shared musical treasures—god save the queen (or is it king?)
Join The Muse of Music's exploration of the shared musical treasure, God Save the Queen...or is it God Save the King?
The music you are now hearing is God Save the Queen, the national anthem of the United Kingdom, its territories, and its dependencies, performed by the distinguished Regimental Band of the Coldstream Guards, conducted by major Roger G. Swift. Both music and band are national institutions.
God Save the Queen (or King, as the case may be) is most famous as the national anthem of the United Kingdom, but it serves and has served many other roles in many other places. As we shall see, it is one of the most widely known and often played pieces of music around the world.
Among its many other distinctions, God Save the Queen is the first song ever to be formally designated a national (i.e., royal) anthem. It had unofficial status in Britain until the 1780s and 90s, but today it is officially recognized and accepted in the United Kingdom and around the world as the national (i.e., royal) anthem of the United Kingdom.
As we shall see, many other countries—not just those of the United Kingdom—do (or have) employed the tune for their national or royal anthem. The melody is (and has) appeared in many different kinds of music—classical, rock, popular, musicals, and more—and in scores of different national anthems, patriotic songs, protest songs, drinking songs, books, and pamphlets that make political statements, satirize, criticize, or poke fun. The tune has been adapted for or incorporated in political statements and satires, musical transcriptions and variations, and in film, television, and other media. It has become a symbol for England, the English royal household, monarchy, hegemony, and a hundred isms, objects, places, and things.
God Save the Queen is so popular and versatile, it's sometimes played for its own sake, just to hear satisfying music, express joy, or have fun. By way of example, a version of God Save the Queen was recorded by a pop musical group called Madness that features the melody played on kazoos. It was distributed in their album The Business. (Today, the activities of the English royal family are sometimes referred to as the family business.)
God Save the Queen is an English song that originated in 18th century England. First and foremost, it was and is pro-English and chauvinistic—so much so, one might almost say that it virtually belongs to England. Then how is one to understand its widespread adoption and fame?
One reason for the music's success is English colonial expansion in the 16th through 20th centuries. As the old saying goes, The sun never sets on the British empire. English military victories around the world and agencies such as Britain's East India Trading Company helped introduce the music to foreign nationals everywhere. Alliances with Britain offered economic and security incentives and disincentives; the song became both hated and revered. British Commonwealth nations accepted the music as their own while other nations disparaged it.
But acceptance was not just a matter of national self-interest. The tune is simple, stirring, and strong—everything a national or royal anthem should be. The lyrics are honest, plain, and direct; they express sentiments that many nations in the 19th and 20th centuries could easily call their own. It is the perfect setting for or a musical satire or political gibe.
Moreover, royal dynasties, including that of Queen Victoria, who was of German descent, proliferated throughout Europe and spawned heads of state over many nations. With a relative such as Victoria on the throne of England, it was relatively easy for royalty of the same lineage to accept English music as their own. So many were God Save the Queen's virtues and assets, even nations that nurtured leanings antithetic to the interests of England, such as France and Germany, saw fit at one time or another to adopt the tune and modify its lyrics to fit their own requirements. (More about this later.)
In the 21st century, so universal is God Save the Queen, it might justifiably be called, God Save the [...King or Queen or Any Other Thing or Place]—you fill in the blanks. Indeed, so widespread is its impact, so well is it known, loved, hated, heard, hummed, or marched to around the world, it has earned the right to be called a shared musical treasure.
Music scholars and historians have speculated long and large about the tune's beginnings, which may go as far back as a keyboard piece by the musician Dr. John Bull composed in 1619. Nevertheless, the composer of the piece, if there ever was one, remains unknown.
Other aspects of the tune's origins remain obscure as well. One possibility is that it originated with a musical piece by Henry Purcell whose opening notes are those of the modern version of the tune for God Save the King. In the 19th century there was widespread belief that an old Scots carol, Remember 'O Thou Man, was the source of the tune. Many other candidates have been proposed but none are proven.
What is known for certain is that a printed copy of the first verse of the present version of the tune appeared in 1744 in the publication, Thesaurus Musicus. Lyrics for the tune sprang up spontaneously and versions of the the song quickly became very popular in Scotland and England the following year, when Charles Edward Stuart, a Scottish king, landed on English shores on his way to mount the throne of England, where he assumed the title, James II. Songs based on the melody are on record as having being sung in London theaters in 1745. And that year, the famous English composer Thomas Arne wrote a setting for the God Save the King tune for the Drury Lane theatre.
The 1745 setting by Arne may account for the popular but misguided notion that Arne actually composed the melody and lyrics. Perhaps Arne often incorrectly gets the credit for originating the song because he was the Englishman who, in 1740, had composed the very popular (and still very popular) British patriotic song, Rule Britannia! As a proud Englishman, as a composer of patriotic songs, and as the man who had set a verse of God Save the King to the music of a Drury Lane production, in the public mind he was a natural candidate for authorship. To this day, this apocryphal connection between Arne and the song remains fused in the public's imagination.
At the left, Thomas Arne, composer of Rule Britannia, fallaciously credited by many with composing God Save the King.
political Protocols and traditions
The rules for playing of God Save the Queen on formal governmental occasions are steeped—one might almost say immersed or mired—in bureaucratic protocol. According to the laws of the United Kingdom, there is a right way or wrong way to present a performance of the royal anthem on state-sponsored occasions.
The protocol rules vary; they depend on the situation, country, locale, event, or parties involved. Departures from tradition and standard protocol must be authorized by official state government authorities; they are not normally the result of accidents, spontaneous acts, or autonomous decisions made by local authorities or performers.
In Britain, the Queen (or King)must be saluted with the entire anthem, while other members of the royal family, who are also entitled to a royal salute, such as the Prince of Wales, are saluted with just the first six bars.
In the United Kingdom, protocol and tradition demand that the first verse is the only verse sung, although the third verse is sung in addition to the first verse on rare occasions, such as at the Last Night of the Proms.
On state occasions in some Commonwealth countries outside Britain, protocol demands that United Kingdom governing appointees such as governors general or lieutenant governors receive a so-called Vice Regal Salute. In some of these countries, for example Canada, the first six bars first six bars of God Save the Queen form the first part of this salute.
A number of Commonwealth countries possess two anthems, one for royal United Kingdom occasions or personalities and one for country or local occasions or personalities. Sometimes both anthems are played. For example, the United Kingdom royal anthem and the Canadian national anthem are both played before the start of Canadian hockey games. When this occurs, the first six bars of God Save the Queen are played followed by the first four and last four bars of O Canada. O Canada, of course, is the Canadian national anthem.
It is worth keeping in mind that protocols and traditions like The ones cited above only constrain official and formal governmental bodies. The melody, lyrics, presentation, and staging of God Save the Queen have varied dramatically over the years since the song's origins prior to the 1740s. People outside of government have never hesitated to exercise poetic license and take creative liberties, shall we say, with all aspects of the song. they have produced a rich legacy of versions and variations.
In England, the standard version of the melody today is still that of the original, and is still played in the key of G, though the anthem is often introduced by a drum roll of two bars. The bass line of the standard version differs little from the second voice part, but there is an alternate standard version in four-part harmony for choirs. The first three lines six bars of music are soft, ending with a short crescendo into the line, Send her victorious, and there is another crescendo at the words over us which leads into into the final words, God save the Queen.
There is no definitive version of the lyrics. Even English royalty and governmental officials don't seem able to make up their minds about what version is standard. However, the version consisting of the three verses shown below probably has the best claim to be regarded as standard because of their historicity.
The lyrics you see below appeared in English publications such as the Gentleman's Magazine of 1745, The Book of English Songs: From the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century (1851), National Hymns: How They are Written and how They are Not Written (1861), Household Book of Poetry (1882), and Hymns Ancient and Modern, revised version (1982). The same version with verse two omitted appears in English publications such as Scouting for boys (1908), and on the United Kingdom's government's Monarchy Today website.
At the Palace concert of the Queen's Golden Jubilee Party, Prince Charles referred in his speech to the politically incorrect second verse of the National Anthem. (Of course, he meant the second verse, below.) What could be more of a seal of approval than that?
Lyrics to God Save the Queen
(standard English version)
words & music together—Time to play
Now that you know the words and music, The Muse Of Music now invites you to follow along with the Coldstream Guards as they repeat their performance. Read the lyrics of the standard version as you play its melody. Feel free to sing along, if you like; a strong and lusty voice is called for. If you're self-conscious about your voice, sing the song solo in an enclosed room; or bellow it out in public if you're not faint-hearted.
God Save the queen and sex in the english monarchy
You may have been wondering why The Muse Of Music has been vacillating over the sexuality of the title. The reason is simple. God Save the Queen is perhaps the only national anthem whose title and lyrics change depending on the sex of the reigning monarch at the time it is played. It bears the title God Save the Queen while a queen is seated on the throne and the title God Save the King while a king is seated.
The above standard lyrics are the words of the female standard version. As you might expect, when a male is reigning the word queen is changed to king and vice versa wherever it appears in any of the lines. But more! When the monarch is a male, God save the queen becomes God save the King; God save our gracious queen becomes God save our gracious king; Send her victorious becomes Send him victorious; Scatter her enemies becomes Scatter his enemies; On her be pleased to pour becomes On him be pleased to pour; Long may she reign becomes Long may he reign; and May she defend our laws becomes May he defend our laws.
Moreover, when a monarch rules, the last two lines of the third verse are changed to With heart and voice to sing/ God Save the King. (If you know the thinking behind this change, by all means let The Muse Of Music know.)
Of one thing you can be certain: the title and lyrics may change to reflect the sex of the monarch, but the message the anthem sends is always the same: save the reigning monarch regardless of sex.
evolution and variations in government performances
Who knows what changes to God Save the Queen will be dictated by English royalty or government officials in the future? Although the official melody, lyrics, and style of play have become relatively stable in the United Kingdom in recent years, anything can happen.
the national anthems of Germany and france
You probably know that today the national anthem of France is The Marseillaise; and you probably know that the national anthem of Germany is Deutschlandlied (Song of Germany). But did you know that once upon a time the melody of God Save the Queen became the national anthem of France, and later became the national anthem of the German Empire? This is especially ironic, since at one time or another both nations have been England's arch enemy.
Looking back at history, the use of God Save the King by France and Germany is not really so strange as at first it might appear. As noted earlier, God Save the King was the first song to be used as a national anthem; and its success prompted a number of imitations. To help construct a national identity, both France and Germany adopted the melody and then adapted the lyrics to suit their own purposes. The Song had worked to help establish England's national identity; why shouldn't it work to establish theirs?
France and Germany were not alone. The tune of God Save the King was expropriated, and in some cases officially adopted, as the national anthem of several other countries, including those of Russia (until 1833), Switzerland (until 1961), Prussia, and Russia.
The German use of God Save the King is especially noteworthy. The Prussians were the first Germanic nationals to adopt the tune of English national anthem. Later, the German Empire took its anthem from the Prussian anthem, a natural outcome of the fact that Kaiser Wilhelm II was not only the German Emperor, he was King of Prussia. Kaiser Wilhelm's German Empire used the melody of God Save the King from 1871 to 1918 under the title Heil dir im Siegerkranz (Hail to thee in Victor's Crown). The music became the anthem of the German Empire in 1871 when the Empire was formed and the Kaiser stepped up to take the throne. The Kaiser abdicated in 1918 at the end of WWI and his anthem and Empire were no more.
The German Empire not only took the music for its new anthem from England, it adopted the lyrics from Denmark. The lyrics were originally written by a gentleman named Heinrich Harries in 1790 to honor King Christian VII of Denmark. His original text was later adapted almost without change to make it apply to the German situation. For example, the line heil, Kaiser, dir (hail to thee, Emperor) originally read heil, Christian, dir.
To their credit, Germans never fully accepted God Save the King, the melody of an un-Germanic foreign nation, as their own. Many Germans resented the tune's links with England, and many German nationalists resented its connection with Kaiser Wilhelm II and Prussia. Some breakaway German states and some German citizens used other songs to express their national identity, among them Das Lied der Deutschen (the song of Germans) and Die Wacht am Rhein (The Watch on the Rhine).
The German anthem—the one based on God Save the King—prevailed throughout WWI, while England and Germany were at war, giving German nationals more good reasons to resent the anthem imposed on them from above and outside. Ironically, both countries were striking up the same tune on both sides of the English Channel. This situation changed in 1922 when Germany's Weimar Republic officially adopted a new anthem, with lyrics by August Heinrich Hoffman, alias Hoffman von Fallersleben, and new music, the tune of Frederick Haydn's distinctly Germanic song, Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser, which he wrote in 1797 in honor of the Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria—the Kaiser. (Too many kaisers can get confusing.)
Many people around the world still believe that today the national anthem of Germany is Deutschland, Deutschland Über Alles. Actually, the Deutschland, Deutschland Über Alles anthem was dropped in 1950 in favor of the Song of Germany, which retains only the third stanza of von Fallersleben's lyrics but keeps Haydn's music. This mistaken association of the current German anthem with Deutschland, Deutschland Über Alles is partly due to the prominence the prior anthem had under the Nazis and partly to the fact that both Deutschland, Deutschland Über Alles and the present German national anthem are based on Haydn's melody.
Today's German national anthem, Deutschlandlied, consists of only the third stanza of von Fallersleben's lyrics, but it is still set to the music of Haydn's Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser. What is this music with the strange-sounding title, Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser? Who was Franz, dem Kaiser? Want to explore the lyrics and melody of the Austo-Hungarian Empire and how it evolved into the modern German national anthem of today?
Variants outside government
Outside of government, the most common reasons to modify the tune or lyrics of the standard English version are to:
As mentioned above, the melody or lyrics from God Save the Queen have been incorporated in all kinds of music, from classical to rock to popular, and in musicals, patriotic songs, protest songs, drinking songs, books, and pamphlets that make political statements, satirize, criticize, or poke fun, and more.
Strange as it may seem at first glance, the practice of modifying God Save the Queen is older than the song itself, since, as explained above, the melody goes back as far as a 1619 keyboard piece by Dr. Bull, prior to the melody's first definitive 1744 publication in thesaurus Musicus.
Here, The Muse briefly explores just two of the media in which variations have occurred—classical, rock, and religious music.
Explore further. An extensive and authoritative examination of virtually all aspects God Save the King is available in the Oxford Companion to Music, written by Percy A. Scholes. and published by Oxford University Press. Scholes is an accomplished music scholar who gives you the benefit of his research. This edition includes the Scholes-authored study of God Save the King, which is perhaps the best single exploration of the subject. This classic 1970 edition of the Scholes Oxford Companion that is worth having for its own sake, God Save the King aside.
The 1970 edition of The Oxford Companion to Music is a jewel that is not out-of-date; but it is not up-to-date either. If you want a follow-on to the 1970 edition edition that covers the same periods as the 1970 edition but includes more recent periods, consider both the 1983 edition and the 2002 edition. The 1983 edition, called the New Oxford Companion to Music, edited by Denis Arnold, takes a different approach. Instead of being written mostly by a single author (Scholes), it is a compendium of 6,000 articles written by 90 experts.
The 2002 edition, titled The Oxford Companion to Music, edited by Alison Latham, is similar in structure to the 1983 version in that it consists of articles written by experts, but does not supersede it. It contains many fewer pages and illustrations but includes a greater variety of information and brings the 1983 edition up to date. (By the time you read this, there may be an even more recent edition).
These three editions are hard-covered and pricey, but look for less-expensive soft-cover versions if you prefer.
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This web site and
its contents are copyrighted by
Decision Consulting Incorporated (DCI).
All rights reserved.