“Rule Britannia!” will be played at The Last Night of the Proms, the traditional classical concert that is televised to the nation every year—but without the words, the BBC announced on Monday.
The BBC, Britain’s publicly funded broadcaster, said that the final night of its Proms concert series would feature only orchestral versions of “Rule Britannia!” and another patriotic mainstay, “Land of Hope and Glory,” instead of the traditional versions with lyrics.
The BBC said in a statement that it changed the details in this year’s set-list for the event due to “much-reduced musical forces” and because there would be no live audience.
Critics, however, accused the broadcaster of caving in to political correctness and pressure from social justice campaigners.
Black Lives Matter activists have, according to reports, objected to the traditional song lyrics due to a perceived association with colonialism and slavery.
The BBC, however, said it would respect the event’s traditions and spirit, yet at the same time modify the usual Last Night format to adapt “to very different circumstances at this moment in time.”
The two traditional anthems are hugely popular with the audiences that usually pack the Royal Albert Hall in London each year for the Last Night celebration.
Audiences normally wave the Union Jack while singing along to the anthems in what’s seen as a triumphant and emotional expression of national pride in Britain.
This year, however, due to the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus pandemic, there will be no live audience at the event.
The controversy over the two songs started on Sunday when an uncited source reportedly told the Sunday Times newspaper that the 35-year-old Finnish conductress, Dalia Stasevska, who will conduct the Last Night, was among those eager to revise the program.
She reportedly wanted to “modernize” the program and “reduce the patriotic elements,” the newspaper said.
Stasevska was then criticized on social media, after which the BBC defended her.
“We very much regret the unjustified personal attacks on Dalia Stasevska, BBC Symphony Orchestra Principal Guest Conductor, made on social media and elsewhere,” the broadcaster said.
“As ever, decisions about the Proms are made by the BBC in consultation with all artists involved.”
The controversy also drew comment from members of the government, who defended the two traditional songs.
‘Substance’ not ‘Symbols’
After The Sunday Times story, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Downing Street office said he believed in tackling the “substance” not the “symbols” of problems.
“I think it’s time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history, about our traditions, and about our culture,” Johnson said on Tuesday in a further response.
His culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, also leapt to the defense of the songs on Monday.
Dowden said he shared the “concerns of many” about the potential removal of the songs, and wrote on Twitter that he had raised the matter with the BBC.
Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory are highlights of the Last Night of the Proms
Share concerns of many about their potential removal and have raised this with @BBC
Confident forward-looking nations don’t erase their history, they add to it
— Oliver Dowden (@OliverDowden) August 24, 2020
“Confident forward-looking nations don’t erase their history, they add to it,” he wrote.
The BBC’s decision to remove the lyrics to the two traditional songs for the Proms finale was also met with criticism from the music world.
Shades of Opinion
“The BBC will allow the tune to be played but not sung, thereby offending all shades of opinion all the time,’’ music critic and author Norman Lebrecht wrote in a blog post after the BBC announced the program for the Sept. 12 concert.
“There is no excuse for such cowardice. At least one BBC head should roll,” he said.
Late on Tuesday, the BBC issued a second statement saying that the lyrics would return to the program in 2021.
“Land of Hope and Glory” is a patriotic song composed in 1901 by Edward Elgar and with lyrics by A. C Benson.
“Rule, Britannia!” was set to music by Thomas Arne in 1740, and its lyrics were based on a poem by James Thomson.
Its lyrics include the line “Rule, Britannia! Britannia rule the waves, Britons never, never, never, will be slaves.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report