Chance to assert national chauvinism

Prom and prejudice

As the BBC finally agrees to allow a select group of vocalists to sing ‘Rule, Britannia!’ and ‘Land of hope and glory’, Harley Filben takes stock of musical nationalism

If there is one certainty in contemporary Britain, it seems, it is that there is no piece of national pageantry - no opportunity for red-blooded Englishmen to salute the flag - that is not at risk from the prevailing political climate. Yes, now even the Last Night of the Proms is the subject of an absurd, confected culture war manufactured out of thin air by the Murdoch press and Tory reactionaries. Is nothing sacred?

The whole thing seems to have begun when the BBC, which has run the Promenade Concerts since 1927, confronted the problem of staging the Last Night in the rather unique circumstances of 2020, and put under review the traditional performances of Edward Elgar’s Land of hope and glory’ and Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British sea songs, which concludes with the anthem, ‘Rule, Britannia!’. It is the matter of exactly which ‘unique circumstances’ are at issue which is the pivot of all the controversy.

A Sunday Times exposé claimed that it was the Black Lives Matter movement’s recent offensive against symbols of British imperial history, quoting an anonymous source to the effect that conductor Dalia Stasevska “is a big supporter of Black Lives Matter and thinks a ceremony without an audience is the perfect moment to bring change” (August 23). The report began the now-traditional firestorm of idiotic opprobrium, with chippy British chauvinists like Nigel Farage demanding her head, The Sun screaming “Land of woke and glory” on its front page, and - since he had run out of civil servants to constructively dismiss - a jeremiad from the prime minister himself on “our cringing embarrassment about our history” and our “wetness”.

The BBC, showing a stiffer backbone than we have seen of late, elected to stand by its woman, making clear that it - not the conductor - had the final say on the programme and took responsibility for the presence or otherwise of the traditional patriotic singalongs. At issue was the limits placed on the performance by the Covid-19 pandemic. Followers of classical music will be well aware that the worst possible activity to engage in at these times is choir-singing, with dozens of people well-endowed with lung-capacity bellowing out a vast salival aerosol.

In such a situation, the BBC, and its suspiciously foreign-sounding conductor, faced a choice. Either it produced the least impressive piece of nationalistic pageantry in the history of that dubious activity, or it programmes something else. The first compromise arrived at was an instrumental performance of the two pieces, which - thanks to the bloodshot-eyed bloviations of Farage, Johnson and co - nobody whatever would enjoy.

That is not to say, of course, that there were no voices raised in objection to the two songs on anti-racist grounds. Richard Morrison, a critic for the BBC’s Music magazine - essentially the house organ of Radio 3 - delivered a broadside recently against the “toe-curling, embarrassing, anachronistic farrago of nationalistic songs that concludes the Last Night of the Proms”. The Guardian also quoted Chi-chi Nwanoku - the bassist and founder of the majority-black and minority-ethnic ensemble, Chineke! - on her horror at the use of these texts, which made her and other black musicians feel “invisible”.

Not that the Daily Mail was satisfied. Here was another chance to bash the hated BBC and put two fingers up to BLM and ‘political correctness’. The Mail launched an online petition demanding the BBC “overturn its hugely controversial decision.” No surprise it notched-up 100,000 signatures. And, no surprise, a few days later the BBC “saw sense” and performed a swift U-turn. Hence the BBC singers and the two soloists are to be scattered around the Royal Albert Hall - not a place blessed with a great acoustics at the best of times - and there will be - obviously - no audience to join in. But the two damned songs will be sung. A stirring victory for the defenders of Britannia’s honour!


It is worth a closer look at the role, in history and the present, of these songs, then. ‘Rule, Britannia!’ was written as part of a masque based on the story of Alfred the Great. The composer, Thomas Arne, was English; the librettist was a Scot, James Thomson; and the great man in whose honour the masque was assembled was Frederick, the Prince of Wales - or Friedrich Ludwig von Brunswick-Lüneburg to his mum. If he had lived to inherit the throne, he would have been the last non-native-born monarch of this country.

In its genesis, then, it represents modern Britain in its initial shape: the shotgun wedding of England and Scotland under a domesticated German dynasty. And the text is a good example of the cultural raw materials used to construct this new, paradoxical multinational entity, as well as alluding to the bloodier side of that operation, in its adulation of naval power. So far as that original context goes (in which, it should be remembered, ‘Rule, Britannia!’ became an enormous hit, long outlasting the courtly play that gave it birth), Nwanoku is rather missing the point when she complains:

The lyrics are just so offensive, talking about the ‘haughty tyrants’ - people that we are invading on their land and calling them haughty tyrants - and Britons shall never be slaves, which implies that it’s OK for others to be slaves, but not us.

The “haughty tyrants” in question are not the erstwhile rulers of Britain’s colonial holdings, but the absolute monarchs of the continent: especially the Bourbon kings of France, with whom so many blows had been traded over the previous half-century that the whole period became known to some historians as the ‘Second Hundred Years War’. The fact that French support was essential to the Jacobites, who sought a second restoration of Stuart absolutism, made the matter a rather less than academic one for a British elite in its infancy. Given that we know the subsequent history, it is hard to grasp that centuries of British hegemony hardly seemed inevitable at a time when some fortuitous alliance of rival powers, combined with domestic insurrection, might once again have reversed the fall of the absolute monarchy in the British Isles. ‘Britons never will be slaves’ is not to be understood on its own terms as implying that the Anglo-Saxons were some sort of Herrenvolk, and thus it was the job of others to be slaves, but a refusal to go back to the ‘slavery’ common to absolute monarchies.

Thus it is also worth noting that the original refrain is in the imperative: “Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves!” - that is, you must rule the waves! It was not the case in 1740 that Britain enjoyed unchallenged naval superiority, though Britannia was to heed Thomson’s demand not long after. It was, in short, a sort of manifesto for the new ruling elite of a society which now aggressively asserted its claims on the world stage by flaunting its liberty against its competitors’ despotism.

That said, it is hardly a surprise that ‘Britons never will be slaves’ is so easily said with a bitter dose of irony, given the sort of thing that was going on atop the waves Britannia sought to rule. One of the prizes of such competition for control was a freer hand in trans-Atlantic trade; and a great deal of that trade was, of course, in human flesh. The brutality of the slave trade and the slave economies of the Americas need not be rehearsed here; in ‘Rule, Britannia!’, as so often in bourgeois ideology, the exploitative and violent obverse of ‘liberty’ is simply left undisclosed.

By the time Elgar sat down in 1902 to set the Coronation ode to music - including the stately finale, ‘Land of hope and glory’ - things looked rather different, to put it mildly. Britain had lost the colonies that became the United States of America, but had successfully pivoted to the east, amassing vast holdings in Asia and the Pacific, and enthusiastically hoovering up pieces of Africa against competition from the other European colonial powers. Queen Victoria, whose passing had occasioned the coronation in question, had been crowned the first Empress of India. At some point, the lyrics of ‘Rule, Britannia!’ subtly changed: the refrain now went, “Britannia rules the waves” - a self-congratulatory statement of a simple, empirical fact. And so the ‘Land of hope and glory’ chorus is unsurprisingly far more obviously imperialist:

Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set;

God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet!

Elgar set the words to a section of his instrumental piece, the Pomp and circumstance march, which - in contrast to the sprightly, exhortatory arrangement of ‘Rule, Britannia!’, lopes along unhurriedly. It is a victory march, not a call to arms. As the piece slowly grew in popularity, however - thanks in no small part to its frequent programming as part the Proms - that indomitable self-confidence was shaken badly, by the enormous human cost of World War I, and then with Britain’s eclipse by the USA after World War II.

The irony was no longer the contrast between British liberty and the enslavement of people slightly off-stage, but between the hymn to wider and wider, divinely-ordained British supremacy and the narrower and narrower reality of British decline. It was, strikingly, not until 1947 that the flag-waving singalong finale of the Last Night of the Proms attained its present form (well, apart from 2020).

For this reason, the complaint that this medley is “anachronistic” (Morrison) or “irrelevant to today’s society [and has been] irrelevant for generations” (Nwanoku) is based on reality, but ultimately quite wrong. The reality celebrated by it - of British imperial glory - is gone, so on the face of it the songs are bizarrely out of place when British dependencies of the current age amount to a handful of tax havens and little else, our sea power is vastly reduced, and our ‘liberty’ is founded not on such power, but on our being dutiful ‘slaves’ to the United States. Yet these things have essentially been true for the whole history of the ritual (as opposed to its prehistory). In 1740, Thomson looked forward to British pre-eminence, at the very birth of ‘the British’; in 1902, Elgar and Benson cheered the vast expansion of that power, unaware that it was about to implode; in the modern age of patriotic song, we celebrate a mythical history.


The first time I went to the Proms, it was for a performance of Richard Wagner’s opera Parsifal. As we queued up outside the Royal Albert Hall, a middle-aged man in a full tweed suit walked up and down the line, beaming with pride, telling us in a cut-glass English accent: “I wrote the music you’ll be hearing tonight!”

The 5,000 punters doing Elgar karaoke every year are under a similar misapprehension, except their delusion lies elsewhere: they identify with the subject, not the artist - ‘We’re the empire you’ll be singing about tonight!’ It is no surprise that it should prove so neuralgic today, either, since a sort of empire-nostalgist ultra-patriotism has grown through the cracks of the neoliberal consensus here, as have analogues in many other countries. So ‘irrelevant’ is this medley to modern society that the prime minister - elected with a crushing majority to enact that greatest contemporary delusion of grandeur, Brexit - will fight woke Finnish conductors on the beaches (etc, etc) to save it.

Classical music’s role in all this is ambiguous. Throughout the 20th century and up to the present day, it has been a theatre of ‘soft power’ struggle between nations. Classical musicians are thus a little like Olympic athletes: they are engaged in an activity that takes years of training and is done quasi-competitively in accordance with structures defined by and to some extent administered from Europe. Just as a big haul of medals is a boon to a smaller or rising world power, so is the emergence of a world-class symphony orchestra (or merely a momentarily fashionable one, such as Venezuela’s celebrated Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra).

It can only be so, paradoxically, because it is highly cosmopolitan; its formal traditions had spread and solidified throughout Europe by the end of the 19th century and, of course, it spread further through the formal empires of those powers (and later through the ‘spheres of influence’ that replaced formal empires). Music spreads more easily than literature, for obvious reasons; attempts to ‘nationalise’ it, in both revolutionary and reactionary forms (and in forms which span both, as in the case of Wagner), tend to fail, with the reabsorption of ‘national’ music into an international musical repertoire.

The conflict between the highly international, demimondaine reality of classical music and the low chauvinist uses to which it is put is adequately demonstrated by the current fiasco, in which British national chauvinists demand an appropriately patriotic performance from a Finnish conductor, a South African soprano, a Georgian-German violin soloist and an orchestra and choir as mixed in their nationalities as is usual for such organisations. (British concert bands are not looking forward to a hard Brexit, to put it mildly.)

If the classical world has avoided being consumed by the national-state agendas that swarm around it, however, it has done so precisely as a demimonde - more even than literature or theatre, a hobby-horse of small, elite, tendentially-conservative audiences. The survival of it as a form has never been certain under capitalist social relations; it has instead been the effortful achievement of the state that preserved it from the rapacious homogenisation of capitalist mass culture, and the state’s loyalty to the cause is highly conditional. Who knows what a world free of such national peacock shows would make of the traditions of western art music (and equivalent, high-cultural forms from outside the west, for that matter)?

It is to be hoped, at the very least, that we would do better than merely preserving them.