Unity rebranded

Posted on: 30 June 2020, by :

‘Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity’, the fourth movement of Gustav Holst’s The Planets, has remained one of the most popular orchestral pieces for the last hundred years and has often been performed by itself without the rest of the suite. That’s not surprising: it is dazzlingly bright, uplifting music, stuffed with big tunes — four of them, some heard more than once. Holst himself was guarded about its elusive astrological meanings. In his brief notes for the first public performance of the complete work on 15 November 1920 he wrote: ‘Jupiter brings jollity in the ordinary sense, and also the more ceremonial type of rejoicing associated with religious or national festivities.’ We certainly hear a juxtaposition of the ordinary and the ceremonial, especially when the third tune (from 20:32 in this video), which whirls around like mad dancing, is followed by the serenity of the really big tune (at 21:49).

That much-loved big tune can indeed seem quite incongruous in the middle of this movement because it became so well known as the hymn ‘I vow to thee, my country’, regularly selected for remembrance services, royal weddings and other British ceremonial events (for example, for the centenary in 2017 of the Royal Air Force: watch here). Although Holst must have been aware, when composing Jupiter in 1914, that he was creating a melody and its harmony in the style of Elgar with a characteristic sound of late-Victorian and Edwardian England, it was at first a wordless conception with no particular meaning or national focus. It was his later decision, in 1921, to adapt it to the poem by the British diplomat Sir Cecil Spring Rice that saddled the tune with a somewhat controversial religious and patriotic message associated with Britain. The hymn, in its fully harmonized version, was published in 1925 in the Anglican hymnal Songs of Praise.

The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, conducted by Edward Gardner, in the Royal Albert Hall, London, on 6 August 2016.

The poem, written by 1912 and called Urbs Dei (City of God) or The Two Fatherlands, had itself been rebranded for a world changed by the First World War. In 1918 Spring Rice had replaced the opening verse, which alluded to Britannia and a call to arms, with the new one (‘I vow to thee …’) that refers instead to love of country and sacrifice. The improvement distanced the text from Britain specifically and invoked unity of a kind: its sentiments may be apt for Christians of any country who love both their own homeland and the other realm, described in verse 2, that Jesus called the Kingdom of God. Even so, as a hymn it has remained controversial, increasingly so in modern times, for the way that it seems to value dutiful and unquestioning love for one’s country over and above love of God. It’s ironic that the Englishness and popularity of Holst’s music has coloured the patriotism of the hymn as more thoroughly British than the revised words actually imply, just as the association with these words has caused the reputation of Jupiter to be overlaid with a veneer of nationalism that it never had in the first place.

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no questions, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

The original first verse (prior to 1918), never set to music by Holst:
I heard my country calling, away across the sea,
Across the waste of waters, she calls and calls to me.
Her sword is girded at her side, her helmet on her head,
And around her feet are lying the dying and the dead;
I hear the noise of battle, the thunder of her guns;
I haste to thee, my mother, a son among thy sons.

Jupiter has in a sense been rescued from that compromised fate by some inspired branding in the world of professional sport. In 1991 the International Board of Rugby Football commissioned Charlie Skarbek to provide an anthem to be used for the Rugby World Cup tournament. Skarbek’s solution was to convert the Jupiter theme from triple metre to the 4-in-the-bar expected for the dance beat of popular music and to give it lyrics that exalt the sport itself — rugby union — as a force for unity across the world.

There’s a dream, I feel
so rare, so real:
all the world in union,
the world as one.

Gathering together,
one mind, one heart,
every creed, every colour,
once joined, never apart.

Searching for the best in me
I will find what I can be;
if I win, lose or draw
there’s a winner in us all.
It’s the world in union,
the world as one,
as we climb to reach our destiny,
a new age has begun.

We face high mountains,
must cross rough seas,
we must take our place in history
and live with dignity.

Just to be the best I can
sets the goal for every man;
if I win, lose or draw
it's a victory for all.

The result, The World in Union, has become a modern classic, reinterpreted every four years for the Rugby World Cup and at other times too. Some may find the lyrics a little trite, but that scarcely matters. It is Holst’s music — striking the heart every time, with or without words — that is responsible for the song’s evergreen success (Skarbek wisely retained most of Holst’s harmony). And this music’s alliance with rugby union conveys authenticity in the song’s aspiration for unity in the world, for since the ending of apartheid in South Africa in the early 1990s rugby union has become a remarkable model for the admirably respectful and inclusive way that it is played in every country that supports it.

The World in Union, the first version, for the 1991 Rugby World Cup, sung by Kiri Te Kanawa.

For the most recent World Cup (Japan 2019), sung in Japanese by Sarah Àlainn. The official song in English was sung by Kiyoe Yoshioka.