Nearly nineteen years ago, on 15th September 2001 I watched along with a group of friends the Last Night of the Proms, broadcast from the Royal Albert Hall to giant screens in London’s Hyde Park. This was just four days after the tragic 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States and the decision was correctly taken to change the running order to reflect the public mood in reaction to these terrible events. For the finale, before the singing of the hymn Jerusalem, we heard Michael Tippett’s ‘A Child of Our Time’ and part of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, instead of the usual singing of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and ‘Rule Britannia.’
In recent years I have been fortunate to attend the Last Night of the Proms in person, and I enjoy the music and traditions of this great spectacle and much as any of its enthusiasts. The event has become a national institution culminating in the performance of Rule Britannia, Land of Hope and Glory as well as Jerusalem. In fact, the decision to change the arrangement of the music in 2001 signified the strength of this institution, making it a significant act of reverence and respect.
There has been an argument in the last week about proposed changes to this year’s Last Night of the Proms, which will mean that Rule Britannia and Land of Hope of Glory will be played but not sung. The reasoning for this is not entirely clear, and it is certainly not the result of a debate or consultation with viewers. There has been a suggestion that this is because some people regard the performance of these songs as out-dated and even that some of the words are offensive. People are of course entitled to their opinion, but so too are the millions of people who have enjoyed these performances over the years.
Great words and music that become part of our national culture, based on the significance people have attached to them over many years, often centuries, should not be lightly discarded. Often, they have been rallying cries calling people to put personal interests aside for the greater good to their community and nation. The words of the French anthem, La Marseillaise, might seem somewhat out of touch to some modern ears, when it calls the people of France to arms against tyranny and to water the fields of the nation with the blood of the ‘impure’ foreign invaders. In the context of the time, the song was a rallying defence in the revolutionary wars of the late eighteenth century, but surely its greater significance today is as an anthem that has been a constant focal point for a nation through more recent triumphs and tragedies. Rule Britannia was written in 1740 by Thomas Arne as part of a musical about King Alfred the Great, England’s first king, who united a divided nation in defence against a foreign invader. The words of the song recount how Britain’s strength would mean that it could resist invasion from a tyrant, and indeed that power would be significant in our nation’s role in abolishing the slave trade in the nineteenth century. For 280 years it has been performed and enjoyed, invoking confidence in the future and a sense of shared and common purpose. These are qualities that are needed for all times, and particularly our own.