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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

British Music......

is something that I have long been a lover of. And it has absolutely nothing to do with the British Invasion, believe it or not. Personally, I think the guy who pulled the plug on the ancient Sir Paul McCartney cavorting with the decrepit Bruce Springsteen should be knighted as a servant of the public good! But aside from all that (especially since I think popular opinion would be against me on that one…), below are some of my favorite pieces of music that remind me strongly of the British character and spirit.

“The Three Ravens”
    Few songs convey so much evocative power for me as the rendition of this piece at the end of Simon Schama’s History of Britain. The lyrics, dating back to the Middle Ages, tell the story of three ravens observing the corpse of a slain knight with the intent of devouring it. However, they are prevented from doing so by his hawks, his hound, and the knight’s former lover, who comes to bury him before dying herself. Paired with a hauntingly intense tune, the very fact that it does not mention Britain directly serves to transform it into an anthem of the cultural bloodstream of the British. It is an organic ballad grown out of a rich folk tradition, welded by various peoples, and stamped with the mark of a tempestuous past. Made even more engrossing by the video clips of knights riding to slay Thomas Becket, a statue of Robert de Bruce mounted proudly on his steed, a great cathedral with light filtering through the stained-glass windows, wild ocean waves crashing on a dark-sanded coast, and Winston Churchill giving his immortal “V for Victory” sign, Simon Schama’s choice of a theme rings with a quiet patriotism grounded in historical turbulence.

“A Man’s a Man for All That”
    As an American, this song can’t help but strike a chord. Ian Bruce’s rough and rousing Scottish lilt makes it all the more poignant. Too often, with memories of our revolution dancing in our heads, we will identify Britain as the great enemy of liberty, inextricably immersed in the class system and in bondage to her own straight-laced complacency. But this piece reveals the moving and the shaking that rocked the social order of Britain during the Enlightenment and afterwards, challenging shallow logic that caused men to shun other men based on rank and inspiring our Founding Fathers to take their own stand. The ripple effect, started by liberty-loving Brits, altered the course of world history towards one of greater equality, brotherhood, and plain good sense. Whether rich or poor, noble or commoner, a man is only what he makes of himself and how well he does the work at hand, and he has the right to be judged accordingly.

“The Gael”
    I may not be a major fan of Dougie MacLean, but this composition is a noteworthy exception. Used as the theme for the film The Last of the Mohicans, I am always drawn by the haunting depth of the melody that has all the simplicity of a traditional bagpipe tune and all the complexity of a choral piece as different instruments are added and the score builds. It seems to contain both an ominous lament and a rousing call to battle, telling the story of the Scottish influence that permeated every aspect of British military life with Gaelic culture. With the Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards taking command on this one, it’s sheer majesty. While Dougie MacLean may serve as an occasional poster-child for the “Yes” Campaign and The Last of the Mohicans seemed bent of painting most of the British characters as monsters, I can’t help but think that beneath the surface, “The Gael” is a very British piece indeed. If you’re catching the trend, the paradox just assures that this is so.

“The Shepherd’s Carol”
    The Brits are generally at their best during a crisis or at Christmastide. It’s an undisputed fact of life. This carol demonstrates the latter with its simplicity that touches the heart and beauty that astonishes. Performed enchantingly by King’s College Choir, It is an Anglican hymn and yet strikingly Catholic in its manner of devotion towards the Blessed Virgin Mary. Since England was long ago designated “Our Lady’s Dowry”, this is no great surprise. As I have long suspected, in spite of themselves, the British will always have an element of Catholicism running below the cultural surface. In this piece, it is the shepherds who tell the Lady their story of keeping watch on a wintry evening, being blinded by a miraculous star, and being called out by a heavenly voice. Then they obediently go to offer their lives, hopes, and selves to the son of the virgin. As the masterful choral arrangement concludes, one gets an infused sense of the British religious heritage that has defined her and influenced the world.

“Scots Wha Hae”
    No, I’m not kidding. Let the Nats bellow it as they will; let the masses call this the greatest paradox of them all; but I’m calling this song British, through and through. It can’t be anything less because it symbolizes the British fighting spirit and refusal to submit to tyranny. Robert Burns was a product of that spirit, in all its forms. Just as he could revel in past Scottish victories against English aggression and rail about the injustices of the British establishment, so he could rally the British people in time of war and potential invasion, stating that “never but by British hands maun British wrangs be righted”. It was said that “Scots Wha Hae” was written during a night ride through a thunderstorm. This would make sense, as the beat is rollicking and words are pithy and powerful like a lightening bolt. They tell of Robert de Bruce’s speech to his men before the Battle of Bannockburn, exhorting them to fight while at the same time giving them the option to leave if they dare to fill “a coward’s grave.” The final lines demonstrate the lengths to which men have been willing to go for freedom. These sentiments fit well with both Scottish and British identities. 

 (A version of this article was posted on "Open Unionism":

King's College Choir

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