> WILL THE AUDIENCE MIND STANDING UP? ........ Arthur Butterworth

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WILL THE AUDIENCE MIND STANDING UP? ........ Arthur Butterworth

At a prestigious Edinburgh International Festival concert just fifty years ago the New York Philharmonic Orchestra opened the concert with two national anthems: "God Save the King" (as the monarch then was) and "The Star-spangled Banner". Not only the mainly British audience but the vast orchestra, including the twelve ‘cellos, stood for this emotionally stirring outburst of British-American solidarity. Every player in the orchestra knew these national anthems from memory and had no need to resort to trying to glance down awkwardly at the printed part from a music-stand (at normal sitting level). How different from some amateur bands and orchestras, many of the members of which, quite apart from being unable to memorise even the shortest and most familiar of tunes, must perforce remain seated as well, as if to stand up and try to play it while reading the music were just beyond them. If ever there were an example of lèse-majesté this must surely be it. Yet audiences are expected to stand in deference to polite concert custom.

The origins of national anthems are more often than not hazy. How some not particularly-distinguished tune came to be associated with paying tribute to a sovereign or to the idea of the body corporate of a nation seems to have been, in most cases, a fairly casual or chance affair. Some tunes — a minority - are splendid and stir the emotions precisely because they have a unique musical quality. The majority of such tunes however, are miserable indeed, and depending on your taste, patriotic sentiment, political correctness or whatever other reason you might claim, appropriate or not appropriate. Probably one of the dullest and most lugubrious tunes imaginable is ‘God Save the Queen’. It is known in other parts of the world, not least in America, where, after the War of Independence it was known variously as ‘God Save America’, ‘My Country ‘tis of Thee’ and several other poetic variations.

At one time it was heard after every cinema performance, but audiences rarely stood to hear it out, but rushed for the exit regardless. At orchestral concerts and in the opera house the audience was captive since it was played at the beginning of the performance rather than at the close. Professional orchestras hardly ever play it at their concerts nowadays; unless it be the opening or close of a season of concerts (such as the BBC Proms), or on some occasion where national sentiment is part of the occasion: the attendance of Royalty, a national celebration of thanksgiving, or a memorial concert. On all other ‘ordinary’ occasions it is now generally regarded as anachronistic since this kind of national jingoism is very much outmoded. As a purely practical (but unadmitted reason) some amateur orchestras still play it: it is said to give the players the ‘feel’ of the acoustics of the concert hall, now filled with an audience, which can be so different from the acoustic experienced at the rehearsal when the hall is virtually empty; but this is a bad reason and merely, in effect, says to the audience: "We have to do this because we are not confident enough to play the first item on the programme until we know what we sound like!"

There are some appallingly bad versions of "God Save the Queen". Indeed some of the very worst versions are by our most distinguished native composers: The choral version in B-flat made by Elgar is vulgar and tedious; that by Britten, with its hesitant, ‘peculiar’ flavour of harmony very odd indeed. In Scotland half a century ago an arrangement by Ian Whyte had an incongruous Gaelic sound about its modal harmony. Sir Henry Wood’s famous Prom version tends to be under-pinned with a maudlin harmonic progression. At the Festival of Britain in 1951 all the British Orchestras were invited to give a couple of concerts each in the then newly-opened Royal Festival Hall. A directive came round to all the orchestras taking part that only one version of the National Anthem was to be used. It seems to have come about this way. Back in 1924 on the occasion of the Great Exhibition at Wembley, King George V was irritated by the many different versions he heard; none of them seemed authentic. Shortly afterwards it is said that he issued a directive to the Army Council which subsequently appeared in King’s Regulations, that army manual of protocol and authority on all matters military, (as well as naval, air force or ‘official’ in any other way). This laid down the ‘law’ as it were, on how the National Anthem must be played. Briefly it amounts to a regulation primarily addressed to bandmasters of the armed forces: "The opening six bars shall be played ‘piano’ by the reeds, horns and basses in a single phrase. Comets and side drum shall be added at the quaver scale passage leading into the second half of the tune. The full brass shall enter for the concluding eight bars. Bass drum and cymbals shall not be used" To ensure this should be universally applied an authorised version was published by Boosey & Hawkes in which the tempo, dynamics and harmony, and indeed the tune itself was firmly codified. All British orchestras then, were required to use this version (with the added string scoring of course) at the 1951 Festival of Britain concerts. Its intention was to sweep away all the uncertainty of harmony that orchestral players were wont to perpetrate, since it was traditional that, being in a professional orchestra you just stood up and ‘busked’ whatever inner part seemed appropriate to your instrument: 1st violins, flutes, oboes, first trumpet merely played the tune; whereas the 2nd players in each group: 2nd violins, 2nd oboe, 2nd trumpet, played a kind of alto part as seemed to fit. The horns, trombones and bassoons, along with the violas fudged up some semblance of a tenor part, while the tuba, ‘cellos, basses and bass trombone played the ‘obvious’ bass part. The harmonic progression used in one orchestra. might differ somewhat from that used conventionally in another; so that a player transferring from one orchestra to another had to get used to the version played in his new job. Little wonder that George V found this unsatisfactory. However, gradually the old casual way of busking the harmony crept back once the Festival of Britain was over.

Now, with the very changed circumstances of national life, the routine performance of ‘God Save the Queen’ indeed seems an anachronism. This is regrettable. However, if our national anthem is to mean anything at all to the corporate emotions of a large audience, it ought to be played with the kind of panache that perhaps only Sir Thomas Beecham could bring to it. His was no apologetic dirge—like funereal rendering (such as Britten’s suggests) but one of immense demonstrative élan and affirmation. He would sweep on to the rostrum, and with a magnificent flourish draw from the timpanist a commanding roll and then the whole orchestra would come in with a veritable defiant paean; not for him the long drawn-out roll on the timpani or side drum which seemed to go on hesitantly before the rest of the orchestra tentatively joined in, and the audience stood in embarrassed silence until the conductor deemed all his players were really ready to start. If a national anthem means anything at all, let us hear it played with the pride and conviction it ought to display. Alas! ‘God Save the King’ (or ‘Queen’) is a limp-backed tune anyway.

Now, if only we had a really stirring tune — one to fire a revolution — such as the French have in "La Marseillaise", that would be worth hearing every time. Otherwise I think we should just drop our puny national anthem from routine concert performance and retain it for national and state occasions when it is really appropriate.

Arthur Butterworth


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