Thomas Arne was born in 1710 in England. Although his name is not usually recognized, he has written a few tunes that are extremely well-known. Less well-known is that he wrote a version of "God Save the King", which would go on to become the British national anthem (Arne's version is not the one used today). More shockingly well-known is the song, "A-Hunting We Will Go" (i.e., "Heigh-ho the dairy-o, a-hunting we will go"). But finally, he also wrote "Rule, Brittania!"
"Rule, Brittania!" is actually part of a masque. A masque is kind of a cross between a ballet and a musical. There is dancing and singing and it tells a story. In this case, the masque was named "Alfred", as it was written to honor "Alfred the Great", a medieval King of Wessex, known for defending Southern England from the Vikings in the 9th century.
"Alfred" was written in 1740. It was written to commemorate the accession of King George II (father of King George III, who would play a role in the American Revolution). James Thomson and David Mallet wrote the text of the masque. Within "Alfred" is a stirring song that quickly took a life of its own: "Rule, Brittania!"
This song is very patriotic, and, at the time, was exhorting England to expand its efforts to dominate the sea (i.e., build up its navy). This would come to fruition in the 19th century, when the Royal Navy woulld be an unchallenged dominant force.
The lyrics are slightly different, depending on which version is performed. The original poem has six verses. Here are the lyrics of the version you are going to hear:
During the Victorian era, it was common to hear the chorus sung as "Rule, Britannia! Britannia rules the waves!" By that time, many felt they had achieved their naval goal.
This song is sometimes mistakenly thought to be the British national anthem. It is not. That would be "God Save the King". It is a patriotic song, usually associated with the Royal Navy (but also used by the British Army). It would be similar, in America, to such songs as "America the Beautiful" and "My Country 'Tis of Thee" (ironically sung to the tune of "God Save the King").
"Rule, Britannia!" became popular in London as a standalone song in 1745. It became popular very quickly. George Frideric Handel (see August 2009) would quote the song in 1746 in his Occasional Oratorio. In fact, throughout the years, this song would be quoted or embellished by many great composers, including Ludwig van Beethoven, Richard Wagner, Johann Strauss, Sr., and Arthur Sullivan.
In modern times, many of you have heard at least the music to this song repeatedly. It is constantly used in movies, TV, and cartoons whenever anything remotely British is mentioned or shown. That was part of my motivation to showcase it. If you're going to hear it, you may as well know what it is. Keep an ear out for "sound-alikes" as well (e.g., there's a sound-alike in the cartoon "Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown"). I think I was also influenced to feature this song by the fact that I'd seen the movie "The King's Speech" last week (which, ironically, does not contain this song at all).
As I'd mentioned, this music shows up everywhere, so I doubt I could tell you when I heard it for the very first time. I can say that the first time I heard the complete music was likely, once again, a video game. The Commodore 64 game Blue Max featured "Rule, Britannia!" at the very beginning of the game. It was a simple game, in which the player would pilot an old bi-plane, dropping bombs and occasionally dog-fighting with an enemy. I often deliberately let the music play all the way through, though I could cut it off early and start the game. I was 13 or 14 at the time.
I recognized it frequently after that point (i.e., in movies, cartoons, etc.). I didn't know what it was, specifically, until years later, but I knew that it was associated with England. It really wasn't until I was in my late 20s that I actually knew the name of the song and had a recording of it.
So here it is. This is an excerpt from a recording of the entire masque "Alfred". Enjoy!