Words v. Music…

http://static.newworldencyclopedia.org/thumb/4/48/Map_of_the_British_Empire_in_the_1920's.png/400px-Map_of_the_British_Empire_in_the_1920's.pngGiven its geographically buttressed insularity, its entrenched monarchy, and its history of imperial violence, it’s probably inevitable that the UK should have a dispiritingly long history of terrific music getting polluted by the addition of sick and twisted words: where vile realities are to be whitewashed and flattering lies believed, co-opting the power and truthfulness of musical expression is an obvious means of persuasion.

In a posting of a few days ago I was grousing about the awful lyrics that were added to the great tune from the first of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance marches (‘Plump and Circumference‘, as I once heard Robert Simpson call them — no doubt with those lyrics in mind). But there is actually another example in British music of a patriotic-nationalistic-jingoistic ‘take-over’ that I find every bit as revolting — and such is my generosity on this unusually work-free afternoon that I can’t resist sharing it with you…

Truthful purity first; manipulative pollutant later. Here is a fine and lovable tune as it appears in its original setting — i.e. within the fourth movement of a seven-movement suite for large orchestra composed in 1914-16 and premiered in 1918:

I daresay a lot of readers will know the work that this comes from; but it’s no problem if you don’t: the whole point is that you’ve now experienced what we might call the ‘tune in itself’. Incidentally, the fact that this tune comes from a movement concerned with an exploration of the supposed ‘astrological character’ of the planet Jupiter — as ‘The Bringer of Jollity’ — is worth bearing in mind, even though ‘jollity’ might not seem to be that tune’s most obvious expressive aspect.

Now out goes the jollity — and in comes the horror. Here is an alleged poem written by career diplomat Sir Cecil Spring Rice GCMG GCVO PC (1859–1918):

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

I doubt that it’s all that difficult to see why I find this thing — both halves of it — to be quite disgusting. (If anyone doesn’t know what I mean, I’ll walk them through it line by line…) In fact, reading it again after a gap of years, I find myself seized with the urge to dig up Cecil Spring Rice and throw stones at him — and the urge becomes almost uncontrollable when I hear what resulted when this horrible little item was married with our ‘Jupiter’ theme in 1921. (For the richest emetic experience, go back up to the printed text and follow the words as they limp by…)

As far as the poem is concerned, there are a few bits of context which we ought to consider if we want as clear a picture as it’s possible to obtain. First of all, on the strength of a certain (minimal) amount of digging, it appears that Spring Rice originally wrote his poem (‘Urbs Dei  [‘The City of God‘] or ‘The Two Fatherlands‘) some time before the First World War — and with a different first verse:

I heard my country calling, away across the sea,
Across the waste of waters she calls and calls to me.
Her sword is girded at her side, her helmet on her head,
And round her feet are lying the dying and the dead.
I hear the noise of battle, the thunder of her guns,
I haste to thee my mother, a son among thy sons.

Now, where literature is concerned I have little knowledge and less expertise; but while I would shyly suggest that this bit of pedestrian doggerel (‘lying the dying’…?!?) is likewise a clumsy presentation of a stupid thought, it does seem to me that it is actually a little bit less awful than the verse that replaced it — which Spring Rice appears to have produced in 1918, a month before he died. In other words, he made his awful poem worse in the revision — an indication, perhaps, of how war-deranged he was at the time. Not that the original first verse makes him look any less certifiable: consider the level of delusionality required for someone to write as he does about a country that hadn’t seen an invasion since 1066 and whose military losses would have been orders of magnitude smaller had it not spent centuries stealing other people’s lands and resources. If you can give me a rational explanation of how this enthusiastic servant of Empire could have looked back upon decade after decade of international crime and mass murder —

…First Boer War (1880–1881); Mahdist War (1884–1889); Third Anglo-Burmese War (1885); Sikkim Expedition (1888); Anglo-Zanzibar War (1896); Boxer Rebellion (1899–1901); Second Boer War (1899–1902); Anglo-Aro War (1901–1902); British expedition to Tibet (1903–1904)…

— and still felt entitled to whinge about his nation’s condition of embattled peril, then I hope you’ll do so: as it is, I think Spring Rice should have been incarcerated. (Mind you, it appears that, as a diplomat, he was instrumental in influencing US President Woodrow Wilson’s decision to enter the First World War — which means that locking him away might have had seriously adverse consequences: the US may not have seen the creation of those 21,000 millionaires whose fortunes were made by the time the shooting stopped…)

https://i0.wp.com/cdn3.classical-music.com/sites/default/files/imagecache/250px_wide/images/Holst%20for%20site.jpgThen there’s the music. Our splendid tune is, of course, by the great English composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) — who bears full responsibility for our act of artistic pollution, since he produced the setting himself at the request of a publisher in 1921. At the same time, however, we ought perhaps to cut him some slack. Holst’s daughter is on record as having said that at the time he was asked to set these words, “[he] was so over-worked and over-weary that he felt relieved to discover they ‘fitted’ the tune from Jupiter“. In other words, Holst’s actual involvement in the project was about as minimal as it could have been; appalling as I find the result to be, I am comforted by the thought that Holst will have received a bit of money for almost no work.

There is an idea — which I have sometimes espoused — that on a purely musical level it doesn’t really matter what gets done to great tunes as long as they get heard and sung: however poisonous the sentiments and concepts slathered over them by the added lyrics, the actual musical ‘meat’ is still there underneath, being swallowed and digested just the same. But, of course, for that to happen, the tune has to be allowed to remain essentially itself, as it did in the case of Holst’s tune in 1921 — and as it did not in the following monstrosity from 1991, for which I gather the world has to thank one Charlie Skarbek.

Ponder the losses as you listen. Musically, the quietly majestic striding of Holst’s theme — its ‘march-like’ aspect held in check by the ‘three-in-a-bar’ metre — is nailed to the floor by the insertion of an additional, rounding beat, another of whose effects is to slow down the rate of musical thought: we get Holst’s tune presented at dictation speed, as it were. There’s also erasure of some of the melodic detail — and additional repetition of phrases… Still, never mind: there are a few hemiolas added to create moments of, uh, breathless excitement — and some manufactured late-stage ‘incident’ in the form of a notably clumsy key switch (B flat major to D flat major) whose lurching grab at flat submediant harmony [3:21] then colours the final plagal cadence [3:46] in an attempt to make itself sound relevant…

And, yes, you heard right: these really were the words…

There’s a dream, I feel / So rare, so real / All the world in union / The world as one
Gathering together / One mind, one heart / Every creed, every color / Once joined, never apart
Searching for the best in me / I will find what I can be / If I win, lose or draw / There’s a victor in us all
It’s the world in union / The world as one / As we climb to reach our destiny / A new age has begun
We face high mountains / Must cross rough seas / We must take our place in history / And live with dignity
Just to be the best I can / Sets the goal for every man / If I win, lose or draw / It’s a victory for all
It’s the world in union / The world as one / As we climb to reach our destiny / A new age has begun
It’s the world in union / The world as one / As we climb to reach our destiny / A new age has begun

‘Okay, it’s rubbish’, you say. ‘But at least it isn’t about war and suffering and dumb-ass notions of patriotic sacrifice’.

Isn’t it?

‘No, it’s about a united world and everybody reaching their potential and the start of a new age’.

Is it? Is it really…? As far as I can see, it’s about international sport

‘A new age has begun’…?

Meet the new age. Same as the old one.


“So now you’ll be growing up without your daddy — because he was too stupid to realise that he was just the expendable pawn of an empire determined to control the world’s resources. Here: have some cloth…”

(Yes, I will stoop so low: I have indeed used a real photograph of a real child’s real agony. One of our side‘s children, of course: we never show the other side’s.)


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One thought on “Words v. Music…

  1. Words v Music? Music, every time . . . And I say that as a singer . . . which means I could not perform a piece without the words . . . BUT it is the melody that grabs me first, it is the emotion within the music that always makes me want to find out what the words are so that I can sing it . . . OR, when it comes to a piece of music for which no one has written words, it is the sheer wonder of the music which makes me want to listen. People often ask, ‘What is your favourite band?’ or ‘Who is your favourite composer?’ I tell them that I don’t have a favourite because I might like one piece from ONE certain composer/band and one form another . . . For me, ALWAYS the music !!


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