be said. Not all their fault, of course. It's a magnificent tune and great words, but they don't fit together that well in the verses and the lyric can be hard to catch. Still, I always like this bit:
Still more maje-e-e-estic shalt thou rise
More dre-e-e-eadful from each fo-o-o-oreign stroke
More dreadful, dreadful from each fo-o-o-oreign stroke
As the loud bla-ast, the blast that tears the skies
Serves but to roo-oo-oo-oo-oot thy native oak...
Enough with these "foreign strokes": Brexit is the blast that tears the skies. Here is New Zealand's finest, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, at the Royal Albert Hall in 1992:
According to Wagner, the first eight notes of that song - "When Britons fi-i-i-i-irst" - embody the entire character of the British people.
That's Kiri with the BBC Symphony Orchestra playing Sir Malcolm Sargent's famous arrangement conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. I attended the Proms that year as a guest of the BBC's Director-General (it'll be a long time before that invitation ever comes again), and, if memory serves, I wrote the programme notes for some of the lighter fare that season. But I treasure Dame Kiri's sincerity in that number, which is not always the case in contemporary renditions. She does particularly well by "the blast that tears the skies".
We have of all people Duke Friedrich Ludwig of Brunswick-LĂĽneburg to thank for "Rule, Britannia!" That was his name at birth, in the Electorate of Hanover in what was still the Holy Roman Empire, on February 1st 1707. So, if we weren't celebrating the birth of post-EU Britain this weekend, we'd be celebrating Duke Friedrich's 313th birthday. He's better known to posterity as Frederick, Prince of Wales, son of King George II and father of King George III. And, if you're saying, "Well, hang on, if he's the kid of George II and dad of George III, doesn't that make him King George the Second-and-a-Half?", I'm afraid not: He predeceased his pater, and the Crown passed direct to George II's grandchild.
His Majesty was not much troubled by that: George II and the Prince of Wales were seriously estranged. Frederick's grandfather succeeded to the British throne as George I in 1714, moved from Hanover to London and brought his son and heir with him. Young Fred was left behind in Germany and didn't see his dad for fourteen years. By the time King George II belatedly ordered his eldest son over to England, Prince Friedrich was twenty-one years old and, having spent his entire life among the Krauts, not terribly British. He was made Chancellor of the University of Dublin (his portrait hangs in Trinity College to this day) in hopes this would keep him away from Court and on the night boat from Holyhead most of the time.
If this is beginning to sound a bit Megxitty, well, almost: In order not to have to spend any time with His Majesty, the Prince in 1737 moved out of St James's Palace to Buckinghamshire, which was evidently the Salt Spring Island of its day. He rented from the Countess of Orkney her riverside estate at Cliefden, which we now spell Cliveden - as in the Profumo affair:
It began like a movie: July 8th 1961. An unusually warm evening at a grand country estate. A girl in the swimming pool. She pulls herself up out of the water. She's beautiful, and naked. A larky lad in the water has tossed her bathing costume into the bushes. And among the blasĂ© weekend guests dressed for dinner and taking a stroll on the terrace one man reacts with more than nonchalant amusement as the girl hastily wraps a towel around her. She leaves with someone else the next day. But not before the man on the terrace has enquired after her name.
It was Christine Keeler. The house was Cliveden, country home of Lord Astor.
A lot of history at Cliveden. The swimming pool wasn't there in 1737, and nor was the house - a replacement after the one known by Frederick burnt down, designed in the Palladian style by Charles Barry (architect of my old school and the Houses of Parliament). But there are certain similarities between the residencies of the Prince of Wales and Viscount Astor: under both men, Cliveden became the center for London smart sets of varying merits. Frederick had set up a kind of court to rival his father's, and he didn't take his position for granted. In 1707 the Kingdoms of England and Scotland had been joined in one United Kingdom under Queen Anne. Henceforth, sovereign nation-wise, there was no more "England" or "Scotland", only a newfangled "Great Britain". The Scots weren't terribly happy about being ruled by an English Parliament, and, when Anne died seven years later and was succeeded by her second cousin George I, the English weren't thrilled about being ruled by a German king whose heir was an even more Germanic prince.
So Frederick was at pains to anglicize himself: He took up cricket, for example. To that end, in the summer of 1740, to celebrate the third birthday of his daughter Princess Augusta and the twenty-third anniversary (more or less) of George II's accession, the Prince of Wales announced a masque at Cliveden. Alfred would hark back to the reign of the eponymous Alf - the Great, the ninth-century warrior king and the chap who burnt the cakes - but it would also tie his ancient victories over the Vikings to a vital contemporary issue: the new Great Britain's rise as a maritime power.
Just eight months earlier, for example, as part of the War of Jenkins' Ear, Admiral Vernon had captured Porto Bello (on the Panama coast) from the Spanish, avenging the Royal Navy's disastrous blockade of the previous decade. Vernon became a great hero and a household name: more medals were struck in commemoration of his feat than for any other Briton of the eighteenth century. In short order, districts in London, Dublin and Edinburgh were all named "Portobello" in honor of his great naval victory. The celebrations were still ongoing when Prince Frederick held his masque.
Alfred was written by James Thomson and David Mallet, two Scotsmen who had separately wound up in London and, having fallen upon hard times, found shelter in the Prince's patronage. Mallet was Frederick's under-secretary, while Thomson had enjoyed a cozy sinecure as Secretary of the Briefs in the Court of Chancery. Unfortunately, the Lord Chancellor died, Thomson lost his job and, as Dr Johnson put it, discovered his affairs "were in a more poetical posture than formerly". The Prince very kindly put him on a retainer of ÂŁ100 per annum.
Like their royal benefactor, both authors saw the advantages, to themselves and to the nation, in forging from the ancient English, Irish, Scots and Welsh identities a pan-British culture. As a dramatic work Alfred is a dud - lethargic scenes, inert characters - but it comes alive in its half-dozen songs, and never more so than in the grand finale. King Alfred resolves to build a fleet to defend a small island's shores from foreign predators, and Thomas Arne's music and James Thomson's words rise to the occasion and then soar far beyond. And so, if you had been in the gardens at Cliefden on August 1st 1740, you would have heard Thomas Salway sing for the first time anywhere in the world "An Ode in Honour of Great-Britain":
When Britain fi-i-i-irst, at Heav'n's co-ommand
Aro-o-o-o--o-o-o-o-ose from out the a-a-a-azure main
Arose, arose, arose from out the a-azure main
This was the charter, the charter of the land
And guardian a-a-a-a-angels sang this strain:
Britannia, rule the waves!
Britons ne-e-e-e-ever will be slaves!
Thomas Salway pre-dates the recording era, so here is the earliest extant disc, from November 23rd 1899, by J Bryce, a Welshman (pay no heed to the somewhat twee yet tendentious commentary):
A song doesn't survive three centuries without a bit of tidying up along the way. Somewhere in the nineteenth century, audiences started singing not "Britons never will be slaves" (as Thomson wrote) but "Britons never shall..." Mr Bryce's recording catches the song in transition: He sings "shall" in the first verse, "will" in the second. "Shall" is a much more pleasing vowel sound on Dr Arne's note. Mr Bryce also sings the composer's original melisma orgy of "ne-e-e-e-ever", which we now render both more euphoniously and defiantly as "never never never". Sometimes the audience knows best.
No disrespect to Mr J Bryce, but a century-and-a-quarter of hiss and crackle can sometimes diminish the impact of the performance. So perhaps a closer approximation of Thomas Salway in the garden at Cliveden is the great Cornish baritone Benjamin Luxon:
Just one question: Who or what is Britannia?
Answer: She was the Romans' name for Britain - from their approximation of what in the local tongue was "PretanÄ«". Within a century of the Roman conquest in 43 AD, Britannia had come to be personified as a goddess, accessorized by Corinthian helmet and shield, with a bared right breast, and, most importantly for posterity, wielding a trident. She appears as such on coins issued in the reign of the Emperor Hadrian. When Roman rule ended, Britannia, goddess and concept, faded away as England and Wales disintegrated into local fiefdoms. But she reappeared in the Elizabethan era and stuck around as the thrones of England, Ireland and Scotland were joined in personal union by James VI. In 1665, she made her first appearance on British coinage - a farthing and then, later the same year, the halfpenny - and confirmed her position as an embodiment of not merely a geographical area but of a broader identity: A "Briton", in the sense of an inhabitant of the British Isles, is a comparative neologism, and the socio-cultural ice on which he stands would be a lot thinner without the warrior gal with helmet and trident - and thinner still without this song.
As I said above, Arne composed a stirring tune and Thomson wrote stirring words, but in the verses they stir in opposite directions. Arne seems to have set the text to render it largely incomprehensible from one melismatic pile-up ("aro-o-o-o-ose") to the next ("a-a-a-a-azure main"). But then comes the chorus, which is really little more than a pop-song hook, so bold and declarative it could be a footie chant:
Britannia, rule the waves!
Thomson isn't boasting; he's exhorting Britannia to sail forth and command the seas. What was by no means certain in 1740 had come to pass a century later: in 1847, a young Queen Victoria commissioned William Dyce to paint "Neptune Resigning to Britannia the Empire of the Seas" for a fresco at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. Britain's naval supremacy - the Pax Britannica - was one of the vital elements in the building of the modern world. The Royal Navy was sufficiently powerful to expunge from most of the map what had hitherto been accepted as as routine a feature of life around the globe as land and sea: slavery. And, as Britannia asserted herself, so too did the song. From the Victorian era into the twentieth century, singers were confident enough to make a small triumphalist modification to Thomson's lyric:
Britannia rules the waves!
Which was true - then. But I prefer the original exhortatory version, because it's always better to be urging on than to assume the permanence of power.
Whether anybody in the garden at Cliefden that summer night in 1740 knew that they were in on the launch of a global hit is doubtful. Alfred came and went, and it was two years before any of its songs were ever sung again in public. Then, in July 1742, the composer's wife gave a concert in Dublin and offered...
No. "O Peace, Thou Fairest Child of Heaven".
It took five years for "Rule, Britannia!" to make it thirty miles down the road from Cliveden and be performed for the first time in London, in 1745. And then - without benefit of radio or TV, wax cylinder or digital download - the writers of The Masque of Alfred found themselves with a take-home tune on the scale of "The Merry Widow Waltz" or "Memory" from Cats, albeit from a show that had played one night only, and out-of-town at that, and half-a-decade earlier to boot. How big was "Britannia"? A year after that London premiere, 1746, the most eminent composer of the day, George Frideric Handel, was working on his patriotic response to the Jacobite Rebellion, An Occasional Oratorio. On the line "War shall cease, welcome peace", he tipped his hat to Thomas Arne, and knew everyone in the audience would get the reference:
"Rule, Britannia!" became very quickly a universally recognized musical shorthand for British power, but James Thomson did not live to see it. Three years after that London premiere, he caught a chill on the River Thames and died - and no sooner was poor old Thomson in his grave than his co-author on Alfred, David Mallet, declared for the first time that it was he who had written "Rule, Britannia!" Mallet, however, was an habitual liar and falsely claimed credit for other men's work, so there's no reason to believe his assertion of authorship to Thomson's poem. On the other hand, he was alive and Thomson wasn't. So in 1751, Mallet revived Alfred at Drury Lane, and commissioned Lord Bolingbroke, leader of the Tories and (in the American context) a great influence on Adams, Jefferson and Madison, to write new verses about being "Married to a Mermaid". And so Mallet, briefly, desecrated his old comrades' greatest work and turned it into a piscine novelty song.
As for Thomas Arne, he survived his co-author by thirty years, and died singing. At about 8pm on March 5th 1778, he was demonstrating a musical idea to the singer Joseph Vernon:
In attempting to illustrate what he had advanced, he in a very feeble and tremulous voice sung part of an air, during which he became progressively more faint, until he breathed his last! making, as our immortal Shakespeare expresses it, 'a swan-like end, fading in music'.
Just a few months before his swan-like end, Dr Arne had published another bona fide smasheroo and thus, cutting it exceeding fine, bequeathed himself to posterity as a two-hit wonder: "Rule, Britannia!" and, four decades later, the nursery rhyme "A-Hunting We Will Go". (I discount his fine Shakespearean settings - "Where the bee sucks", "Under the greenwood tree" - because they are rarely sung and no longer recognized, although I've long had an idea for a swingin' arrangement of "Blow, blow, thou winter wind", which we may well do on the next Mark Steyn Christmas Show.) If he is not in the first rank of composers, Arne at least has the satisfaction of having been extensively quoted by them. Here's Beethoven in 1813, commemorating the Battle of Vitoria in Wellington's Victory:
Well, okay, Wellington's Victory was a cheap'n'cheerful crowd-pleaser ol' Ludwig rattled off initially as a favor for the bloke who patented the metronome and at the time was touting a sort of prototype synthesizer called the "panharmonicon" that he needed some demo music for. Beethoven used "Britannia" for Wellington's forces, and a much older folk ditty "Marlbrough s'en va-t-en guerre" for the French. Which can be somewhat disorienting to English ears that hear the latter as "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow". But what's a programmatic composer to do? The playing of "La Marseillaise" was illegal in Vienna at that time.
Be that as it may, Beethoven surely liked Thomas Arne's tune not just as national identifier but as music. A few years before the above piece, he put it in his Piano Sonata No 24 "Ă ThĂ©rĂ¨se", and also wrote a set of variations (not his best, one has to say):
A quarter-century after Wellington's Victory, "Rule, Britannia!" was still the easiest way to convey musically the Greatness of Britain. A year after Her Britannic Majesty's accession in 1837, here's how Johann Strauss I opened his Huldigung der KĂ¶nigin Victoria von Grossbritannien - "Homage to Queen Victoria of Great Britain":
We could do this all night, from Wagner to Elgar and beyond. Throughout the nineteenth century, a song about Britannia was bolstered by the image of Britannia - still the warrior queen of Roman origins, with Corinthian helmet, Poseidon's trident, and a hoplite shield now sporting the Union Flag. The Victorians gave her another, rawer embodiment of Britain - a lion - to lie at her feet, and discreetly tucked the traditional bared right breast back inside her robes: You never want to go topless when claws like that are around. Britannia was a constant presence in British life for centuries: She walked with every Briton in his trouser pocket, on the ha'penny until 1936, on the white fiver until 1957, on the penny until 1970, and finally on the fifty-pence piece until 2008, when the Royal Mint dumped her in favor of images "reflecting a more modern twenty-first century Britain".
As with John Bull and the old British Lion, it was easier to discard the symbols than maintain what they symbolized. In 1945, when the British reversed their humiliating eviction from Singapore and Admiral of the Fleet Lord Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander South-East Asia, arrived to accept the Japanese surrender, the band played, of course, "Rule, Britannia!" It is hard to imagine any British admiral going along with that today.
The old girl had a grand run, though. Here's NoĂ«l Coward in 1932 with a near brand new, year-old song nevertheless ushered in by Ray Noble's band with another, two-century-old song:
Ray Noble's spirited intro there raises the question: Given that (outside the Proms) Britannia survives in contemporary culture mainly as a statuette at the Brit Awards (the UK Grammys), are there any pop versions of "Rule, Britannia!"?
Well, I was a great admirer of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, not because of their monster hit of 1968, "Urban Spaceman", but because of the fine choice of obscure 'tween-wars Britpop they revived for filler tracks on their albums - "Hello, Mabel", "Jollity Farm", "Hunting Tigers Out in Indiah", etc. My dad was friends with the dad of Roger Ruskin Spear, and later I had the great honor of meeting the group's presiding genius Vivian Stanshall, who died in a fire at his flat almost exactly a quarter-century ago. Viv's fellow Bonzo and songwriting partner Neil Innes left us just a few weeks ago. In 1967, at the height of "Swinging London", this was Side One Track One of the Bonzos' very first LP:
It's one of the more dispiriting features of life that throwaway gags eventually get played straight by some or other earnest plonker. Thus, thirty years after that track, Tony Blair and New Labour inaugurated "Cool Britannia" for real. Blair's desperate pandering modishness seems very squaresville now, don't you think?
Other than that, all I know is a Japanese rock version:
We've journeyed a long way from Cliveden and Frederick, Prince of Wales. And yet without a German prince anxious to anglicize there would have been no Masque of Alfred, and thus no "Rule, Britannia!" He was the first Hanoverian royal to see himself as primarily a Briton, and to strive to make that a reality. So, for the music of Alfred, he preferred Arne to Handel because the latter was, like the prince, of Teutonic origin. Frederick worked hard at his Englishness, and in the end it killed him and denied him his throne. Eleven years after the premiere of Alfred, he was supposedly hit during a match by a cricket ball and died of either a burst lung or a pulmonary embolism. [UPDATE: Tim Rice reminds me that this is the only known instance of play stopping reign.]
Was his attempted assimilation appreciated? As a famous epigram of the time had it:
Here lies poor Fred
Who was alive and is dead,
Had it been his father
I had much rather,
Had it been his sister
Nobody would have missed her,
Had it been his brother
Still better than another,
Had it been the whole generation,
So much better for the nation,
But since it is Fred
Who was alive and is dead,
There is no more to be said!
...but plenty to be sung, down through the centuries. Frederick's greatest legacy endures despite the antipathy to "Rule, Britannia" from many of the conductors the BBC chooses for the Proms. An American maestro, the whiney Leonard Slatkin, son of the far less whinier Felix and Eleanor Slatkin, complained that the song is "a little militaristic" and "outdated":
I must admit that I am not completely comfortable with playing it ...and though it's wonderful to celebrate who you are and have faith in your country, I don't think we should exclude others.
The Last Night of the Proms is an important international occasion - in Japan they get up at 4am to watch it.
Got it. The Japanese get up at 4am to watch a Royal Albert Hall filled with Union Jacks bellowing "Rule, Britannia!" - which is why we need to get rid of "Rule, Britannia!" so that all those Japanese who get up at 4am will feel more included. Thanks a lot, genius. I'll take your mom and pop any day.
In recent years it has become the fashion at the Proms to try to pass off an increasingly rare moment of genuine national pride as something post-modern and parodic, with the singers of "Rule, Britannia!" dressed in garish and camp outfits. It comes to something when the punk couturier Vivienne Westwood is the most demure costumier of the age, but, by comparison, she dressed the American soloist RenĂ©e Fleming very non-distractingly, albeit augmented by what's supposed to be Britannia-esque headgear. So here she is for our finale. I confess I prefer Dame Kiri's version to the soprano acrobatics from the get-go here, yet Miss Fleming not only thrilled the Albert Hall but was also beamed to enthusiastic crowds watching in Hyde Park and the grounds of Hillsborough Castle, seat of British power in Northern Ireland, which must have unnerved Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, were they in attendance. No backstop needed here:
A few years back, my daughter and I visited Hillsborough Castle, whose grounds are lovely and boast the largest and most spectacular rhododendron bush in Europe: You can walk around in it. So I fretted initially that in its frenzied appreciation the crowd might trample the gardens - until I remembered that that rhododendron could easily go full Little Shop of Horrors on them. It could eat the backstop if it wanted to.
As is the contemporary fashion, Miss Fleming eschewed the second verse:
The nations no-o-o-o-ot so ble-est as thee
Must i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-in their turn to ty-y--yrants fall
Must i-in the-eir tu-u-u-u-urn to-oo ty-y-y-yrants fall
While thou shalt flourish, sha-alt flourish great and free
The dread and e-e-e-e-envy of them all.
We shall see.
~Our Netflix-style tile-format archives for Tales for Our Time and Steyn's Sunday Poems have proved so popular with listeners and viewers that we thought we'd do the same for our musical features. Just click here, and you'll find easy-to-access live performances by everyone from Herman's Hermits to Liza Minnelli; Mark's interviews with Chuck Berry, Leonard Bernstein and Bananarama (just to riffle through the Bs); and audio documentaries on P G Wodehouse's songs, John Barry's Bond themes, Simon after Garfunkel, and much more. We'll be adding to the archive in the months ahead, but, even as it is, we hope you'll find the new SteynOnline music home page a welcome respite from the woes of the world.
What is The Mark Steyn Club? Well, it's an audio Book of the Month Club and a video poetry circle, and a live music club. We don't (yet) have a Mark Steyn clubhouse, but we do have other benefits - and the Third Annual Steyn Cruise, on which we always do a live-performance edition of our Song of the Week. And, if you've got some kith or kin who might like the sound of all that and more, we also have a special Gift Membership. More details here.