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Jerusalem: not the city, the song

As the Israelis and the Palestinians exchange bombs over the announcement that America will move its embassy to Jerusalem, it is possible to extract a sliver of light from the gathering storm clouds.

It is, in the scheme of things, not a matter of life or death, nor resistance or struggle, invasion, occupation or rightful claim of homeland. It is, to be conceded, far less blood and much more air. It is through mere word association the re-entrance of Jerusalem, both words and music – and various performances into the consciousness.

Since the demonstrations erupted with Trump’s declaration last week, I can’t get the tune out of my head. It’s only a small thing, I know, but it is sitting large within and even as I type I can hear it. When I woke this morning it was playing in my head. Granted, it is an inspiring piece of music, but it is, as with tunes that range from Love, Love Me Do to Hey Mickey, insidious in its infiltration.

The thing about Jerusalem, the music, however, is that it stands the test of time. It began life in service to its country. It was a soldier for Britain during the First World War. Two years into the conflict, when the scales of optimism were falling from British eyes to the reality of the horrors, it was felt that the public and the fighting men needed their spirits bolstered.

The Fight for Right movement was formed in 1915, and Sir Hubert Parry, urged by poet laureate Robert Bridges, wrote the music to the words by William Blake more than a century before that form part of the prelude to Milton A Poem in 2 Books To Justify the Ways of God to Men. Blake’s actual poem Jerusalem is altogether a different kettle of fish.

William Blake created a work that had a bit for nearly everyone, the patriot, the radical, the loyalist, the rebel, but who all had one defining element: an identity with their country.

The song made its public debut in March 1916, and was an instant success. Six years later Elgar wrote his own orchestral arrangement, which has remained the more popular and commonly known version. At the time it was adopted by church choirs, schools and even the suffragette movement. In its imagery and rousing melody it quickly became a de facto national anthem.

It is, it seems, popular with everyone, yet despite there being hardly a murmur of protest it can’t seem to make it to be England’s anthem. Britain has God Save the Queen, but England has none. Still it cannot be denied. From state funerals, to sporting events, Jerusalem is there. It was there at the opening of the London Olympics.

Blake, the visionary writer and artist, the man thought mad by many during his lifetime for his effulgent imagination and coruscating visions, created a work that had a bit for nearly everyone, the patriot, the radical, the loyalist, the rebel, but who all had one defining element: an identity with their country.

Hubert Parry’s genius in the melody is the simple ascending start that then falls and repeats itself.

The words are pure fantasy. Some might be so cruel to ascribe them as nonsense: And did those feet in ancient time? Really, Jesus ambled over to England, had a bit of a ramble among the hills, and ambled back home to be crucified? Surely not. Blake may well have been away with the fairies, but what of it, if beauty of its own original kind is born?

Parry’s genius in the melody is the simple ascending start that then falls and repeats itself. It’s made for a stirring climax. And it is made for myriad interpretations, from the angelic voice of Charlotte Church to Hayley Westenra and Katherine Jenkins, to the workers’ friend Billy Bragg, the raucous communion of the audience at Last Night of the Proms to the prog-rock extravaganza of Emerson Lake and Palmer and the electric guitar lines of Jeff Beck and David Gilmour.

No doubt this recent surfacing will fade, the mental fight will cease, the chariot of fire will pass behind the dark satanic mills, and I might enjoy some quietude. But like all great works it stays within one, breathing slowly and quietly in the background. It is a part of you.

JEFF BECK

HAYLEY WESTENRA

LAST NIGHT OF THE PROMS, 2012

KATHERINE JENKINS

EMERSON, LAKE AND PALMER

BILLY BRAGG

CHARLOTTE CHURCH


Main image: Keith Emerson.

10 responses to “Jerusalem: not the city, the song

  1. Good article … and Jeff Beck and David Gilmour playing sublimely in for good measure.
    One thing though … Blake and others of his acquaintance believed that Jesus did, in fact, get to England during the time he appears to have disappeared from public view. Some analyses of the Arthurian legends suggest the same.
    Some amble … but those killer rabbits needed something to inspire them I guess.

  2. The familiar setting of “Jerusalem” by Parry, and words by Blake – particularly the very last “in England’s green and pleasant land” – may well have led to it becoming the flag waving, chest thumping and football fevering anthem it’s become today. But this is to greatly mistake Blake’s revolutionary intent 200 years ago when he wrote “And did those feet in ancient time”. The “dark satanic mills” were real for Blake, and so was his vow to not cease from mental fight, nor let sword sleep in his hand: Till he had built Jerusalem, in England’s green & pleasant land. Blake is a hero. He was tried but acquitted of charges of assault and uttering seditious and treasonable expressions against the King – “Damn the king” he said, “the soldiers are all slaves.” Today, would he think much had changed?

  3. I’m confused, I always thought that Gustav Holst adapted his composition – The Planets (in particular the theme for ‘Jupiter’ ) for use in the hymn. Enlighten me here was it Holst or Parry?

    1. The World in Union, the Rugby World Cup anthem uses the middle section of Holst’s Jupiter. Hayley Westenra’s performance seems to be the most appreciated and is often used as a reference.

    2. I forgot to add that in my opinion one of the best performances of Jerusalem was sung by Judy Collins on her album “Trust Your Heart”. I suspect that Hayley Westenra’s recording would be equal or possibly better if it were not for the loud crowds in the background. One could hope that she would consider doing a studio version of it on a future album.

  4. I prefer Blake the realist:

    I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
    Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
    And mark in every face I meet
    Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

    In every cry of every Man,
    In every Infants cry of fear,
    In every voice: in every ban,
    The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

    And if you want to find modern ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ go no further than social media and the comments attached to online news stories.

    1. Blake is always a realist. Man can not live in the Decartian blankspace even if Decartes could bring himself to pretend it existed. Humans needs hope. To have hope you must dream and to dream you need have visions and to see visions you need imagination. Imagination is the human engine of reality. Imagination is reality. We are all making it up as we go along. If you think reality was invented by Popper or Kant or even Aristotle, Blake is weeping for you now. In what we laughingly call scientific reality Christ did not walk in England. But in truth he definitely did. Are you looking for God? He is in the face of the person whose face you are looking into now. That is actually the only reality that you are ever going to come close to counting on. That, for your consideration, is my paragraph explanation of Blake. And thanks for the article. Very nice.

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