This week on the show, by decree of Queen Elizabeth II, her royal highness herself, we’re bringing you a show all about Merrie Olde England! We’re crossing the pond to explore some proper British music in a show we’re calling “Rule, Britannia!”
Keep calm, carry on, and enjoy our playlist!
- Edward Elgar (1857–1934), Pomp and Circumstance: March No. 1 in D major – In the late 19th century, Sir Edward Elgar emerged as the first great British composer after a centuries-long drought. Elgar’s music was mostly influenced by continental Europe, but it still had strong British patriotic themes. His Pomp And Circumstance marches, for instance, are stylized British military marches, and as the husband of an army General’s daughter, Elgar knew a thing or two about this aspect of British life. Elgar took the title for these marches from a line in the third act Shakespeare’s play Othello in which Othello bids farewell to the “Pride, Pomp, and Circumstance of glorious war.” The more solemn and stately trio in the middle of the first march has become a British patriotic song known as “Land Of Hope And Glory.” However, we Yankees know it better as “the graduation song.” It’s been played at nearly every graduation ceremony in the U.S. since 1905, when it was first played at the commencement at Yale University.
- Arthur Sullivan (1842–1900) and W. S. Gilbert (1836–1911), H.M.S. Pinafore – If there’s one thing that the British are historically known for around the world, it’s the strength of their navy. But even the Royal British Navy was not immune from the merry pranks of Gilbert and Sullivan. W. S. Gilbert’s father had been a surgeon in the British navy. H.M.S. Pinafore is in part a criticism of the cronyism found among the incompetent ranking officers. The operetta originated from a collection of poems and illustrations by Gilbert called Bab Ballads. He wrote and illustrated these Bab Ballads for several years, before adding his ‘topsy-turvy’ voice to the music of Arthur Sullivan. Pinafore was the first international hit for the duo, and part of its success had to do with the production. Gilbert and Sullivan made sure every aspect of the production, from the dialogue, to the costumes, to even the nautical sets, were accurate representations of the British navy.
- Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958), English Folk Song Suite – Vaughan Williams, along with fellow English composer Gustav Holst and ethnomusicologist Cecil Sharp, spent the early years of the twentieth century analyzing each other’s musical works. Together, these men simultaneously elevated the reputation of art music and traditional music in England. Sharp was a collector of folk tunes and Vaughan Williams benefited from the opportunity to workshop his music with him, taking the Folk Song Suite through several revisions before publication. The first movement is unusual in that it is based on an irregular thirteen bar melody from a street ballad called Seventeen Come Sunday. Vaughan Williams further complicates things by setting another folksong, Dives and Lazarus, over the melody of the first. The outcome is an ambiguous counterpoint between two melodic lines, the first in a straight 2/4 march while the second rushes by in 6/8.
- Henry Purcell (1659–1695), Bonduca: “Britons strike home!” – One of Britain’s legendary folk heroines was the Celtic queen Boudica, who led an uprising against Roman conquerors in 61 AD. Although the revolt was ultimately unsuccessful, Boudica’s forces recaptured three major Celtic strongholds and killed some 80,000 Roman soldiers. Music for a dramatic adaptation of the legend of Boudica was the last project Purcell finished before his death in 1695, titled Bonduca. When not entertaining or composing at the Royal court, Purcell often socialized with London’s theater crowd. On one particularly cold evening, Purcell’s wife Frances locked Henry out of the house, as punishment for staying out too late. It is said that his exposure to the frigid air brought on a fatal case of pneumonia. Many historians have speculated that if Henry Purcell had not died so young, his musical dramas would have made the English style a key player in the development of early opera, and changed the course of music history.
- Frederick Delius (1862–1934), Brigg Fair: An English Rhapsody – English composer Frederick Delius called Brigg Fair, his set of orchestral variations, an “English Rhapsody.” And certainly, it has very English origins. It’s based on an old Lincolnshire folk song of the same name, about a man who rises early on an August morning to meet his true love at the fair. However, the man who first brought the old folk tune to the attention of modern society was not British, but rather Australian by birth. Australian composer Percy Grainger moved to England in the early 20th century and began collecting English folk music on wax cylinders, “Brigg Fair” being among those original folk tunes. Grainger became fascinated with the Dorian-mode melody and made a choral arrangement of the tune. This choral arrangement in turn inspired the rhapsody by Delius, who was a close friend of Grainger’s.
- Malcolm Arnold (1921–2006), English Dances, Book I, op. 27 – Pulling inspiration from English folk song is a staple of 20th century English style, as is frequently using wind and brass instruments. Malcolm Arnold checked both these boxes with his sets of English Dances and in a companion composition, his Scottish Dances. Beyond band music, Arnold was an incredibly prolific composer, with many concertos, symphonies, chamber works, operas, ballets and choral works to his name. The zenith of his career probably came in the realm of film music, when he received on Oscar award for his score to the movie The Bridge On The River Kwai in 1957. He didn’t stop there, contributing musical scores to over a hundred films and documentaries until his death in 2006, including the music for the original 1958 film Dunkirk.
- William Walton (1902–1983), Henry V Suite – Perhaps the most dramatic and intense of Shakespeare’s historical plays is Henry V, of which there are numerous film and stage versions. Henry V is set in the year 1415, the year that the English won a decisive battle against the French army at Agincourt during the Hundred Years’ War. This wartime setting was very much relevant when the 1944 film version of the play was released in Great Britain. Henry V was directed by Shakespearean actor Laurence Olivier, who also played the title role. In addition to being one of England’s greatest cinematic achievements, the film also boasts one of history’s greatest film scores composed by William Walton. He based part of his score on a 15th-century English folk song that depicts the British army engaging the French at Agincourt. Walton later made a concert suite of music from the film, heard here.
- Alexander Mackenzie (1847–1935), Britannia – A Nautical Overture, op. 52– The Scottish composer Sir Alexander Mackenzie served as the Principal of the Royal Academy of Music for nearly 40 years beginning in 1888. This was an important time too, a time that historians often refer to as the English Musical Renaissance, when British composers began to assert their only distinctively British musical style. Mackenzie started his career as a violinist before turning his attention towards composing, conducting, and educating. His 1894 work Britannia – A Nautical Overture was written for the 70th anniversary of the Royal Academy of Music (or RAM), and pieces together original themes with clips of the tune “Rule, Britannia!” by Thomas Arne. Mackenzie influenced many British composers, including Edward Elgar, who played violin in an early premiere of a work by Mackenzie. And fun fact, there’s another famous “Sir Alexander Mackenzie”; he’s the Scottish explorer who had many expeditions across Canada in the late 18th century.
- Sex Pistols, “God Save The Queen” – The Sex Pistols’ 1977 song “God Save The Queen” is definitely not the national anthem of the British commonwealth—although it does purposefully share a name with that tune. The song was a single from the British punk band’s one and only album Nevermind The Bollocks – Here’s The Sex Pistols. As you can probably guess, the Sex Pistols had no problem walking into controversial territory. Their version of “God Save The Queen” aggressively criticizes the British monarchy, calling them “a Fascist regime” and saying the queen “ain’t no human being.” This was especially offensive because the release of this song happened to coincide with the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebration, the 25th anniversary of her reign. The wild antics of the Sex Pistols broke up the band about a year later, but “God Save The Queen” still goes down in history as UK punk music’s “crowning” achievement.