Land of Hope and Glory: do you blush?
BBC Radio 4 has just broadcast a short but charming programme about our great Non-National Anthem, Land of Hope and Glory, describing its genesis, and how the words came to be written to Elgar’s splendid tune, with clips of majestic contraltos past and present warbling it or belting it out, and finally of the audience singing it lustily, con brio, as the traditional high point of the last night of the Proms, the BBC’s flagship classical music festival at the Royal Albert Hall (the Proms are on now, broadcast live every evening on BBC Radio 3). The programme prompted the thought that the British middle class, and perhaps also the few remaining Britons not answering to that description, can be divided into two categories: those who squirm with embarrassment at the camp kitsch and maudlin patriotism of a mass audience at the Proms inviting the Deity at full throttle to make the borders of the British Empire "wider still and wider"; and those who revel in the exhilaration of a thousand lusty voices singing words and music that have become a great national secular celebration owing as much to self-mockery in a very British spirit of irony as it does to residual patriotism. I know which of those categories I’m in.
The full text of the lyric written for LOHAG in 1902 by the otherwise shy and retiring A C Benson (1862-1925) is overwhelmingly steeped in now unfashionable flag-wagging patriotism and glory in Empire, while at the same time serving as a stirring reminder of national pride and confidence barely a hundred years ago, only just over thirty short years before I was born. Who could now write with a straight face such immortal lines as these, addressed of course to the aforesaid Land of Hope and Glory? —
Thine equal laws, by Freedom gained,
Have ruled thee well and long;
By Freedom gained, by Truth maintained,
Thine Empire shall be strong.
Nor are these sentiments entirely vanished even now: there is a splendid website, well worth a visit, whose home page sports no fewer than five swirling animated Union Jacks (as I persist in calling the Union Flag), the words of the main and best-known verse, and the spirited slogan of defiance: "They can stop us singing it at the Proms, but never in our hearts", a reference to a recent controversial decision by a new and misguided conductor of the Last Night to excise LOHAG from its traditional place in the programme. (But the thought of the devoted fans of LOHAG being reduced to singing the great Coronation Ode only "in our hearts" is somewhat dispiriting, isn’t it?) The quiddity of this memorable website, incidentally, is richly embellished by the information that "This site is sponsored by Worldwide Aromatiques UK who supply Essential Oils & Health Supplements by Free Delivery Mail-Order in the UK". Make a note of it.
One final thought. When the television channels broadcast classical music concerts, the camera-work is almost always superb, homing in unerringly on the instrument and player contributing a key element to the music, pulling back to show the whole orchestra at big ensemble moments, glimpsing the conductor as he strains, sweating, to impart his passionate feelings through baton and hands to the players: the camera director always revealing an intimate knowledge and understanding of the score. You may miss the excitement of being present at a performance with hundreds of others, but in compensation for that you probably get a better and more informed view of the playing on your television screen than you do from the most expensive seat in the stalls. (And to those purists who say that the televised visual images accompanying the sounds of great music are a distraction from concentration on the music itself, I put the question: when you go to a concert, do you keep your eyes closed throughout the performance?) So why, when televised classical music is such a treat, and so expertly transmitted to us, do the BBC and the other television channels broadcast so very little good music? Why isn’t every single Prom broadcast on BBC 2 television, instead of the occasional broadcast on a digital channel that hardly anyone watches or has access to, the occasional BBC 2 broadcast if a Prom, usually on a Saturday, contains some item of wide popularity — and, of course, the Last Night, which is more a celebration than a classical music concert? The Proms are a huge popular success, attracting massive riveted audiences at the Royal Albert Hall, including many young people: why does the BBC assume that there isn’t a similarly enthusiastic audience out there in the country for the nightly Prom on television? Listening to the Proms on BBC Radio 3 is better than nothing, but it’s not the same as seeing it on the screen while listening to the music. Apart from anything else, on Radio 3 you can’t enjoy watching that lovely blonde young lady with the Alice in Wonderland hair, playing her heart out among the first violins…