In an earlier column, I had written about Maestro Daniel Barenboim’s unusual speech at the BBC Proms festival at the Royal Albert Hall London this July. He was at the helm of the Staatskapelle Berlin for two concerts, both of which featured the symphonies of British composer Edward Elgar (1857-1934). After both concerts, Barenboim conducted the same encore, Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, better known as ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, a piece that is a staple of the Last Night of the Proms (LNOP).
Some of my musician friends in the UK sniffed that (as they saw it) Barenboim in choosing this particular encore was angling to be asked to someday conduct the LNOP. But I interpreted his choice differently. For this we have to connect the history of the piece with Barenboim’s speech.
The work is known as ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ because these are the words its middle (“trio”, although not in triple time) section was set to. King Edward VII loved the tune when heard it, and thought it would make a great song, and the poet Arthur Christopher Benson wrote the lyrics: “Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the Free; How shall we extoll thee, who are born of thee? Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set; God who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet.”
It is sung lustily to waving of Union Jacks all over the Royal Albert Hall, along with other ‘rousing’, patriotic anthems like ‘Rule Britannia’ (whose lyrics include ‘Britannia rules the waves; Britons never never never shall be slaves’).
Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March no. 1 rarely ever gets played out of its crowd-rousing setting, and it is rare indeed to hear it as an orchestral work, without the audience bursting into song in the middle section. Perhaps Barenboim deliberately wished to play it as an encore, to remind the listener to appreciate it, divorced from its imperialist (however dated) overtones.
After his second concert, Barenboim conducted yet another Elgar work, the ninth variation “Nimrod” from his famous Enigma Variations, which has become associated with solemn occasions in British history. It is played at funerals and memorial services of dignitaries and on Remembrance Sunday, the second Sunday of November, “to commemorate the contribution of British and Commonwealth military and civilian servicemen and women in the two World Wars and later conflicts”. I feel both encore choices were somehow tied to the message and spirit of Barenboim’s speech, exhorting the audience and listeners worldwide to remember the lessons of history.
But the challenge worldwide is to be objective and unbiased in learning lessons from history, and in educating our children about national and world history.
In Jeffrey Richards’ book ‘Imperialism and Music: Britain 1876-1953’, a whole chapter is devoted to ‘Elgar’s Empire’. Richards makes the case (contrary to what many other musicologists and historians would have us believe) that Elgar was an unabashed imperialist. He goes on to say: “If the idea that imperialism is something to be ashamed of or embarrassed about is abandoned or it is accepted as a cultural and ideological episode in British history, then it can be accepted as an element – and an important one —in the makeup of our greatest composer.”
The composer Arnold Bax, who knew Elgar, writes of the “contradictions” that made Elgar “ingrainedly and invincibly English”: “his love of nature” and “somewhat melancholy mysticism” coexisting with “the precise opposite of these characteristics – the blare of jingoism and Kiplingesque and Rhodesian Imperialism so inalienably associated with the turn of the century and the period of Elgar’s most fecund maturity. Difficult as it may be to reconcile these contradictions, the fact remains that the impulse to turn out such things as Land of Hope and Glory, the Imperial March, the Coronation Ode, and the regrettable final chorus of Caractacus was an integral part of this man, a representative, even an archetypal Briton of the last years of Queen Victoria’s reign.”
Elgar’s response when his publisher complained about the jingoistic tone of the “regrettable final chorus of Caractacus” was: “England for the English is all I say – hands off! There’s nothing apologetic about me.”
The “wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set; God who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet” lyrics were written around the time of the publication of the will of that champion of British Imperialism, Cecil Rhodes, in which he bequeathed his large fortune specifically for promoting “the extension of British rule throughout the world”, and added a long detailed list of territories which Rhodes wanted brought under British rule and colonised by British people. The reference to the extension of the British Empire’s boundaries may reflect the Boer War, recently won at the time of writing, in which the United Kingdom gained further territory, endowed with considerable mineral wealth.
It is important even in music appreciation to be aware of this background, to the teaching of a nation’s history, warts and all. It comes back to what Barenboim was referring to in his speech, of there being “not enough education”. A YouGov poll in the UK last year found 44 per cent were proud of Britain’s history of colonialism while only 21 per cent regretted that it happened.
It is this lack of education perhaps that permitted former British Prime Minister David Cameron to say on his 2013 visit to India: “I think there is an enormous amount to be proud of in what the British Empire did and was responsible for.” Shashi Tharoor’s latest book “An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India” would be quite a startling revelation to him. Perhaps Jeremy Corbyn’s 2015 statement, that British schoolchildren should be taught about the violent excesses of British imperialism, was a reaction to Cameron’s ignorant, tactless remark and to Tharoor’s “Oxford speech”.
It is a cautionary lesson for others, including ourselves, with the ridiculous, petty revisionism in the teaching of history in our own schools. It can only explode in our faces someday.
Education in general (or the lack of it) can apparently alter the course of contemporary history as well. A study conducted by the University of Leicester reveals that had just 3% more of the population gone to university, the UK would probably not be leaving the European Union. It looked at reasons why people voted Leave and found that whether someone had been to university or accessed other higher education was the “predominant factor” in how they voted.
How different would our own electoral history have been if there had been more education in our own population? The results of a similar study here in India would be quite interesting.
(An edited version of this article was published on 10 September 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)