‘Salut d’amour’ (2)

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/0/02/Edward_Elgar_1917.jpgAn interesting response to my Elgar birthday celebration of the other day has come in from Andrew, another of the various ‘net buddies’ I know solely from so-called ‘social media’. Strictly speaking, in fact, he had two responses; but one of them I’ll keep back for another posting. The first one, which I want to discuss here, was a suggestion in the form of a question: ‘Can’t you find an excuse to post Elgar’s arrangement of the [UK] national anthem?‘, he wrote.

It’s a worthwhile thought — and, indeed, one that has occurred to me in the past: a blog posting full of YouTube clips is actually a very good way of introducing people to a collection of  widely overlooked items like the arrangements of national anthems made by great composers down the years

I’ve never actually done it, though. The reasons for this are two.

First, I don’t really consider that ‘national anthems’ are things to be celebrated. Personally, I’m not too impressed by the notion of nation: so far as I can see, the development of the ‘nation state’ was a step in a shockingly wrong direction — one of humanity’s most regressive and destructive acts, the enduring legacy of which is the worldwide entrenchment of conflict without reason and unity without purpose. Add to this disaster the hypnotising, narcotising effect of ‘communal music’ — especially in connection with the kind of ‘state occasion’ that is confected from a mixture of regalia and gangsterism — and the result is enough to make the gorge rise…

Secondly, practically every national anthem I’ve come across — and, me being me, I’ve trawled through volumes of the things — turns out to be, from a musical point of view, pretty crummy. I admit that I’ve always quite liked the Soviet/Russian one, and the German one as well — the latter possessing the inestimable advantage of having been written by Joseph Haydn. But apart from those two, we generally find ourselves in the presence of rubbish music fulfilling a rubbish function. And ‘God Save the Queen’, the UK’s notional national anthem (it’s never been officially adopted as such), has always struck me as a thoroughly rotten tune: save for the striking asymmetry it manifests (6 bars followed by 8 bars; or if you prefer, three lines followed by four lines…), there’s really nothing to be said in favour of its combination of plodding dullness and servile, monarchistic God-bothering.

Still, its worthlessness actually makes it rather useful as a ‘background’ against which an arranger’s artistry will be thrown into relief. And Elgar’s arrangement of what was then ‘God Save the King’ (this was in the ‘reign’ — ho ho! — of King Edward the Potato, I mean the Seventh) is actually rather marvellous. So let me go with Andrew’s suggestion.

To start with, here — representing the ‘normal’ kind of arrangement — is a version with which every Radio 4 listener who makes it through to midnight will be familiar: it’s the one that’s been used many hundreds of times for the station’s ‘closedown’ — and which I hate hearing because of the way the concluding cymbal crashes are all over the place

And, now that everyone has that firmly in their mind as a ‘background’, I can unleash the arrangement Elgar produced in 1902 for the Leeds Festival…

Beat that!

parry jerusalem

The first page of Parry’s version (1916).

Although, actually, I think one can. Not by coming up with a better arrangement of that tune, but rather by adducing an Elgar arrangement of a better tune. For it so happens that in 1922 Elgar made his own arrangement of Hubert Parry’s famous 1916 hymn (if that’s what it is: there’s no crawling to a deity in it) now known as ‘Jerusalem’.

If we also want to hear Elgar’s version of this against some kind of ‘background’, we actually have one readily available: Parry himself produced and published a voice-and-orchestra version. And this is what it sounds like:

Elgar’s version was produced for the Leeds Festival in 1922 — in other words, the tune was only six years old when he got his artistic hands on it… And here is what he did with it. (Brace yourself: it’s in a different key!)

Now, I’m the second to admit (Hans Keller got there first!) that ‘comparison is not an artistic activity’; but even so, I do think it’s a worthwhile experience to hear the two side-by-side in this way: Parry’s orchestration is perfectly workmanlike (though, myself, I’d have revised some of those brass parts…) — while Elgar’s simply reduces me to jelly

And not ‘patriotic’ jelly, either. Though people are always trying to make a case for ‘Jerusalem’ being officially adopted as the ‘national anthem of England’ (rather than of Britain as a hole [not a typo]), the simple fact is that William Blake (1757-1827) — poet, artist and visionary radical — didn’t have a jingoistic bone in his body, and his poem has nothing whatever to do with the ‘normal’ patriot’s morally amnesiac blustering about national might and prestige. What his poem is, is a call to moral action in the form of an inspiring declaration of intent to struggle for change and improvement. ‘Rule Britannia’ it isn’t.

Not that this gets across, of course. When you see a video that’s been put together by someone whose succession of images celebrating state and church — castles, royal residences and a chapel — arrives climactically at a picture of a million-pound hat, you realise that Blake’s words have simply failed to go in

As for Elgar, just stop and ponder that the UK nowadays has, in effect, three national anthems — the unofficial official one, and the two officially unofficial ones — and he has had a hand in all three: the great tune of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ (‘Land of Dope and Tory‘, as I once heard Robert Simpson call it) is, of course, by him — though the lousy words, added later, aren’t.


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2 thoughts on “‘Salut d’amour’ (2)

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this piece, thank you. I had not seen The Southbank Show’s film of Elgar before, and loved it – thanks for bringing it to my attention.
    I fear that I’m one of those peculiar people who enjoys comparing/contrasting things. I found listening to the two different arrangements of ‘Jerusalem’, and also the ‘God Save the King/Queen, fascinating. The depth and richness that Elgar added was stunning.
    Were those two versions of the national anthem also in different keys?


  2. “Were those two versions of the national anthem also in different keys?”
    — Maximum points, madam! Elgar’s is in B flat major; the BBC version is in G (the Greenwich pips are on B natural — so when they happen they sound like they are on the mediant degree…).
    I thought of mentioning that fact — really, honestly, I did! — but in the end I didn’t, for two reasons:
    (i) The old (early 18th-century) tune that has become our ‘national anthem’ doesn’t really have an ‘original key’, so Elgar (and everyone else) has a free hand as to what key they put it in. Whereas Parry’s ‘Jerusalem’ is *an actual composition in a specific key* — so Elgar’s changing it is a point of real interest.
    (ii) I wanted to see if anyone would notice!

    “I fear that I’m one of those peculiar people who enjoys comparing/contrasting things.”
    ‘Things’ aren’t the point, with all due respect: it’s *art works* that are being referred to. You see, this is an aesthetics that sees works of art as *confessional communications* — like *phone calls from friends*, if you will. And no-one who found themselves in receipt of two different but related confessional phone calls ever sat down and decided that the thing to do was to *compare them*. When we receive a message like that, *we get it*, and that’s it. If someone else’s message then comes along, *we get that, too* — because a message is to be understood, grasped, reacted-to, not ‘compared with some other message’. Or, to put it in terms of a different medium, what person ever laughed at two different jokes and then decided *to compare one with another*…? Of course, this position is complicated slightly by the fact that Elgar is arranging Parry: they’re not totally separate communications. But the fact remains: Elgar’s message was *not the same as Parry’s message*. Don’t overlook the unique contents of Parry’s!

    Thanks for your valuable ‘Comments’, Gill!


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