Page 3 Profile: Thomas Arne, Composer of Rule, Britannia!

  • @OliDuggan

Don't you mean Edward Elgar?

No! David Cameron named Elgar as the composer of "Rule, Britannia!" on David Letterman's Late Show this week, but he was wrong. Following the PM's bungled answer there has been a frenzy to ensure the music is correctly attributed to Arne, an 18th-century British composer.

From humble beginnings (Arne's grandfather died in a debtors' prison), the London-born musician gained the patronage of Frederick, Prince of Wales. And it was at Frederick's country home, Cliveden, that that Arne's new song received its premiere.

So why the confusion?

The lyrics were written by James Thomson and set to music by Arne in 1740, but were referenced, or "borrowed" by Handel, the Jacobites, Alexander Guilmant, and Elgar – the PM's man. But it was Arne who originally penned the tune, and don't let anyone tell you different.

Sounds like a truly great Briton

Not quite the usual stereotype. Arne may be the composer of the UK's most patriotic song, but he was Catholic, so he never wrote music for the Church of England. The son of an upholsterer who managed to make enough money to send him to Eton, he sneaked a spinet into his dormitory while his peers slept, dampening the sounds of his keyboard practice with a handkerchief. In 1741 he became one of the first artists to claim legal damages under breach of copyright. His claim against a top London bookseller, which would evoke sympathy from most 21st century pop stars, was settled out of court.

And the difficult second album?

After the success of "Rule, Britannia!" Arne settled down to a life of modest fame. In 1755 he separated from his wife Cecilia, who he claimed was mentally ill, and began a relationship with one of his pupils, Charlotte Brent. However, shortly before his death in 1777, Arne and his wife were reconciled. They are both buried in St Paul's Covent Garden.