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Thursday 14 December 2017
Commentary

Elgar’s ghost

Elgar’s ghost

Reginald Dumas writes a weekly column for the Newsday.

The other day I wrote a letter to the Express asking that the Port of Spain City Corporation change the names of a number of streets in Woodbrook. These names represent a murderous, racist British colonial past in South Africa, and have nothing whatsoever to do with Trinidad and Tobago. I still hope someone can tell me why the British Colonial Office inflicted them on us.

I received a few calls in response to my letter — all but one of them, interestingly, from the lower half of Trinidad, and only one of the callers known to me — expressing support for my request.

One of the calls was from Cedros. The person told me that he had attended the recent graduation ceremony of a young relative of his at the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT), and that a tune played at the ceremony was one he recognised instantly as an old British colonial standard, Land of Hope and Glory.

My caller must be of a certain generation to know that. I remember, as a QRC schoolboy a long, long time ago, singing praises to our colonisers on what was called Empire Day (May 24). Land of Hope and Glory was obligatory. So was Rule, Britannia, which began “When Britain first, at heaven’s command/ Arose from out the azure main,” and continued along such pompous lines. At heaven’s command!

Imagine the scene at QRC on Empire Day (other schools also suffered). Hundreds of boys in the searing mid-morning heat, raising their untrained voices in homage to a “Land of hope and glory/ Mother of the free/ How shall we extol thee/ Who are born of thee?/ Wider still and wider/ Shall thy bounds be set/ God who made thee mighty/ Make thee mightier yet!” (The last two lines were repeated.)

I have a recollection that instead of “Mother of the free/ How shall we extol thee/ Who are born of thee,” we would sing “Banner of the free/ Over many races/ Waving merrily,” but I shall have to check that with my contemporaries. Oh yes, we would each get a bun, and some juice, after our loyal purgatory.

Those were the fading days of empire.

The Second World War had brought great psychological change, and colonialism was being challenged everywhere. Political freedom was still some distance away, however. In the meantime, the unfree of QRC would hymn their foreign mother, Britain (improbably touted as having given birth to them), herself the “mighty” creation of a Christian God who was now exhorted to invest her with even more might, through the acquisition of more territory. Fade, yes, but empire wasn’t going to disappear just like that.

I am told that at high school and university graduations in the USA, Land of Hope and Glory is usually played as a processional tune. But the music was composed by Edward Elgar, a Briton. How did it cross the Atlantic and become so popular on the other side? Wikipedia says that Elgar wrote it in 1901 as part of the first of his five “Pomp and Circumstance” marches. He rewrote it in 1902 (the year the bloody British campaign against South Africans, black and white, ended, and the year Empire Day was first celebrated).

In 1905 he received an honorary doctorate from Yale University.

His music was played at the ceremony, and Land of Hope and Glory was adopted, first by Yale and then by other US academic institutions. I understand it is now known in that country as The Graduation March.

All well and good for Elgar and the USA, but was my Cedros informant correct? Is it true that the tune was used in 2017 at the UTT? If nothing else, the Americans can say that they don’t know the words, only the music — US political independence preceded Trinidad’s entry into British colonialism by 21 years (Tobago was already there), and in any case it was only in 1905 that Americans really came to appreciate Elgar. The vast majority of our own post-1962ers would be unfamiliar with both music and lyrics. But what of the rest of us?

I must ask: how would an American graduation tune, which is really a British imperial (and imperialist) composition, find its way (if that is indeed the case) into a university financially propped up by the taxpayer of a post-colonial Trinidad and Tobago? Have we nothing indigenous to offer, or at least something without the negative connotations of this particular piece of music? Or will I be told that it is part of our history, and should therefore be left alone? And that it sounds nice? And that the UTT has been using it for years without trouble, so why question it now?

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