Tuesday, 25 August 2009
What makes the British British? Jerusalem
What makes Britishness? There's no such thing as British ethnicity, for the country was settled by Picts, Celts, Saxons, Vikings, all of whom are found in significant numbers all over Europe. There were Jews, too, but they were ethnically cleansed in the 12th century. London always was an international city. So what is so British about the British?
This Proms season has been fascinating because it has raised lots of ideas that pertain to what makes national identity. The Proms are often seen as a bastion of British but what does that mean.? The commentary on the Cambridge Prom was revealing as the implication was that Cambridge is what British music "is". Sure, lots of composers and musicians went there, but the really key ones didn't or developed after they got away. Then there's the idea that Cambridge choirs are unique - well, yes they are, because King's College Choir is wonderful and has the most spectacular building to work in. But choirs have been a part of college life since universities were monks-only. Which is all universities throughout Europe before the Renaissance. What is "new" about King's is that they do it bigger, better and more dramatically. But that ignores the fact that there have been Schola cantorums all over the place and still are.
And of Charles Villiers Stanford the less said the better!
This week the Proms posed the question of national identity even more potently with Handel's Samson. So the key figure in non-early British music was German? Most of the musicians at court always were: so were the kings. And of course most of the clergy. So there is no shame attached, whatsoever, to his not being native born.
Handel came to London because that's where progressive things were happening in his time. Which is why his music sounds confident. So his music was hijacked to serve a new sense of national identity? But that's the way history has always worked. People need a sense of community as a raft for diffuse ideas. All over Europe identity created the nation-state, the idea of language-based countries rather than conglomerates like the Hapsburg empire. The Middle East situation has many roots in the European past. Similarly in 20th century Asia where nationalism was part of the process of modernization. The idea of a nation (as opposed to a clearly defined tribe) is relatively recent. What happens in future when technology creates a monolingual community without physical boundaries?
And when does healthy, normal pride cross the line into destructiveness? The BNP (far right political party) could well turn Samson into a weapon. "Sweep the land of this race" after all. Unfortunately or fortunately, the BNP are Philistines, so they won't.
Then there's Jerusalem. Not Jerusalem the place, but the song, highlight of the Last Night of the Proms, when flags are waved and silly hats worn. These days the flags are usually waved by drunken Aussies so they can get on TV where those at home can admire them. It's infantile, but it helps dissipate the bombastic overtones.
Jerusalem the song has become a badge of national pride, and rightly so as it's a powerfully moving piece that lends itself to the massed choir thing the British like so much. But does it really celebrate England's "green and pleasant land"?
Think who wrote it and why. It was William Blake. He starts part way into a question "And did those feet in ancient times walk on England's mountains green?" This refers to the legend that Joseph of Arimathea came to Glastonbury, with Jesus in tow. Blake doesn't answer "No" though it's implied if you think about it. Blake's Jerusalem is a mental construct, a symbol of an ideal place where godly principles rule. Reality is "dark satanic mills", squalor, poverty, exploitation. Nineteenth-century mill owners may have been towers of respectability, funding churches and perhaps singing massed choir Handel. But the way they treated others was not in accord with the humane teachings of Jesus. This Jerusalem could not have been "builded" in Britain c 1800, but could exist anywhere, anytime as long as people believe in ideals.
So Blake's Jerusalem is anything but comfort music for the established order. "I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, til we have built Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land". Maybe that expresses an alternative tradition of Britishness, doughty idealism. But again, no one nation has a monopoly on radical thought. And that silly idea that British music is Cambridge? The song setting was written by Hubert Parry, an Oxford don put down by Stanford (the Cambridge don not the ege). And orchestrated by Elgar, who never went to university at all.
Please see HERE for Hanns Eisler's birthday song for Jesus "Du warst ein Revolutionar"