The ambiguous phrase ‘national song’ was foggiest of all in England, the largest of the four nations, which had no obvious tradition to point to. Some pride was taken in a small number of ‘ancient ballads’, chiefly from Northumbria, of which the foremost – due in no small part to its championing by such hallowed men of letters as Sir Philip Sidney and Joseph Addison – was undoubtedly ‘Chevy Chase’. The most influential early collection of such songs was undoubtedly Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), a flawed masterpiece that attracted the ire of, among others, the radical Joseph Ritson, among whose many works, A Select Collection of English Songs, with Their Original Airs (1783) was the most significant. Others followed, many – such as John Bell’s Rhymes of Northern Bards (1812) – focusing on regional songs, and assuming the melodies generally known: it was not until William Chappell’s A Collection of National English Airs (1838) – an opus he continued to revise for several decades – that England had a key, scholarly collection as attentive to the music as the words.
When it came to modern, composed song, the English grew uncertain, caught between the supposed authenticity of their Celtic neighbours, and the melodic proficiency of Italian song, which by turns enraged and captivated polite society. The composer Thomas Arne, beloved of many, was dismissed by the influential John Aikin as a ‘soft warbler, who fills up a vacancy of thought with a tune’. Arne won out, however, epitomising three chief characteristics of English national song: simple, accessible melody; a patriarchal voice; and a focus on nautical themes.
By 1800, a canon of these was forming, rivalling ‘God Save the King’ for primacy: ‘Britons, Strike Home!’ (Purcell, 1695), ‘Rule, Britannia!’ (Arne/Thomson, 1740), and ‘Heart of Oak’ (Boyce/Garrick, 1760), all of which were classed as ‘odes’. Less bellicose were John Gay’s ‘Black-Ey’d Susan’, George Alexander Stevens’ ‘The Storm’, and William Shield’s ‘The Heaving of the Lead’, along with a host of acclaimed ‘national’ sea songs by Charles Dibdin the Elder – whose son Thomas contributed another strident favourite, ‘The Tight Little Island’.
While opinion differed on whether ‘Scotch airs’ could count as national to the English, wholesale transnationalism often occurred: Henry Bishop originally claimed his melody to ‘Home! Sweet Home!’ (1823) was an arrangement of ‘a Sicilian Air’, while its lyricist, John Howard Payne, was an American. Likewise, Henry Russell’s ‘A Life on the Ocean Wave’ (1838) was set to a poem from the U.S., and ‘The Sea’ (1837), with lyrics by the Englishman known as Barry Cornwall, was set by the Austrian composer Sigismund Ritter von Neukomm. Most audaciously of all, John Braham’s ‘The Death of Nelson’ (1811) lifted part of the melody of the then French national anthem, the ‘Chant du Départ’, to form perhaps the most popular English national song of the century.
Featured image: ‘Gentlemen a bumper’; The toast master’s guide; frontis. and title page; London: T. Hughes, 1806. By permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections.