Dave Stewart's Music Seminar (Part 4)
Part 4: Dave Stewart continues his monthly series with a look at the ideas behind his song 'New Jerusalem'.
When I was 12 I went to a very traditional school, where the masters wore black gowns and those strange pieces of headgear known as mortar boards. In order to balance these ludicrous items on their heads, the masters were forced to tip their heads back and adopt an unnaturally slow, dignified gait, creeping along the school stone corridors in slow motion like giant vampire bats. I think the idea was to frighten the younger pupils.
As if this wasn't unnerving enough, we were forced to congregate every morning in the Great Hall — a chilly, cavernous, cathedral-like place with huge oak beams and stained-glass windows. We were herded into rows behind ancient iron and wood desks, some bearing 150-year old graffiti carvings, while the headmaster stood on stage behind a lectern, like a vicar, and informed us of the school's progress in matters sporting, spiritual and academic.
As he droned on about the school's latest achievements in Fives and cricket (insane English games with utterly illogical rules), the other masters stood along the sides of the hall, with chins tilted skywards, looking grim — probably the natural consequence of spending much of the working day trying to prevent a mortar board from falling off. From time to time, one of the older masters would fall asleep, but he would usually be woken by the attempts of the 'choir' (boys with louder than average voices) to render 'Hark From The Tombs A Doleful Sound' or 'We Wait Beneath The Furnace Blast'.
The meaning of these hymns was unclear to us, but they were a welcome diversion from the headmaster's tedious monologue, and the sound of 800 immature voices bellowing and piping in near-unison was always exciting, if not exactly uplifting. But one hymn in particular always moved me, however badly the choir sang it. It had an exquisite introduction, which was not actually part of the vocal tune (see Figure 1).
28 years later I only have to imagine the sound of the organ at the back of the Great Hall wheezing out those four bars and I get shivers up my spine. The hymn was 'Jerusalem'.
"Parry's music is so beautiful that for generations people have fallen in love with the hymn, and many organisations have adopted it as 'their' song — my school and the Womens' Institute amongst them."
Why do these chordal movements still affect me as much in middle age as they did when I as a boy? Instead of dwelling on these antique classical harmonies shouldn't I be busy programming great swathes of Latin percussion like everybody else? I don't know... maybe I'm unhip [Impossible. No SOS author is unhip — Ed], but I've always loved these kind of harmonies, and probably always will.
The song 'Jerusalem' has an interesting history. The lyrics are from a poem by William Blake (religious fundamentalist visionary poet and painter who came from the same part of London as me) and the music was written by Victorian composer Hubert Parry. Blake's words are decrying the destruction of rural England for the building of the "dark satanic mills" of the Industrial Revolution. Sound familiar? The Green movement wasn't born yesterday. Parry's music is so beautiful that for generations people have fallen in love with the hymn (as I did, aged 12), and many organisations have adopted it as 'their' song — my school and the Womens' Institute amongst them.
Unfortunately, as with all good memorable music, it has also been used as an emotional weapon by less wholesome organisations. Both the Conservative and Labour Parties have used 'Jerusalem' in their party political broadcasts to appeal to the nationalism of the electorate, and there are some who believe that the musical power of 'Jerusalem' is in some way connected with the idea that Britain is 'Great'.
"28 years later I only have to imagine the sound of the organ at the back of the Great Hall wheezing out those four bars and I get shivers up my spine. The hymn was 'Jerusalem'."
As a protest against this sort of dangerous nationalism (how can one country be 'better' than any other? The only place I can get really patriotic about is the World) I have written a song called 'New Jerusalem'. In this article I'm going to show you some of the music for this song, which is long and complex. In parts it quotes from the original hymn, and it is my fervent wish that the audience realises that this is a song criticising, not promoting, unthinking patriotism. For that reason, and because I do not wish to be haunted by the vengeful ghost of William Blake as yet another idiot who has misunderstood his poem, I have included my lyrics (see Figure 2).
First published in 'Keyboard' magazine, Japan.
All music (except quote from 'Jerusalem' — Blake/Parry) (p) and (c) Broken Records/Budding Music 1990.
William Blake 1757-1827
C. Hubert H. Parry 1848-1918
Dave Stewart 1950-
New Jerusalem' is a recording by Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin, from their CO The Big Idea, available as an import from: Broken Records, (Contact Details).
Feature by Dave Stewart
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