My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.

When the strains of the trio section of Elgar’s First Pomp and Circumstance March hit the airwaves the average Brit assumes it is time to salute the flag and start welcoming in song the once unstoppable spread of the British Empire –

Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the Free,
How shall we extol thee, who are born of thee?
Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set;
God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet.

(The last line is then repeated, presumably to emphasize the divine mandate of the enterprise. )

The enigmaitic dynasty buildersThis blaze of patriotism was not Elgar’s original intent; when King Edward VII heard the march in its pure instrumental form he enjoyed it so much that he suggested adding words to such a singable tune. So the composer commissioned a lyric from A. C. Benson, who celebrated in verse the nation’s recent triumph and vast mineral acquisitions in the Boer War. The combination of words and music became the Coronation Ode, and later a parlor song called Land of Hope and Glory, to which the poet added the following extra verses:

Dear Land of Hope, thy hope is crowned,
God make thee mightier yet !
On Sov’reign brows, beloved, renowned,
Once more thy crown is set.
Thine equal laws, by Freedom gained,
Have ruled thee well and long ;
By Freedom gained, by Truth maintained,
Thine Empire shall be strong.


Thy fame is ancient as the days,
As Ocean large and wide :
A pride that dares, and heeds not praise,
A stern and silent pride ;
Not that false joy that dreams content
With what our sires have won ;
The blood a hero sire hath spent
Still nerves a hero son.

The original instrumental trio tune came to Yale when Elgar received an honorary Doctorate in 1905, and it was played as a recessional in his honor, after which it has been the unquestioned accompaniment to graduation ceremonies around the USA. The words were not sung at Yale because the triumph of the Boer War was inappropriate, and so to the average American the melody connotes a celebratory march; not the desire for ultimate global control, but merely the happy graduation from high school to college, or from university to the world of employment, empty of the jingoistic imperialism that is its Pavlovian response in the United Kingdom.

Shortly after the composer’s death, Wagner’s music to his massive four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen had been appropriated for openly military purposes, and these band arrangements were to be handy marching ditties for the troops of the Third Reich some fifty years after their composition. The character of the tunes, along with the opera’s story of no-nonsense heroism and themes of triumphant innocence in a world imperiled by devilish skulduggery lent themselves to inspiring nationalist music that would rally the troops to a battle linked to a global jihad of good versus evil far beyond the Vaterland. How much of a willing or unwilling participant Wagner himself would have been in turning his operas into jingles for jingos remains the subject of much scholarly debate.

Transatlantic musical theft went the other way across the ocean when the TV comedy show Monty Python’s Flying Circus hijacked John Philip Sousa’s 1893 Liberty Bell March as its 1969 theme tune. This classic piece of Americana was an option from the public domain that would fit the budget of zero, and the jaunty positivity of the tune was entirely at odds with the surrealistic content of the series, a perfect match for the zany title that had no character called Monty Python and was neither about flying nor a circus. There is an unsubstantiated rumor that a troupe of Foot Guards was forced to choose another tune for its regimental theme, for fear of being otherwise associated with a British nihilist comedy outfit that regularly skewered the British military; I hope it is true.

Samuel Barber

It is generally acknowledged that composers and their works must expect to be recruited for nationalist service. Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings from 1936 has been the cloth to wipe a nation’s weeping eyes during the announcement of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death, at the funeral of Princess Grace of Monaco, for the solemn Last Night of the Proms in 2001. Happily, the vocal transcription that the composer sanctioned in 1967 has preempted anyone from attempting to set more belligerent and less pacific words than Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis. Dona Nobis Pacem. (Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us, grant us peace.) However, with the approach of the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks we can expect all manner of voluntary and involuntary competitive patriotism from across the musical spectrum.  Pop and Rock musicians and the luminaries of the Classical world will be paying tribute to the victims in order to receive tribute, and it will take some time to see who comes up with the next genuine statement unmotivated by the desire to grab a flag for the camera and shed some tears for Uncle $am.

To watch 21st century Brits reminiscing about the days of the Raj is like seeing contemporary Arizonans singing “Throw the Jew Down the Well“; music masks the preposterous vulgarity of the words, to a hymn, to an anthem, to a chant. Music is the ideal Trojan Horse to implant your message in the listener’s brain, hence the ubiquity of advertising jingles that keep selling long after the sales encounter itself has passed. Surely people cannot understand what they are singing, or they would not sing such vile and outdated sentiments? Can modern, educated people in London really be asking God to bless the expansion of the Empire? Do some Tucsonans really think that political freedom lies in violent suppression of the Jews?

The Shaker hymn The Burning Day is a dreadful apocalyptic vision that the adherents are admonished to welcome with childlike glee, that when added to the jaunty, dance-like musical setting sounds not unlike a TV commercial for a family suicide bunker.

Ye joyful mountains skip like rams
while Edom melts away.
And all the little hills like lambs
shall clap their hands and play!
Join in their song, ye joyful souls,
for this great burning day!

Although some would argue that what is ‘burning’ is the singers’ association with the earth and not the earth itself, the ghoulish flavor of the stew is unmistakeable. Does music therefore have the ability to inoculate the singer from the text, embedding the message but not explaining it? How else can people sing the following, not only without knowing what it means, but without caring what it means either?

O! say can you see by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Curiously, Massachusetts considers it a crime to mess with the American National Anthem, and on January 15th, 1944 Igor Stravinsky was arrested and fined for conducting his own unacceptable arrangement of The Star-Spangled Banner, which the audience had found impossible to sing. (The law still exists but has not recently been enforced.) The words themselves are indeed worthy of legal scrutiny, but were not mentioned at the arraignment; the belligerent tone of the final verse would have appalled the Founding Fathers – Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just, as would the violation of the separation of Church and State that breaks a bigger, Federal taboo – And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”

Stravinsky was fearlessly experimental, a pioneer pushing the boundaries of tonality, whose spirit typifies the energetic outward thrust of American expansionism, and so one has to ask who is breaking the law – the artist, the art itself, or the system that punishes without thinking.

Arresting artists is usually a technique of totalitarian governments by which they hope to silence dissension; its equivalent in less harsh regimes is censorship or confiscation. America is not above either, and it is patriotic to remember that.

  • One person’s patriotism is another person’s graduation march.
  • One person kipper in the face is another person’s patriotism.
  • One person’s patriotism is the opposite of another person’s patriotism.

Thank you, music and words, for pointing that out.

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