When the South African soprano Golda Schultz walked out in front of the BBC Symphony Orchestra on 12 September 2020, she looked both spectacular and completely at ease as she prepared to sing a new arrangement of the Last Night of the Proms staple, Jerusalem. Four minutes and three seconds later, her performance had sparked a storm.
The Metro headlined with a quote from Twitter, calling the event “a mangled abomination”, while the i reported that the “bluesy” remake annoyed traditionalists, who were then described as “aghast” by the Daily Mail. But even the strongest tabloid headlines were muted compared to the outpourings of disgust on social media, which attacked the performance as “an assault on the eardrums” and a “massacre” in which Schultz had “butchered” both the original music and British culture.
That Last Night was always going to be difficult. The Albert Hall was empty of crowds due to social distancing, while the BBC had spent the summer caught in a culture war because of suggestions it was about to ban Rule, Britannia! due to its associations with slavery. Criticism of this 1740 song, declaring that Britannia would rule the waves, was pointed because of the Black Lives Matter protests. Against such a backdrop, Jerusalem: Our Clouded Hills – a new version arranged by Belize-born British composer Errollyn Wallen – was never going to receive a calm hearing. Especially as Wallen said she wanted to challenge tradition.
“The rhythms are different,” the composer said of her version, which was not as obviously patriotic as the original, written by Hubert Parry in 1916. “There are stops and starts and bright colours. There’s dissonance too and I refer to the blues.” Wallen saw it as a tribute to the Windrush generation of migrants to Britain, and the first half broke radically with Parry’s harmonies when Schultz sang the famous lines asking whether Jerusalem was “builded here, / Among those dark satanic mills”.
Detractors described it as pandering to “woke” leftists. The problem with their arguments, however, is that Jerusalem – or at least its original source – has always been an anti-establishment tract. Originally written in 1804 as part of William Blake’s epic Milton: A Poem, the stanzas beginning “And did those feet” were a call to rouse the young of a new age to promote artistic mental fight and resist the all too real bloodshed of war.
By the time Parry set Blake’s lyrics to music, it was increasingly assumed that the poem referred to the legend that Jesus visited Roman Britain. However, there is no reference to this myth before the 1890s, when Victorians sought to emphasise supposed British exceptionalism. Instead, Blake was drawing on an older story, repeated in Milton’s History of Britain, that it was Joseph of Arimathea who travelled west after the death of Jesus and first preached to the ancient Britons. Milton himself had no truck with what he viewed as Papist nonsense, but Blake repeatedly referred to Joseph, lonely and vulnerable on the shores of Albion. To him, Joseph’s primitive Christianity was a rebuke to the organised religion of the Roman and British empires – one where Jerusalem, simply meaning a heavenly city on earth, could be built anywhere.
When the chaff surrounding the Jesus myth is blown away, the poem is much simpler to understand – although not necessarily any more correct. Joseph preached alone a gospel that matched Blake’s own heretical religious views, one in which Jesus recognised that all deities reside in the human breast. The traditional view of an “out there” God meant, for Blake, the ruler of this world – or Urizen, most famously represented by his image of The Ancient of Days, who imposed his worship by force.
As such, for all its martial metaphors, Blake’s fight in Jerusalem was a mental one against the establishment of his day, which was creating an empire built on slavery and warfare in the name of Christianity. By the time of his death in 1827, Blake’s pacifist poem had fallen into obscurity. When it was set to music in 1916, it was transformed into the symbol of a British imperialism that the poet had spent much of his life opposing.
The composition by Parry, commissioned during the first world war for the propaganda organisation Fight for Right, was intended to inspire troops abroad and raise the spirits of people at home. Again, however, there was a problem. Although Parry, one of the most respected composers of his day, wished to do his patriotic duty, he was deeply affected by the conflict against Germany, which was the cultural inspiration for his own music. Increasingly disgusted by Fight for Right’s jingoism, he disavowed it and transferred the copyright to suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett, expressing his wish that Jerusalem would become the “women voters’ hymn”.
At the time, marches, demonstrations and even violence were a prominent feature of the demand for women’s suffrage, just as they were in the global protests following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Although commissioned as a hymn for the establishment, in the first months and years of its existence Jerusalem was as likely to be sung by those on the left as on the right.
One such figure was the mayor of Stepney, then one of London’s most deprived boroughs, who was newly returned from service on the western front. Clement Attlee had become active among Fabian socialists and, as mayor, tackled slum landlords. He also argued, in his book The Social Worker, for organised protection of the disadvantaged, rather than a reliance on charity, and his opening pages invoked Blake’s call to build Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.
This message of hope stayed with Attlee throughout his life. Later, as prime minister, he invoked Blake’s words again in his 1951 Labour manifesto speech at Scarborough. The election would end with defeat, even though his administration received a larger share of the vote than Churchill’s. Attlee’s legacy, though, was a National Health Service, a system of public housing, enhanced workers’ rights – and the sense that building the New Jerusalem was the proper task of a Labour government.
Jerusalem’s perception as a left-wing manifesto was deeply resented by many on the right. For all that the hymn was increasingly associated with her party during the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher appears to have been ambivalent about a work that was still tainted by Attlee’s claim – while John Major mocked “the People’s new, New Jerusalem” after Labour’s victory in 1997. For the general population, however, the hymn seemed increasingly part of an established perception of English life. While it may have been included in the 1950 Labour Party Song Book, throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s it was more likely to appear in such movies such as Chariots of Fire and Four Weddings and a Funeral – to represent a particular view of English traditions and stability, bolstered by its status as a Last Night of the Proms staple.
Shortly after Sir Malcolm Sargent became chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1947, he began to perform many of the favourites that would eventually combine into the Last Night, that particularly British invention of tradition. The various ingredients – the conductor’s tub-thumping speech, flag-waving, a particular order of songs – were finalised in 1953, just when the coronation of Elizabeth II had made TV a medium that could showcase popular culture. Attempts to change the magic formula – as in 1969 when the then-controller of the Proms, William Glock, attempted to remove both Land of Hope and Glory and Rule, Britannia! – were met with outrage by traditionalists.
Over the past seven decades, it has usually been those two songs, rather than Jerusalem, that have been the target of cultural arguments. When the Last Night programme was changed in 2001 following the terrorist attack on New York’s Twin Towers just four days previously, the Blake-Parry hymn remained alongside the British and American national anthems while the more overtly imperial songs were dropped. For all Jerusalem’s talk of fighting with sword in hand, most people recognised that such force was directed against mental rather than flesh-and-blood foes.
Yet Wallen’s arrangement could still disturb the faithful, mostly because it removed the traditional cadence of Parry’s score. Her version refuses to allow the hymn to return to the key of D major in the first part and thus unsettles the ear, rendering the song atonal and disturbing at that moment. The song that is meant to be all about our place suddenly refuses to provide its listeners with a home – which was, of course, the point.
This Saturday, audiences should find nothing to aggravate traditional sensibilities. Jerusalem takes its place alongside Thomas Arne’s Rule, Britannia!, Edward Elgar’s Land of Hope and Glory, and Benjamin Britten’s arrangement of God Save the Queen. But the premiere of James B Wilson’s 1922 shows that the organisers of the Proms have not turned their backs on thoughtful and innovative music by young and diverse composers, although in the second part spectators will be invited to wave flags without troubling their hearts. This would grieve both Blake and Parry, both of whom were more complex in their patriotism.
In Green Unpleasant Land, her book about how the English countryside was a place of colonialism and conflict, Corinne Fowler takes issue with how Parry’s hymn colonised Blake’s words. But there are reasons to be much more optimistic about the many ways Jerusalem can be reinvented, whether as a tribute to those fighting fascism in Spain, as when Paul Robeson performed it in the 1930s, or to celebrate rude, rural life as in Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem. While Rule, Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory are fixed in England’s dreaming, Blake’s four simple stirring stanzas remain very much a hope for the future.
• Jerusalem: Blake, Parry and the Fight for Englishness is out now published by Oxford University Press. The Last Night of the Proms is at the Royal Albert Hall, London, on 10 September.