Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

19 February 2008

Campaign for Plain England (No. 6): Vaughan Williams and Elgar

You can forgive Hilary Davan Wetton for choosing to defend the cause of the English composer, Vaughan Williams, in the manner he does in last Friday’s Telegraph. The man makes out a case for celebrating the works of Vaughan Williams, the 50th anniversary of whose death falls this year, as a great, indeed “quintessentially British”, composer. This is a tactic: he wants to shame a government that has not funded any commemorations of Vaughan Williams – not even a postal stamp – by talking up his Britishness, arguing that: “Here is a national emblem from which we can all draw inspiration if we want to try to ‘gather together under the Flag’, as we are urged to do. Not the flag of crude jingoism, or even the exuberant patriotism of Land of Hope and Glory, but a deeply felt, understated sense of what it means to be British”.

Vaughan Williams, then, is more ‘truly British’ even than Elgar (the composer of the tune to Land of Hope and Glory), who qualified for inclusion on the old £20 notes, many of which are still in circulation. Err, sorry to dampen your campaigning zeal, Mr Davan Wetton; but maybe one of the reasons why Vaughan Williams has not yet been lauded by the British state is that he was quintessentially English, not British. A collector of English folk songs (those of southern England, too), not “British folk tunes”, as you write; someone whose music traces its heritage back to the traditions of English – not ‘British’ – renaissance music (‘Britain’ didn’t even exist in the renaissance), and whose musical influences that you name are all traditionally thought of as English: Tallis, Purcell, Holst, Walton and Britten.

By contrast, Wetton does not even include the English composer Elgar, in whose music, according to him, “German influences are clearly audible”, in his list of great British composers. Well, I’ll agree with you there, Mr Davan Wetton, as he of all people is a composer you would tend to think of as quintessentially English; not only because of Land of Hope and Glory but of works such as the Enigma Variations and Pomp and Circumstance.

As observed above, it’s Land of Hope and Glory that has earned Elgar his fame as a celebrated British composer – claims which, according to Davan Wetton and a commentator from the review Gramophone they invited on to BBC Radio Four’s Today programme this morning to debate Davan Wetton’s claims with him, are highly exaggerated and unrepresentative. This is because Elgar would have rejected the – err, British – jingoism of Land of Hope and Glory, whose words he was not responsible for. And, by the way, those words do not actually mention ‘Britain’, or ‘England’ for that matter. They clearly are a reference to Britain and its empire; but like the musical tradition continued by Vaughan Williams and Elgar, the anthem traces Britain’s power and essence back to their earlier and deeper roots in Englishness:

Thine equal laws, by Freedom gained,
Have ruled thee well and long;
By Freedom gained, by Truth maintained,
Thine Empire shall be strong.

It’s a bit rich, then, that Davan Wetton should not include Elgar in his list of British musical greats – whose German influences he appears to regard as contrary to such a claim – when he explicitly dismisses his endorsement of Vaughan Williams and the fellow members of his British pantheon in the following terms: “This is not an appeal for a shallow ‘Little Englander’ mentality. None of these composers was insular: Holst studied Sanskrit, Vaughan Williams went to France to study with Ravel, Walton adored jazz and Britten was entranced by Gamelan music from Bali”.

OK, I get it: ‘British’ composers are internationalist, not narrow Little Englanders – despite the fact that his list of British composers comprises great English composers. And the English composer Elgar represents such English jingoism, despite the fact that he is generally thought of as more British than his fellows (unfairly, owing to the only semi-British / semi-English patriotism of words he didn’t write) and the fact his influences were just as international as all those other ‘British’ composers.

What a load of old bunkum! They’re all great English composers; and, as such, their influences are both typically English and international: they wouldn’t have the universal, worldwide appeal and musical complexity they do have if they hadn’t been profoundly influenced by great music from around the world. If we’re going to celebrate the great music of our country, let this at least be England when we’re talking about England. And, for that reason, I agree that the government should do more to mark the anniversary of Vaughan Williams: a great figure in English music.

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10 Comments »

  1. In my comment on the same story I linked to a much better article in the independent where it points out “there is no composer more English”.

    Comment by secretperson — 19 February 2008 @ 11.02 am | Reply

  2. Lark ascending. Quintessentially English – and a work of pure genius from RVW. Close your eyes on an early Summer’s day. If there was ever a composer to capture the essence, the feeling, the very soul of an event in space and time, then this is it.

    Comment by Alfie the OK — 19 February 2008 @ 11.06 am | Reply

  3. Thanks for the link, secretperson. I was particularly irked at how the Today Programme went along with the Britishness angle of the story. Every time either the interviewer or the two interviewees said ‘British’, you could sense almost a deliberate effort not to say ‘English’ – probably, my bias! Part of an insidious trend of rewriting not just English history and political thinking as British but also English culture.

    Comment by David — 19 February 2008 @ 2.05 pm | Reply

  4. When your campaign strays from the post devolution political into the pre devolution cultural how do you distinguish between British and English?

    Vaughan Williams lived in a period when England and Britain were seen by most English people to be synonymous. (In 1966 it was the Union Flag, not the cross of St George, that was most prominent in the World Cup final). I suspect that Vaughan Williams would not have made the English/British
    distinction himself, especially as he was an Englishman of Welsh descent.

    Aneurin Bevan was Welsh, Sir Arthur Connan Doyle was Scottish, Oscar Wilde was Irish and Rudyard Kipling was English, but they were all very, very British too.

    As much as I share your desire to Deconstruct British Values as much as I wish to see the end of Britishness, can we really pretend that Britain has never existed by claiming that the likes of Vaughan Williams or even Dylan Thomas weren’t British?

    Comment by Alwyn ap Huw — 20 February 2008 @ 1.50 am | Reply

  5. Good point, Alwyn. I don’t, in fact, see ‘English’ and ‘British’ as polar opposites. In other posts, I talk of the complex, ambivalent relationships between English and British, and, to a lesser extent, Scottish / British and Welsh / British. I suppose I would see ‘Britishness’, historically, as a political and cultural expression of Englishness: England identified with / as Britain; Britain was effectively the proxy-English state or Greater England – hence, your observation that, indeed, up until the 1980s, England football supporters carried the Union Flag not the Cross of St. George.

    What I’m fighting against in the present, however, is something different: a denial of England and Englishness, and a political and cultural attempt to re-express everything that in reality (in my view, at least) is at core English (including historical Britishness) as ONLY British: as if England does not exist other than in a negative, regressive sense as narrow nationalism or the Little Englander mentality resisting progressive, multi-cultural and globalised Britain.

    Ultimately, this denial of England’s existence is part of a political programme which, if pursued to its ultimate logic, would see the end of England as a nation altogether. Hence, in the Telegraph article on Vaughan Williams, ‘England’ is mentioned only once in the ‘Little Englander’ remark: everything else is ‘British’. In the Radio Four item I also refer to, they studiously avoided the ‘E’ word; although there was, if I recollect correctly, one Freudian slip when Davan Wetton referred to the English tradition reaching back into the renaissance. Indeed: the historical and cultural roots of Britishness are English, and England is an identity and a nation that persists and will not be denied.

    Comment by David — 20 February 2008 @ 7.10 am | Reply

  6. […] British) versus Elgar (jingoistic, but also less authentically, British) controversy of two weeks ago! (Whereas, actually, they’re both […]

    Pingback by Correction: the Proms are all right - just leave out ‘Jerusalem’! « Britology Watch: Deconstructing ‘British Values’ — 7 March 2008 @ 4.02 am | Reply

  7. Vaughan Williams, who was from Down Ampney, is an embodyment of the purest form of Englishness, that found only in those born in Glorious Gloucestershire. Not even to quite be equalled by their neighbours in Elgar’s Worcestershire.

    Comment by William — 13 June 2008 @ 2.46 pm | Reply

  8. Whatever decision you make about Britain or England, be proud of what makes England great over the ages – the long struggle for the rule of law and the protection of the individual against injustice. That’s where your pride belongs, not to Empire. Britain/England often stumbled in its devotion to freedom and justice, especially in certain colonies such as Ireland, but in the long run England’s course is for freedom and justice. So be proud to be British/English, please, and do not deny the expression of this pride to all the people of your nation, old families and new immigrants.

    The democracies have a common cause now – freedom and justice, under law, respect for conscience, prosperity and love of reason and the advancement of knowledge, and the glory of the arts. In brief, to build a humane commonwealth. But dragons of tyranny still need to be slain, so bravery and the willingness to fight in the defense of justice are still to be honored, now and always.

    Best wishes,
    An American whose parents fought in the Irish War of Independence and many of whose ancestors took out US citizenship to avoid taking the oath of loyalty to the king.

    Comment by John M — 1 June 2009 @ 2.30 am | Reply

  9. One more thing. Englishness was long embodied in the squirearchy, the same class that produced the great leaders of the American Revolution such as George Washington. Their “localness,” love of the land, cultivation of village life, sense of fair play (when at their best), and their struggle for a parliamentary form of government produced much of what we think of as English.

    Comment by John M — 1 June 2009 @ 2.37 am | Reply

  10. Pardon, one final thing. In addition to the squirearchy, the English working class traditions, especially the humor and good fellowship of Music Hall comedy, are also essential to English identity. And the work ethic of the middle class, and its love of learning. Even if royalty should go, with the traditions of the squirearchy, the working class, and the middle class there will always be a very English England.

    Comment by John M — 1 June 2009 @ 2.41 am | Reply


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