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They're Playing Our Tune! (December 2009)

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This article was first published in the Scottish Review.

When the Scots set off for the Delhi Commonwealth Games, they will pack in their sporrans an anthem chosen from among 'Flower of Scotland', 'Loch Lomond', 'Highland Cathedral' and 'Scotland the Brave'. This shortlist was the result of some unspecified form of consultation. Among scowling secondary schoolboys? Friday evening screamers in the Corinthian? VisitScotland in conclave with Donald Trump?

There is every temptation to be scathing about the list. Why with perhaps the world's greatest treasury of folk song and public poetry to hand, does Jocks Populi go for such harmless-to-dire choices? 'Flower of Scotland' needs, as Neal Ascherson once said, a warm-up of four pints to sound tolerable; our rugby players believed themselves jinxed by its plangencies. ‘Scotland the Brave' was heiderum-hoaderum scribbled by Cliff Hanley for a radio show. What has 'Loch Lomond' to do with Scotland? As for 'Highland Cathedral', it was written by two Germans who - alas - gave us its trite words as well as its rather good tune.

This in the country where Burns wrote 'Scots Wha Hae' and 'For A' That!' Tom Moore said the former ‘would in a great national crisis be of more avail than all the eloquence of a Demosthenes.’ But not representing Scotland in Delhi.

In both songs Burns consciously combines vivid rhetoric with memorable music. So too does the translator into metre of the 124th 'Covenanting' Psalm. From the field-preachings of Galloway, this saw the Red Clydesiders off to London in 1922:

Now Israel may say, and that truly,
If that the Lord had not our cause maintain’d;
If that the Lord had not our right sustain’d,
When cruel men against us furiously
Rose up in wrath, to make of us their prey;
Then certainly they had devour’d us all,
And swallow’d quick, for ought that we could deem;
Such was their rage, as we might well esteem.
And as fierce floods before them all things drown,
So had they brought our soul to death quite down.
The raging streams, with their proud swelling waves,
Had then our soul o’erwhelmed in the deep.
But bless’d be God, who doth us safely keep,
And hath not giv’n us for a living prey
Unto their teeth, and bloody cruelty.

Ev’n as a bird out of the fowler’s snare
Escapes away, so is our soul set free:
Broke are their nets, and thus escaped we.
Therefore our help is in the Lord’s great name,
Who heav’n and earth by his great pow’r did frame.

Hamish Henderson achieves the same power through a similar salvationist reversal in his 'Freedom Come All Ye' – composed forty years later:

Now come all ye at hame wi’ freedom:
Never heed what the corbies craw o’ doom.
In my hoose a’ the bairns o’ Adam
Will find breid, barley-bree an’ pentit room.

When MacLean meets wi’ freens in Springburn,
A’ the roses an’ geans’ll turn tae bloom,
An’ the black boy frae yont Nyanga
Dings the fell gallows o’ the burghers doon!

The best anthems are those whose music you can hum, words that thrill, and are a bit daft – like the 'Marseillaise', 'Finlandia', 'Jerusalem' and 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic'. This is what we want to be, not what we are.

Putting things the other way round, the rousing main theme in the last movement of Mendelssohn's 'Scottish Symphony' cries out to be set to words, while Edwin Morgan's Parliament poem, moving from argument to declaration, has sense of occasion, wit and intellect:
All right. Forget, or don’t forget, the past. Trumpets and
robes are fine, but in the present and the future you will
need something more.
What is it? We, the people, cannot tell you yet, but you will know about it when we do tell you.
We give you our consent to govern, don’t pocket it and ride away.
We give you our deepest dearest wish to govern well, don’t say we
have no mandate to be so bold.
We give you this great building, don’t let your work and hope be other than great when you enter and begin.
So now begin. Open the doors and begin.

This would be the devil to set to music - though Vaughan Williams handled the equally unorthodox Walt Whitman brilliantly in his ‘Sea Symphony’.

‘They’re all written by a bunch of Jewboys!’ His fellow-commercial travellers denounce the songs which are meat and drink to Dennis Potter’s sheet-music seller Arthur Parker in ‘Pennies from Heaven.’ And the Last Nonconformist got this brilliantly: the Apostles were fabulists, and the psalms and hymns as great literally popular songs are Judeo-Christian: the responses of the congregations’ strong but limited voices to cantor or choir.

Take my own choice of a Scottish anthem: Alexander Gray's 'Scotland', less well-known than it ought to be, even though chosen by MacDiarmid for his Book of Scottish Verse, and figuring among the 'speaking stones' on Parliament's Canongate wall:

This is my country,
The land that begat me.
These windy spaces
Are surely my own;
And those who toil there
In the sweat of their faces
Are flesh of my flesh
And bone of my bone.

What music to set it to? A Jewish composer came to hand: Leonard Rosenman and the chorale he wrote for Steve McQueen’s film of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, some thirty years ago. This hits all the right notes and indeed emphasises that the great national songs have this chorale-like quality, which one associates with Bach’s cantatas: not heroism but transcendence: the people singing their better selves into being.

So it’s back to Burns. Cardinal Keith O’Brien has actually called ‘For A’ That’ a prayer; even though the folk that sang it in Berlin in March 1848 were out to storm the Royal Palace, as the plaque by the Landwehrkanal reminds you.

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