You know exactly what it’s about as soon as you hear the opening drumbeat,” says Major Stewart Halliday, Music Director of Coldstream Guards. “It captures the imagination right from the start.” And the melody that follows has captured the imagination for over 250 years. Yet after all this time since its first recorded performance in 1745, evidence of the origins of God save the queen/the king stay lean.
When this performance was given at the Theater Royal in Drury Lane on September 28, London was in a state of panic. The Protestant reign of George II seemed threatened with death by the pretender Stuart Bonnie Prince Charlie – a Catholic – and her Jacobite forces. “The Jacobite rebellion had just begun in Scotland,” says historian Paul Monod of Middlebury College in Vermont. “London particularly feared a supporting invasion by the French, landing in southern England. In December 1745, people were rushing to get their money out of the banks…and stocks plummeted.
Comes the hour, comes the song for a historic moment, arranged by eminent composer Thomas Arne to be sung by three soloists after that evening’s play at Drury Lane. The second line – “God save the great George our king” – possibly asserted George’s occupation of the British throne in the face of Jacobite competition. The basic melody was very similar to what we know today, but one must imagine an ornate interpretation embellished with embellishments and improvisations according to the practice of the time. The Daily announcer The newspaper said the public “was pleasantly surprised by the gentlemen belonging to this house performing the hymn of God Save Our Noble King”. The universal applause which he met with, being again repeated with repeated Huzzas, sufficiently denoted in how just an abomination they hold the arbitrary plans of our odious enemies, and detest the despotic attempts of papal power.
Other regular performances have been given at both Drury Lane and Covent Garden with equal success. In no time, lyrics and music were available through publications such as The gentleman’s Magazine and The London Review. The first, the second (“O Lord our God, arise”) and fifth (“Your best gifts in store”) of the five stanzas recognized today were in place almost from the start. Once in print, the song toured the country, the impact no doubt reinforced by the eventual defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie at the Battle of Culloden in April 1746 – a song of defiance turning into a song of victory.
When God save the queen/the king become the national anthem?
In due time, without Royal Decree or Act of Parliament, God save the king acquired the status of “national anthem”. Exactly when such a bold title would have been attached is unclear – like so much else in this story. For decades, it was just one more popular song with patriotic overtones to place alongside Arne. Britannia Rule and Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. “Perhaps his first appearance at a coronation – that of George IV in 1821 – should be considered a milestone,” Monod believes. “More likely, however, it was a slow evolutionary process that continued throughout the 19th century…an evolution from the anthem being a celebration of the ruling monarch to a celebration of the nation. “
Who composed the melody?
So what, in musical terms, gave these 41 notes such infectious appeal? Well, ask a composer accustomed to assessing tastes on a large scale. John Rutter says the anthem follows an age-old formula. “Varied repetitions of the same melodic and rhythmic pattern always help to lodge a piece in the brain,” he explains. “The lyrics fit the music perfectly, with no strange overtones. And, of course, the anthem obeys the golden rule that the climax, with a resounding top note, should be kept very close to the end. You feel satisfied that the anthem has always known where it’s going.
Referring to this performance in Drury Lane in 1745, the theatre’s treasurer, Benjamin Victor, described the tune as “an old hymn”. The earliest evidence of the words and music being printed – without a composer’s name – is in the Partial Song Collection of 1744, Anglican harmony. But what was the “old hymn” that apparently formed the musical basis of the song? Ultimately, it’s shrouded in mystery. “We shouldn’t be surprised by that,” Monod says. “It is extremely common for the origins of such music to be obscure, in part because of the role often played by purely oral transmission. It was not uncommon for public music to undergo transformations over time.
No one has pondered the possible origins of the anthem more diligently than the tireless writer of music for the masses, Percy Scholes (1877-1958). His weight God Save The King! : Its history and its romance first appeared in 1942. Scholes considered a multitude of derivations for the anthem, referencing bits of melody from here and elsewhere. Did the tune have a folksong origin, he wondered… or a Christmas carol… a patriotic Geneva song… a keyboard piece by the aptly named composer John Bull? More intriguingly, he offered the possibility that the melody was heard in a Jacobite hymn (how ironic!) sung at the Catholic chapel of James II in the 1680s, although it has been suggested elsewhere that it was heard even earlier, at the court of Charles II. Scholar Matthias Range has suggested the tune may have been heard at the coronation of James II in 1685, featured in Henry Purcell’s music for the acclamation ‘Vivats’. Did composer Maurice Greene, composer to the court of George II, then entirely “save” the melody for the Protestant cause in the 1730s?
Who wrote the words to May God save the king?
As for the origin of the words? Scholes’ extensive research included examination of 18th century “Jacobite glasses” (for drinking to the health of the Stuarts) which bear a version of some of the words for God save the king. Did all this digging bring Scholes closer to the truth in all of this? He simply said that he “does not dare to pronounce”.
Let us instead return to the ever-growing vogue for God save the king after its 1745 outings. Newspaper advertisements for public entertainment demonstrate that a performance of the anthem was considered a raffle in itself. As George III traveled to Weymouth during one of his famous bouts of illness, the people of Lyndhurst spontaneously burst into God save the king as he passed. In her famous diary, Fanny Burney noted that “these good villagers continued to sing this loyal song for [the King’s] the whole march, except to shout “huzza” at the end of each stanza.’
Britain’s fight against Napoleon inevitably increased the anthem’s popularity, especially as it was intended to stifle those of republican conviction in Britain. When George III survived an assassination attempt in 1800 – in the rebuilt Drury Lane Theater – ‘God save the king was called and received with shouts of applause, waving of hats, etc. “, reported a witness.
As the British Empire inexorably extended its reach through Victoria’s reign, so did God Save the Queen. In 1918, a contest was launched to find the words for an additional Empire-tinged verse to celebrate all those “pink bits” on the map. An officer serving in France – Captain Walter Inge – triumphed with lines that concluded with the now distinctly non-PC…
Brothers of every domain,
Bound but by the chain of freedom,
Shout, like your Sires, again –
‘May God save the king!’
What other countries use the melody?
However, almost from the start, the famous melody had also become the property of the music world at large. Well over a hundred composers, from JC Bach (in 1768) to Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara (in the 1970s) have incorporated the melody into their compositions in one way or another, for whatever reason (see “The Overseas Anthem”, left). The list contains such legendary personalities as Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Paganini, Liszt and Debussy. By far, most of the names are still unknown to us today – like James Calkin and Jane Savage, Charles Chaulion and Norman Coke-Jephcott, Eugene Thayer and Samuel de Lange.
More surprising is the number of countries where the melody, with different words, has been used as a ceremonial song or even as a national anthem – in Sweden, Germany and Russia, for example. To this day, the small country of Liechtenstein uses the melody for its national anthem, or Volkshymn. The best-known example of “borrowing” the melody is the American “alternative anthem”, America Where My country is you. “When I was a keyboard student, it was one of the standard pieces you were expected to practice your harmony skills on,” recalls Allan Atlas, professor emeritus at the City University of New York. “Most people in the United States will immediately recognize the melody, but few will recognize it as the British national anthem. People have an affection for the melody of My country is youbut maybe it lacks the drama of The Star Spangled Banner… whose melody also comes from Great Britain!
Republicanism in the UK has a long history, its roots going back to Cromwell’s Commonwealth. Yet today there is no real sign of it gaining traction despite the difficult times the monarchy has endured over the past few decades. If the tide finally turned against it, how would The People select/commission a new anthem? Or should we settle for new words for the “old hymn tune”? As it stands, how long will it be before the Welsh and Scottish parliaments successfully ‘de-establish’ God Save the Queenso it’s no longer the national anthem of the UK?
The sporting realm has long been a testing ground for alternative anthems, with teams from the UK’s constituent countries making their own choices – Flower of Scotland for Scottish rugby players, for example. English cricketers hesitate between God save the queen/the king and Jerusalem. ‘Jerusalem for me,” says BBC Test Match special commentator Daniel Norcross. “It’s a cracking tune that matches the passion you hear in so many other national anthems.”
Major Halliday of the Coldstream Guards isn’t so sure, given memories of his musicians playing the anthem at major rugby and football events. ‘Imagine a nighttime game under the lights, the opening drumbeats, thousands of smartphone flashes going off for that shot of the stage everyone wants…and then that wall of sound like God save the queen/the king roars. Nothing like.’