Time For An English National Anthem?

God Save The Queen - Sex Pistols - 2

We don’t need to change our national anthem, or create a separate one for England. We just need to make much better use of the one we already have

Is it time that England asserted herself by choosing a new national anthem of her own, separate and distinct from “God Save The Queen”, which supposedly represents our whole United Kingdom?

MPs seem to think so – the House of Commons has just voted in favour of an English national anthem, with a strong movement emerging to make Jerusalem England’s new anthem. But was Chesterfield MP Toby Perkins right to table the motion in the first place, and would we be right to ultimately adopt his idea?

In short, no. Much as this blog is generally in favour of full parity between the four home nations – best expressed through a federal structure brought about as the result of a full constitutional convention – calls for a separate English national anthem are particularly unhelpful at this time.

Our United Kingdom is already fraying at the seams. Having narrowly avoided dissolution as a result of the Scottish independence referendum last year, now is hardly the time for further measures which emphasise the relatively slight differences between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. And no matter the temptation to poke swivel-eyed Scottish nationalists by meeting their quasi-religious fervour with a matching level of English nationalism, any step in this direction is likely to do more harm than good.

Is “God Save The Queen” a great anthem? Sadly not. Though as one commenter said on the BBC Daily Politics last night, it would have sounded less turgid sung lustily and at twice the speed, as apparently it once was. But there is no escaping the fact that Britain’s national anthem is a dusty and somewhat dull affair, especially set against the rousing, martial Marseillaise, the strutting, operatic Italian anthem or the ever-inspirational Star-Spangled Banner.

But much that is “wrong” or unsatisfactory with “God Save The Queen” can be remedied by performing it better. That means much less Lesley Garrett warbling away in a high soprano, and more beautiful arrangements like the heart-stopping Benjamin Britten version which has been given a new lease of life in recent years at the Last Night of the Proms:

 

The hushed opening, stately and noble tempo and beautiful harmonies, slowly building to an impassioned climax in the (too rarely heard) second verse, “Thy choicest gifts in store…”, actually make those who have only ever heard bad recordings of our national anthem stop and reconsider its merit.

And this sense of a fresh look is possible with contemporary performances too. We all know how the Americans pinched the tune to our national anthem and rebranded it as a patriotic song entitled “My Country, ‘Tis Of Thee“. Well, in the right hands it can sound incredibly moving – again showing that we British fail to make the best use of the source material at our disposal.

Consider Kelly Clarkson’s beautiful performance of “My Country, ‘Tis Of Thee” at President Obama’s second inauguration in 2013:

 

It is quite possible to listen to this beautiful arrangement – with Clarkson accompanied by the US Marine Corps band – and get quite emotional, before thinking “wait – I recognise that tune!”

Yes, that amazing performance which had you on your feet was none other than “God Save The Queen”, re-branded and given a glitzy makeover by a people who are a bit less hesitant to wear their emotions on their sleeves. Once again, we could learn a thing or two from our American cousins.

But of course, there is no escaping the fact that the words of Britain’s national anthem are written to glorify one person – the monarch – rather than our country itself, or her people. For some with republican leanings, it is impossible to get past this obstacle, whatever their other feelings on the subject. I can sympathise with this position. But as someone who greatly admires the Queen, has enormous respect for our country’s history and heritage but who increasingly thinks that the monarchy should be gently separated from our constitution once the second Elizabethan age is over, I still sing our national anthem with pride, thinking of my country rather than just my Queen.

The temptation to meddle – to change things, supplant or supplement them – is always going to be present, because nothing we do or create will ever be perfect. But “God Save the Queen” has been with us since 1745. It is very much a part of our history. In the past year alone it has seen us through two world wars, a cold war, as well as technological and social revolutions which have utterly transformed Britain – nearly always for the better.

Could we adopt Parry’s “Jerusalem” instead? Yes, of course. Nobody doubts that it is a fine composition, with a century of its own history and lyrics – it is a setting of a poem by William Blake – in its favour. It also has the advantage of glorifying a country, or at least an idea of a country, which is what national anthems are if anything supposed to do.

But is the satisfaction we might feel by doing so worth adding to the factors which are undermining our United Kingdom from within and without? Is taking what would be a very bold step toward the reassertion of separate English identity worth potentially destroying our union. I do not think so.

Should we change our national anthem, or create a new anthem specifically for England? Absolutely not. Not now. We should just make much better – and more musical – use of the anthem we already have.

God Save The Queen - Musical Score

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Happy And Glorious

“You are part of the fabric of my life. The mother of our country. At age five I remember watching your wedding procession driving past with my family all eagerly leaning out of the window of a family friend’s flat. Of course our big celebration was our street party in West Drayton. I am the same age as Prince Charles and I remember from early on pictures and newsreels of Charles and Anne being shown to me as they grew. Through these I followed your travels around the world. As a 1960’s fashion model I modeled hats outside Buckingham Palace the newspapers imagined Princess Anne would wear. Your travels, events and duties have been threads that have run throughout my life” – Sandra Vigon

This tribute, offered by a Telegraph reader on the occasion of Queen Elizabeth II becoming Britain’s longest reigning monarch, is poignant and undeniably true.

Every British person born over the past six decades has known no other monarch, seen no other figure represented on their currency, celebrated no Christmas without the Queen’s annual message to her people. In hundreds of small ways, the Queen is part of the fabric of both our individual lives and also our shared national life.

Presented with a blank sheet of paper, nobody would design a hereditary monarchy as the preferred mechanism for producing a ceremonial head of state. And yet it has worked tolerably well for Britain, particularly these past couple of centuries.

The head says that a federal system with an elected head of state would make far more sense – fairer, logical, more egalitarian and less of an anachronism than the curiosity which is the British monarchy. The head says that pledging allegiance to a person rather than a flag or a constitution is quaint at best, and downright dangerous at worst. The head clamours for a constitutional convention and the bold re-imagining of the twenty-first century state. But not so the heart.

The heart is glad for what we have, odd though it is by modern standards: the capsuled history of our country represented by a single person of flesh and blood. The heart looks with pride and gratitude on the lifetime of service dutifully performed by Queen Elizabeth II – a role never democratically bestowed, but fulfilled far more faithfully and proficiently than can be said of many an elected official. And the heart shudders to think what would become of Britain if our head of state was drawn from the same pool of glib, superficial careerists as many of our politicians.

The day will come – not, we pray, for some years yet – when we will have to face these issues and reshape our country for a new age, looking the future square in the eye. But not today. Today, we can be thankful for a duty faithfully discharged for 63 years and counting. An anachronism, yes, but still an example to us all.

Congratulations, your Majesty.

God save the Queen.

Queen Elizabeth II coronation

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The Storm Cone

A supplemental Music For The Day suggestion: “Look, The Storm Cone” from Act I of Benjamin Britten’s 1945 masterpiece, the opera Peter Grimes.

This music seems particularly apt given the severe weather which continues to batter much of the United Kingdom this week, leading to the first “red warning” of the winter from the Met Office.

britishstorm

As the villagers proclaim at the climax: O tide that waits for no man – spare our coasts!

 

All
Now the flood tide
And the sea-horses
Will gallop over
The eroded coast
Flooding, flooding
Our seasonal fears.
Look! The storm cone
The wind veers.
A high tide coming
Will eat the land
A tide no breakwaters can withstand.
Fasten your boats. The springtide’s here
With a gale behind.
 
Chorus
Is there much to fear?
 
Ned
Only for the goods you’re rich in:
It won’t drown your conscience, it might flood your kitchen.
 
Boles
God has his ways which are not ours:
His high tide swallows up the shores.
Repent!
 
Ned
And keep your wife upstairs.
 
Omnes
O Tide that waits for no man
Spare our coasts!

 

Those within traveling distance of London may want to check out the English National Opera’s production of Peter Grimes, running until the 27th February.

 

Music For The Day

“Moonlight”, the third movement of “Sea Interludes”, a suite of four pieces taken from Benjamin Britten’s opera “Peter Grimes”, performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and conducted here by Leonard Bernstein at what I believe was his final concert:

 

“Peter Grimes” is one of my favourite operas, and has been since I went to a concert performance by the London Symphony Orchestra with Glenn Winslade in the title role several years ago.

Against the backdrop of a lush, evocative depiction of life in a 19th century fishing village in East Anglia, the opera tells the story of how a vengeful and gossiping community harrangue and eventually cast out Peter Grimes, a local misfit fisherman.

This is one of several “interlude” pieces which Britten wrote to separate the various acts of the opera, this one coming after a particularly climactic scene. The orchestral depiction of the moonlight on the still, calm sea, is quite breathtaking.

Leonard Bernstein takes a very slow tempo in this performance, but the stilling effect is so strong that I almost feel that I am gazing out at the sea on a cold night in Aldeburgh, Suffolk.

Happy Jubilee Weekend

In honour of Queen Elizabeth II’s 60 years of service to our country as Queen, here is a stunning setting of the National Anthem, arranged by Benjamin Britten, and performed here by the BBC Singers and  BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Last Night of the 2010 Promenade Concerts:

 

And three cheers for our great country. No matter our circumstances or political leanings, we are all exceptionally lucky to live here in Britain.