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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