Brooding Britannia: ‘I understand the offence but where does it stop?’ – Joseph Calleja

The words to Rule, Britannia! that Joseph Calleja once sang at the Proms will be dropped this year. Should ‘we’ even oblige a former coloniser with songs that exalt Empire?

Calleja at the Proms in 2012:  “I understand both sides of the argument”
Calleja at the Proms in 2012: “I understand both sides of the argument”

One of the world’s greatest voices is belting out Giacomo Puccini’s Nessun Dorma before 6,000 people at the Royal Albert Hall in London. It’s 2012, and Joseph Calleja, decked out in a Team GB tracksuit ahead of the Olympics, peels off the top to reveal a black t-shirt emblazoned with the symbol of the once-debauched aristocracy that ruled over Malta before its colonisation by the British.

Next up, Calleja is singing Rule, Britannia! to middle England as he crowns the Last Night Of The Proms. Forget the problematic eight-pointed cross (suggestion: face one-time slaver Empire with the four victims of the Sette Giugno uprising). The question is: will Calleja ever sing again the rousing finale to the Proms as the BBC plans to drop the song versions of Rule, Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory?

The Last Night of the Proms takes place on 12 September without its flag-waving audience due to COVID-19. But conductor Dalia Stasevska believes it is time “to bring change” in the year of the anti-racism movement that gathered pace following the death of George Floyd, due to the song’s associations with colonialism and slavery.

“I don’t like being a fence-straddler, I do understand both sides. But ultimately where do we draw the line? When is enough is enough? Shall we erase everyone’s history, or use these ‘things’ to educate and condemn what happened so that it will never happen. That’s my take.” Joseph Calleja

Rule, Britannia!, set to music by Thomas Arne in 1740, is based on a poem by James Thomson, which contains the verses: “The nations, not so blest as thee / Must, in their turns, to tyrants fall. While thou shalt flourish great and free / The dread and envy of them all. Rule, Britannia! rule the waves / Britons never will be slaves.”

The decision divided supporters and critics alike in the UK: the songs are deemed offensive to groups championing ethnic diversity in music. “These songs are jingoistic echoes of empire and, depending on what side of the fence you’re sitting on, you either feel joyous, emboldened and patriotic and immediately identify with all the sentiments of it,” said Chi-chi Nwanoku of the Chineke! Foundation to the BBC.

The solution by the BBC will be an orchestral version of the songs, without any singing accompanying it. But the decision has since been reversed (this report was first published in print on Sunday, 30 August).

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was opposed to the BBC’s original decision. “I think it’s time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history,” he told reporters. 

But what does the great Maltese tenor himself, Joseph Calleja, have to say about this development?

“I understand both sides of the argument. I totally understand Boris Johnson’s reaction, but I can also understand that people are offended by the connotations this hymn brings with it,” Calleja, who has appeared in six Proms – starting in 2008, and last singing in 2018 at Hyde Park.

“I don’t like being a fence-straddler, I do understand both sides. But ultimately where do we draw the line? When is enough is enough? Shall we erase everyone’s history, or use these ‘things’ to educate and condemn what happened so that it will never happen. That’s my take.”

The Proms, more formally known as the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts, is an eight-week summer season of daily orchestral classical music concerts and other events held annually, predominantly in the Royal Albert Hall in central London.

The Proms were founded in 1895, and are now organised and broadcast by the BBC.

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