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.
LAST NIGHT OF THE PROMS, 2012
EMERSON, LAKE AND PALMER