This is not the first time controversy has eruptedby Jason Whittaker / August 26, 2020 / Leave a comment
The prime minister has called the decision to remove the lyrics from renditions of “Rule, Britannia!” and “Land of Hope and Glory” at Last Night of the Proms “wet” and a “cringing embarrassment.” On the other side, campaigners like professor Kehinde Andrews claim the songs are “racist propaganda,” and performers such as Lily Allen have called for “Rule, Britannia!” to be banned. A particularly thorny point is the reference to slaves in the song, placing the 18th-century anthem in the middle of 21st-century culture wars about Britain’s colonial past.
Rule, Britannia!” first appeared as an ode in Alfred: A Masque by James Thomson and David Mallet, presented to the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1740 and later set to music by Thomas Arne. This is not the first time that the song has been used as a focus for contemporary arguments regarding British identity. Yet the current controversy stems entirely from its inclusion in the phenomenon of Last Night of the Proms. Understanding the history of that event is instructive.
The song’s inclusion is due to Malcolm Sargent, who became chief conductor when the events returned to the BBC after World War II. According to his biographer, Charles Reid, Sargent brought a new “gloss and briskness” to Proms performances and by 1953 he had fixed the programme for the Last Night.
The Last Night had been an occasion to wind down the Proms season since the time of Henry Wood. Sargent’s formula was to provide a series of popular classics followed by several patriotic songs, including Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs, Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” (including “Land of Hope and Glory”), Arne’s “Rule, Britannia!”, Parry’s “Jerusalem,” and the national anthem, as well as a speech by the conductor. The speech had been introduced by Woods in 1941 when the future of the Proms was in jeopardy, but it was with Sargent that the speech itself became a more flamboyant affair. As Sargent remarked: “if people can get as enthusiastic about music as about football… that is all to the good.” He also encouraged that other aspect of post-war populism, the flag-waving that had made its debut at the performance of “Land of Hope and Glory” in 1945, which was treated by the audience as a victory celebration marking the end of the War.