Monday, March 12, 2012

Thomas Arne, Rule, Britannia! and God Save the Queen

For those who love irony (and who doesn't?) consider that Thomas Arne, composer of the ultimate John Bull, "sun doesn't set on the British empire", patriotic tune, "Rule, Britannia!" AND the British national anthem, "God Save the King/Queen" was a "Roman" Catholic in eighteenth century England. He was born on March 12, 1710 and died on March 5, 1778 (he is buried in St. Paul's Church at Covent Garden, the so-called "Actors' Church" where he was also baptized.) This baptism and burial reflects the restrictions on Catholics dating from the penal laws passed during the reign of James Ist. In 1778, George III signed the first Catholic Relief Act, which removed some restrictions and required a new oath of loyalty.

Because he was a Catholic, Arne could not obtain any royal posts or of course write for the Church of England. Arne was also a Freemason, when Pope Clement XII had forbidden Catholics to be Freemasons in 1738, so that's a conundrum. He became a great contributer to English stage music:

Arne went on to compose such operas as "Rosamund" (1733), "Tom Thumb" (1733), "Comus" (1738), "Judith" (1761), "Artaxerxes the Great" (1763), "The Fairy Queen" (1771), and "Caractacus" (1775), as well as the oratorio "The Death of Abel" (1744), and "Four Symphonies" (1767). Working for the Drury Lane Theatre in the 1740's, he also wrote incidental music for several Shakespeare plays, including "As You Like It", "Twelfth Night", "The Merchant of Venice", "The Tempest", "Love's Labour's Lost", and "Romeo and Juliet". "The Masque of Althred" (1740), featuring "Rule, Brittania!", was first performed at Frederick, the Prince of Wales's summer home, Cliveden. The words for Rule, Britannia! are by James Thomson:

When Britain first, at Heaven's command
Arose from out the azure main;
This was the charter of the land,
And guardian angels sang this strain:
"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."

The nations, not so blest as thee,
Must, in their turns, to tyrants fall;
While thou shalt flourish great and free,
The dread and envy of them all.
"Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
"Britons never will be slaves."

It always closes the annual Proms with quite enthusiastic audience participation. The link above is to a performance by Renee Fleming, an American opera singer, on September 11, 2010 (thus her waving the Stars and Stripes in remembrance of 9/11).

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Ms. Mann!

    Thanks for posting such fascinating facts about British/Catholic connections.

    When I first heard about Thomas Arne being a Catholic, I was astounded. I always did like belting out British patriotic anthems in the shower, and now more so! I knew that Arne had written the score for "Rule, Britannia" but I wasn't aware that he also wrote "God Save the King/Queen." I read it once in a book, but I thought it must have been a typo.

    "Rule, Britannia" is often looked down on today as being a bit pompous, which I can understand. But the not falling to tyrants part actually was right on target when it came to Napolean and Hitler. Plus, the original purpose of the song was referring to King Alfred the Great, the Father of the English Navy, and his battle against the Danes, am I correct?

    Have a Blessed Lent!