Wave of Doubt over Britannia

by Ray Setterfield


Event Date: March 12, 1710
Location: London, England, United Kingdom

Every year the Promenade Concerts are held at the Royal Albert Hall in London, culminating in the “Last Night of the Proms” – a patriotic (some would say jingoistic), flag-waving musical jamboree where the audience joins in lustily with perennial favourites such as Rule, Britannia!, Land of Hope and Glory and Jerusalem.

Composer Thomas Arne, who was born on this day, is responsible for setting the widely misunderstood Rule, Britannia! to music from words by the poet James Thomson.

He wrote it at a time in the 18th Century when Britain did not rule the waves – the Dutch, France and Spain possessed formidable fleets – but Thomson foresaw that by sticking to their guns, so to speak, the British could emerge as the world’s Number One naval power. “Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves,” he pleaded.

It was a message of hope and encouragement, much like excited sports fans today yell, “Come on!” when their team is pressing an advantage.

This, however, appears to be lost on many of the concert-goers, known as “promenaders” at the Royal Albert Hall. There, the words are inevitably rendered as “Rule Britannia! Britannia rules the waves”, which isn’t the same thing at all.

The missing commas and the substitution of “rules” for “rule” change the meaning completely and turn the phrase into imperialist triumphalism.

None of this detracts from the spectacle and fervour of the Last Night which, in recent years, has been shown simultaneously on giant screens in London’s Hyde Park and other venues across the country, not to mention the millions watching on television around the world.

And it’s largely thanks to Henry (later Sir Henry) Wood who became the first conductor of The Proms in 1895 and who built the repertoire as the series developed from year to year.

His bronze bust is brought out and placed in front of the organ at the start of each season.

Promenade concerts were originally held in London’s pleasure gardens and were so-called because the audience would stroll around as the musicians played.

There is no room to do that nowadays in the Albert Hall, which is packed for most of the prom concerts through the eight-week season.

But it is the Last Night that is the big draw. The best seats for the 2017 event were selling at the beginning of the year for £1,540 ($1,900) each. And that’s the official price – before the touts get their hands on them!

Published: January 31, 2017

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