Culture Writer Daisy Evison looks at the BBC’s decision to sing Rule, Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory, proposing the Proms should instead feature songs that reflect our multicultural society
Is it an attack on patriotism, or because of coronavirus? This was the question on everyone’s lips regarding the BBC’s decision to perform instrumental renditions of Rule, Britannia! and, Land of Hope and Glory at the Proms this year, due to air on 12th September. However, in a surprising U-turn, the BBC reverted this decision, meaning that the songs will be sung at the Royal Albert Hall. Did they back down to timeless tradition, or do they believe the country is not quite ready for a more progressive Proms?
Undoubtedly rooted in patriotism, the songs featured annually at the Proms cannot deny, nor escape their true meanings. Rule, Britannia! was set to music by Thomas Arne in 1740, its lyrics based on a poem by James Thomson. However, the lyrics are controversial, due to the song’s associations with colonialism. It contains verses such as:
Land of Hope and Glory also takes centre-stage in the Proms debate, again for its references to Britain’s colonial history: “By freedom gained, by truth maintained, thine Empire shall be strong.” Its music was written in 1901 by Edward Elgar, and lyrics were later added by A. C. Benson in 1902. The song makes reference to the ‘might’ of the former British Empire, exposing the song’s nature as a symbol of British imperialism, which is both problematic and outdated. Some believe the British Empire is something to be proud of, however, it is impossible to ignore the atrocities embedded within its history, such as the 1943 Bengal famine, the detention of Boer people in concentration camps, its role in the slave trade, and more.
It’s very rare for the Proms to fully break from convention, with its fixed playlist of patriotism seeing little change in its history on television, until the year 2020, which almost bucked tradition.
The BBC’s original decision to instrumentalise these songs was due to coronavirus restrictions, meaning there would not be an audience, and an incomplete choir and orchestra. However, many associated the decision with Black Lives Matter: a movement that has highlighted the need for more diversity across institutions, especially the arts. Proms presenter Josie d’Arby, who is black, said: ‘This year, everyone is thinking about racial equality…The Proms has always done that, but…it is upping it out of respect for the current climate.’ She told BBC News she would be ‘elated’ to see the back of the songs. The BBC also announced that Ivor Novello-winning composer Errollyn Wallen is creating the new arrangement of Jerusalem, who said, ‘In it I remember the Commonwealth nations and am dedicating the work to the Windrush generation.’
Despite the evident desire by some in the BBC to diversify the Proms, the move remains obstructed by those who view it as an attack on British history. Boris Johnson opposed the BBC’s decision to instrumentalise the songs, saying, ‘I think it’s time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history.’ Also on the side of tradition, music writer Norman Lebrecht said he believes the songs bring the country together, rather than tear it apart. He says, ‘Rule, Britannia! is very much a part of the Proms, it’s a tradition that goes back at least seven decades, and it’s a unifying force for the nation.’
The case of British pride is a timeless argument for why these songs should continue to be sung at the Proms, which seems to have persuaded the BBC to revert to singing the words, as usual, this year. The question remains whether the controversy this year has had a significant impact on the future of the Proms. Well, we already know the songs will be sung next year, as announced by the BBC, suggesting a ‘traditional return.’ Not much change then.
Arguably, the fundamental problem with the Proms is the lack of ethnic diversity at the top of its decision-making tree. What the Proms needs is more awareness of the songs’ original meanings. It is not wrong to be a proud Briton and enjoy a historical tradition, but the offensive nature of these songs must be understood.
The Proms are not yet diverse enough to reflect Britain and its multicultural society, and the programme needs the addition of songs which celebrate progression, such as the abolition of slavery. The programme cannot survive without the addition of more composers like Belize-born British musician Errollyn Wallen, as audiences need to see a variety of races and opinions on-stage, rather than an outdated presentation of White-British colonialism each year. Until further diversity is presented on-screen, the Proms will never be inclusive to all who consider themselves British.
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