Dominic Lawson: Our athletes deserve better than this national dirge

There is a marvellous alternative national anthem: Holst's 'I Vow To Thee, My Country'

Dominic Lawson
Wednesday 08 August 2012 20:14

Oh no, not the national anthem, again. Before I am denounced as a dangerous subversive by the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG), I should explain that this is not an expression of boredom at the extraordinarily impressive gold medal haul by British athletes during the past week: it's a wonderful thing for the home fans to see their team do so well. Nor is it a complaint about the obsessive concentration on "Team GB" by the host broadcaster – although it would be a refreshing change if the BBC were able to avoid giving the impression that Usain Bolt is the only non-British competitor worth any airtime.

No, it's the national anthem itself that I find uninspiring – and it does not improve with repetition. My guess is that this opinion is widely held, even if not often openly expressed. The polling organisation YouGov, at the peak of the celebrations of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, asked its "participants" to "declare your views on the national anthem". The interesting thing was that although roughly 70 per cent had said they were in favour of the continuation of the monarchy, YouGov reported that "an overwhelming number of you told us you didn't like the national anthem".

Obviously, a lot of those would have been among the minority who would like to see the monarchy abolished: for them there is something alienating and even repellent in an anthem dedicated to its preservation. They are also able to point out that such countries as Sweden, Norway and Spain, while constitutional monarchies rather than republics, still manage to have decent anthems which celebrate the nation as a whole rather than the regnant of the day.

But the implication of YouGov's research is more interesting: it is that many of those happy to be a subject rather than a citizen would still prefer to have a new national anthem. This may reflect nothing more than simple yearning for a more inspirational melody. As YouGov reported: "Participants not in favour of the anthem used a slew of 'd' words to describe how they felt about it: 'dull', 'depressing', 'dour', 'downbeat' and (most popular) 'dirge'." I am with the "d" crowd, despite the sterling efforts of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (whose recording of the anthem is what you hear during the frequent medal ceremonies when Britain wins gold).

It is dirge-like – and the fact that both Bach and Beethoven composed variations on it does not make it any less so. The problem was partially explained by some research by English and German musicologists earlier this year, who attempted a ranking of what they called "singability" among national anthems. Their study measured the ability of different anthems to make unaffiliated listeners join in spontaneously. The French anthem, "La Marseillaise", came top. The (unofficial) Welsh "Land of My Fathers" came second, while "God Save The Queen" came in next to last: and even the most stalwart England supporter attending a Wales-England rugby match will know why that is. Whoever wins the game, the Welsh always win the battle of the anthems.

The technical explanation is provided by one of the musicologists behind the anthem research, Dr Alisun Pawley: "The tune of the British anthem is written in a way that doesn't invite high chest voice singing for most people's voices and it lacks a real hook or climax where people feel compelled to join in or belt it out."

"Jerusalem", the name given to Hubert Parry's setting of Blake's poem "And Did Those Feet In Ancient Time", certainly scores higher than the official national anthem on that count, and seems to have an appeal across the spectrum, being belted out each year alongside "Rule Britannia" at the Last Night of the Proms, while also at the closing of the annual Labour Party Conference.

More recently it has been taken up as a possible anthem by a cross-party group of MPs calling for something to rouse support for the England team in sporting events. Actually, those MPs are a bit behind the game: it already ricochets out from the tannoys at home matches of the England cricket team at the start of each day's play – although the version generally chosen is so over-the-top that those of a sensitive musical disposition are well-advised to cover their ears.

There is also something more than a little odd about the basic idea behind Blake's poem: that Jesus, accompanied by his uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, travelled to England – and in particular, the Mendip Hills around Glastonbury. In addition, it poses certain problems for the Church of England, since it is believed by many scholars that the non-conformist Blake's "dark satanic mills" actually refer to the great edifices of the established church.

There is a marvellous alternative national anthem, and with a musical setting by one of Britain's greatest composers, Gustav Holst: "I Vow To Thee, My Country". It is already the national song of the British Indian Ocean Territory, and is associated with Remembrance Day services across the Commonwealth. Its biggest supporter was actually kicked out of the Royal Family – it had been a favourite of Diana, Princess of Wales: she chose it as a hymn at her wedding to Prince Charles and it was sung at her funeral.

Like Blake's poem, the words by Cecil Spring-Rice explicitly link the ideal of patriotism to the notion of Christian spiritual salvation, so there will be some critics of an aggressively atheist persuasion; but as an unbeliever myself, I find the Holst/Spring-Rice anthem moving and even inspirational on both a musical and literary level. I suspect, however, that if there were a national vote on this matter, "Jerusalem" would be endorsed by an overwhelming majority – aided by the fact that it now seems mandatory in every church wedding.

It might be assumed that the Queen, if allowed to participate in such a plebiscite, would add her vote to those demanding we stick with the current national anthem. On the other hand, historians tell us the story – though it may be apocryphal – that when George V attended a 1922 performance of Elgar's orchestrated version of "Jerusalem", he declared that he preferred it to "God Save The King". This showed good musical taste on the then monarch's part. Besides, if "Jerusalem" – or indeed "I Vow To Thee, My Country" – were to replace the current national anthem, then at least the Queen, rather than standing in mute acknowledgement, could join in with the rest of us.

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