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Views And Reviews: Fantasia On British Sea Songs

Paul Serotsky tells of the music that is embedded in the heart of every true and loyal Briton.

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Wood (1869-1944) – Fantasia on British Sea Songs

It goes without saying (I’m saying it anyway) that Sir Henry Wood is best remembered as the founder of the modern “Proms”. The actual idea, though, came from Robert Newman, the Queen's Hall manager, who declared that he would “train the public by easy stages; popular at first, gradually raising the standard until I have created a public for classical and modern music.” In this aim he has been eminently successful, though quite what he would make of today’s “dumbing down” counter-culture I dare not guess.

In 1905, Wood assembled his Fantasia on British Sea Songs in celebration of the centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar. Events permitting, and regardless of repeated accusations of “jingoism”, it has graced pretty well every Last Night ever since. While we’re at it, why is it that of all the nations who “blow their own trumpets”, only the British are accused – or rather, accuse themselves – of jingoism?

In what is as much a straight suite as a fantasia, Wood cheated just a bit as, strictly speaking, a couple are not sea songs. “Rule, Britannia!” comes from Arne’s masque “Alfred”, but Wood provides such a rousing rendition that such quibbles hardly matter. He took the opportunity to give the limelight to some of the players in his orchestra, though he was perhaps just a little taken aback at finding he had also given it to the audience.

The showman in him was totally unfazed, as witness his later comment: “They stamp their feet in time to the hornpipe – that is until I whip up the orchestra in a fierce accelerando which leaves behind all those whose stamping technique is not of the very first quality. I like to win by two bars if possible, but sometimes have to be content with a bar and a half. It is good fun, and I enjoy it as much as they”. So there you have it, from the ultimate authority – feel free to stamp, clap – and sing! The movements and words are as follows:

1. Naval bugle calls (“given in their proper order”)
2. The Anchor’s Weighed (trumpet, trombone soli)
3. The Saucy Arethusa (euphonium solo)
4. Tom Bowling (cello solo)
5. Hornpipe, Jack’s the Lad (violin, flute, piccolo soli)
6. Farewell and Adieu, Ye Spanish Ladies (trombone quartet)
7. Home Sweet Home (clarinet, oboe soli)
8. See, the Conquering Hero Comes (horn soli)
9. Rule, Britannia!

When Britain first at heaven’s command
Arose from out the azure main
Arose, arose, arose from out the azure main
This was the charter, the charter of the land
And guardian angels sang the strain

Rule Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves
Britons never, never, never shall be slaves

Rule Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves
Britons never, never, never shall be slaves

Rule Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves
Britons never, never, never shall be slaves

© Paul Serotsky


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