Patriotic songs Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory may be banned from the BBC Proms - here's why

(Photo: CARL COURT/AFP via Getty Images)(Photo: CARL COURT/AFP via Getty Images)
(Photo: CARL COURT/AFP via Getty Images)

The BBC is considering dropping the traditional performances of 'Rule, Britannia!' and 'Land of Hope of Glory' in sweeping changes inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement.

With Covid-19 placing restrictions on this year's festival - including reduced orchestra sizes, social distancing and no audiences - the BBC is reportedly using the opportunity to make changes to the format, and the patriotic anthems could be out.

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A BBC source told the Sunday Times that Finnish conductor Dalia Stasevska, who becomes the second female to lead the Last Night of the Proms this year, "is a big supporter of Black Lives Matter and thinks a ceremony without an audience is the perfect moment to bring change."

The rousing pieces are often said to reflect a time of British empirical rule and slavery by critics.

Here's everything you need to know.

When was 'Rule, Britannia' written?

The words of 'Rule, Britannia!' originate from a poem of the same name by Scotsman James Thomson, and were set to music written by English composer Thomas Arne in 1740.

Thomson applied his interest in helping foster British identity to his work, and was particularly interested in combining English, Irish, Welsh, and Scottish identities while simultaneously fostering an overtly 'British' oneness.

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His words were put to the music of Arne by Scottish poet David Mallet for a performance for Frederick, Prince of Wales, to commemorate the accession of his father King George II in August 1940.

Mallet would alter the lyrics over a decade later, omitting three of the original stanzas and adding three new ones written by politician, Lord Bolingbroke.

According to historian David Armitage, 'Rule, Britannia!' is a lasting expression of Britain and the British Empire, "predicated on a mixture of adulterated mercantilism, nationalistic anxiety and libertarian fervour."

The song has often assumed extra significance at times of great national pride, such as in 1945 at the conclusion of World War II when it was played at the ceremonial surrender of the Japanese imperial army.

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What about 'Land of Hope and Glory'?

'Land of Hope and Glory' came much later in 1901, with music by Edward Elgar and lyrics by A. C. Benson.

It's another song with definite links to British empirical rule.

Benson's words are thought to have been inspired by the publication of the will of British mining magnate Cecil Rhodes, in which he left considerable wealth for the purpose of promoting "the extension of British rule throughout the world."

The will included a long, detailed list of territories which Rhodes wanted brought under British rule and colonised by British people.

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'Land of Hope and Glory' was also written at a time in which Britain's victory in the Boer War was fresh in the memory, a conflict from which the United Kingdom gained territories with considerable financial and strategic gain owing to their mineral wealth.

Why do people want the pieces removed?

Chi-chi Nwanoku, founder of majority BAME orchestra Chineke!, told The Guardian that she would be appalled if the BBC failed to remove 'Rule, Britannia!' from the line-up.

“The lyrics are just so offensive, talking about the ‘haughty tyrants’ – people that we are invading on their land and calling them haughty tyrants – and Britons shall never be slaves, which implies that it’s OK for others to be slaves but not us,” she said.

"If the BBC are talking about Black Lives Matter and their support for the movement, how could you possibly have Rule Britannia as the last concert – in any concert?

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“It’s so irrelevant to today’s society. It’s been irrelevant for generations, and we seem to keep perpetuating it.”

Last month, classical music critic Richard Morrison said that to "roar out these hypocritical 18th-century words, with or without irony" would "surely be insensitive, bordering on the incendiary.

"There will never be a better moment to drop that toe-curling, embarrassing, anachronistic farrago of nationalistic songs that concludes the Last Night of the Proms," he added.

Will the songs be removed this year?

Calls for the removal of the pieces are not new.

Mark Elder, conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, suggested in 1990 that what he saw as a demonstration of crude jingoism would be particularly out of step against the context of the impending first Gulf War.

He was sacked by the controller of the Proms.

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In 2008, Culture Minister Margaret Hodge said more had to be done to appeal to people from different backgrounds.

"The audience for many of our greatest cultural events – I’m thinking in particular of the Proms – is still a long way from demonstrating that people from different backgrounds feel at ease in being part of this," she said.

She was slapped down by then-prime minister Gordon Brown, who insisted the concert was “wonderful, democratic and quintessentially British".

The pieces have been dropped from the Last Night of the Proms before; the BBC replaced the songs with more “reflective music” days after the 9/11 attacks, but they were reinstated the following year.

With regards to this year's Proms, the BBC said in a statement that they are still "finalising arrangements".

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