Rule Britannia! Music, Mischief and Morals in the 18th Century

There seems to be something of a tendency for historical documentaries (about Britain) to announce that some aspect of the era under discussion is “the foundation of the modern world”. In Rule Britannia! Music, Mischief and Morals in the 18th Century Suzy Klein’s thesis was that the musical world of 18th Century Britain was the start of the music and entertainment business as we know it today. Even after watching the series I felt that was perhaps a bit of a grandiose claim, in that I suspect an in depth look at the musical world of the 17th or 19th Centuries would be able to make similar claims about those centuries. However, scepticism about this era as sole origin story aside, they were good programmes.

The three programmes dealt, roughly speaking, with the three words in the subtitle in order. In Episode 1 Klein introduced us to the musical styles of the era – Handel of course featured prominently throughout the series. Music in the 18th Century was part and parcel of forming the new British identity. Songs like the real (God Save the King) and unofficial (Rule Britannia!) national anthems come from the 18th Century, and were originally much more politically nuanced than their current status as “general patriotic songs”. God Save the King is a song that says you’re on the Hanoverian side in the Jacobite rebellions; Rule Britannia! makes you a part of Frederick Prince of Wales’s side of his political (and personal) disputes with his father George II.

Episode 2 (thus Mischief) was about music’s place in the growing pleasure-seeking culture of 18th Century Britain. Times were good, the money was rolling in from the Empire, people were getting richer and traditionally upper-class entertainments – like musical performances – were becoming accessible to lower down the social scale as well. This is an era of the commercialisation of music and musical performance: concerts were even put on for paying audiences! And it was an era of the super-star performer and composer. Handel and Mozart being only two of the big name composers who worked in London during the 18th Century. Individual opera singers could become famous as much for their extravagance and their behaviour as for their singing voices (and there’s definitely shades of modern celebrity culture in that!).

Episode 3 then took us back to the other side of music – its spiritual power. Klein talked about the Methodists and their invention (re-invention?) of British hymn singing, so many tunes or words for hymns come straight from Charles Wesley. The power of songs and singing to in effect remake the world into a better one wasn’t confined to the church. Songs were important in the abolition movement. I’d also not realised that the song Amazing Grace dates back to this era.

I enjoyed this series, I thought the music of the era was an interesting lens to use to look at the history and the social changes that happened during the 18th Century.

Due to being away & also Diablo III arriving this last week we only watched one other programme:

Episode 3 of Tropic of Capricorn – Simon Reeve travels round the world following the Tropic of Capricorn.