January 2011

"Rule, Brittania!" from Alfred

by Thomas Arne

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:

Verse 1:

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


Rule, Brittania!
Brittania, rule the waves!
Britons never will be slaves!

Verse 2:

The nations, not so blest as thee,
Must in their turn, to tyrants fall,
Must in their turn, to tyrants fall,
While thou shalt flourish, shalt flourish great and free,
The dread and envy of them all.

[repeat Chorus]

Verse 3 (originally verse 4):

Thee haughty tyrants ne'er shall tame:
All their attempts to bend thee down,
All their attempts to bend thee down,
Will but arouse thee, arouse thy generous flame;
But work their woe, and thy renown.

[repeat Chorus]

Verse 4 (originally verse 6):

The Muses, still with freedom found
Shall to thy happy coast repair;
Shall to thy happy coast repair;
Blest Isle with beauty! With matchless beauty crown'd,
And manly hearts to guard the fair.

[repeat Chorus]

[repeat Chorus]

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).

Jon's Introduction to This Piece:

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!

"Rule, Britannia!" from Alfred by Thomas Arne (4:18)

For those interested, this was taken from a recording of "Alfred" done by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by Nicholas Kraemer.

Jon's Interpretation:

I don't have much by way of interpretation here. This music is England. It is probably because of my upbringing in movies, cartoons, etc., but I can't hear this music without thinking of England.

It's also marvelously majestic. You almost can't help, but stand more properly and feel better about yourself. A remarkable piece of work that has lasted hundreds of years.

Extra Credit:

I mentioned Beethoven earlier as one who embellished on this song. I thought you might enjoy hearing his variations (or at least one or two). First off, this is the straight tune:

Variation in D (Thema) on "Rule, Britannia!" by Ludwig van Beethoven (0:45)

And here is an example of a variation:

Variation IV in D on "Rule, Britannia!" by Ludwig van Beethoven (0:43)

I mentioned "Blue Max", so I've got to include my original exposure. Here it is in all its 8-bit glory:

Theme from Blue Max for the Commodore 64

Finally, I included a couple of examples from The Simpsons that demonstrate how this music is used to represent England. This first one is an episode that depicts England in the "future" (the year 2010; the episode aired in 1995). Thus, the Big Ben joke.

Here's a second one. You can hear the tune just briefly, but I decided to include the rest of the gag for fun. Enjoy!