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Songs for the Games

By Mark Curthoys

Behind the victory anthems to be used by the competing teams at the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, which open on 23 July, lie stories both of nationality and authorship. The coronation of Edward VII in 1902 prompted the music antiquary William Hayman Cummings (1831-1915) to investigate the origin and history of ‘God Save the King’. While the anthem had become ‘a sacred part of our national life’, Cummings could find no reliable trace of single authorship of its words, though concluded that the aptly-named organist and court musician John Bull (1559×63-1628) had the strongest claim to have composed its tune.

What, though, of the anthems of the nations of the United Kingdom, each separately represented at the Commonwealth Games? The national anthem itself was only gradually adopted as such after its first recorded performance in September 1745. Half-a-century later, its standing was sufficiently established to attract subversive parody. ‘God Save Great Thomas Paine’ was penned in 1793 by a Jacobin sympathiser, the Sheffield balladeer Joseph Mather (1737-1804), who was later subject to criminal proceedings which, for a year, prevented him from performing in public. By the late nineteenth century, public performances of ‘God Save the Queen’ itself provoked occasional hostile reactions in Ireland and Wales, as was noted by the encyclopaedist of music Percy Scholes (1877-1958), author of a definitive study (1954) of what he dubbed ‘the world’s first national anthem’. Political nationalism and cultural revivalism, respectively, inspired alternatives.

‘God Save Ireland’ (1867), written by the journalist and MP Timothy Daniel Sullivan (1827-1914), was rapidly adopted as a de facto national anthem. The more militant ‘A Soldier’s Song’ written in 1907 by the Irish revolutionary Peadar Kearney (1883-1942) did not initially catch on – it was said to be difficult to sing – but in the wake of the Easter Rising in 1916, it eclipsed Sullivan’s anthem and was later adopted by the Irish Free State and its successor Republic of Ireland. Remaining within the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland in turn adopted ‘Danny Boy’ (1912), a ballad composed by a west of England barrister and prolific, commercially-successful songwriter Frederic Edward Weatherly (1848-1929) and set to the traditional ‘Londonderry Air’.

‘Land of my fathers’ (‘Hen wlad fy nhadau’), the national anthem of Wales, dates from 1856 when James James [Iago ap Ieuan] (1832-1902), an innkeeper, composed music to accompany words written by his father Evan James [Ieuan ap Iago] (1809-1878), a cloth weaver from Pontypridd. Like other anthems, its adoption was gradual, but its enthusiastic reception by people of Welsh descent around the world signified its status. ‘O land of our birth’, the anthem of the Isle of Man, also represented at the Commonwealth Games, was composed by William Henry Gill (1839-1923) of Manx parentage and education, who spent most of his life as a civil servant resident in the south of England. A Ruskinian folk revivalist, he visited the island at the end of the nineteenth century to collect folk songs, one of which he used for the musical setting of the anthem, first performed in 1907.


The early twentieth century was a fertile period for patriotic song writing, most obviously ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, written in 1902 by the schoolmaster and don Arthur Christopher Benson (1862-1925) as a Coronation Ode to Edward VII, and sometimes proposed as a national anthem for England. Team England will instead use ‘Jerusalem’, whose musical origins lie in the Great War when, in early 1916, at the request of the ‘Fight for Right’ movement which sought to ’brace’ the nation to pursue the war in the face of mounting losses, Sir Hubert Parry (1848-1918) set William Blake’s words to music.

At the Commonwealth Games between 1962 and 2006 Team Scotland used ‘Scotland the Brave’, whose lyrics were written by the Glasgow journalist Cliff Hanley (1922-1999). Recent research has established that they were a product of Hanley’s writing for the variety stage in Glasgow, and were originally performed as a rousing patriotic finale to the first act of a pantomime during the winter of 1952-3. Both the words and music of ‘Flower of Scotland’, the current anthem of Team Scotland, and a leading contender for an official national anthem, were written in about 1964 by Roy Williamson (1936-1990), a former art student in Edinburgh, and a leading figure in the city’s folk music revival. By 1990 hostility to the playing of ‘God Save the Queen’ at rugby internationals when England played Scotland at Murrayfield, Edinburgh, prompted the Scottish Rugby Football Union to seek a more acceptable sporting anthem. The choice of ‘Flower of Scotland’, with its echoes of Bannockburn, heralded a memorable Scottish rugby victory over England that year.

A musical acknowledgement of the multi-national basis of the United Kingdom awoke early morning listeners to BBC Radio 4 for nearly thirty years at the end of the twentieth century. The day’s broadcasts began with ‘UK Theme’, a medley of tunes representing the constituent parts of the United Kingdom, including Rule Britannia, Scotland the Brave, Men of Harlech, and the Londonderry Air, composed and conducted by Fritz Spiegl (1926-2003), an Austrian refugee from Nazism. It was removed from the schedule in 2006.

Dr Mark Curthoys is the Oxford DNB’s Research Editor for the nineteenth and twentieth century.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is a collection of 59,102 life stories of noteworthy Britons, from the Romans to the 21st century. The Oxford DNB is freely available via public libraries across the UK, and many libraries worldwide. Libraries offer ‘remote access’ allowing members to gain access free, from home (or any other computer), 24 hours a day. You can also sample the ODNB with its changing selection of free content: in addition to the podcast; a topical Life of the Day, and historical people in the news via Twitter @odnb.

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