Sheet music

UNITED KINGDOM : United Kingdom National Anthem
British National Anthem
National Anthem of the United Kingdom
God Save The Queen

  • Author: Author unknown
  • Composer: Composer unknown
  • Adopted: 1745
  • National Day: - no official day observed
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  • Further details: The first mention of 'God Save the King' may not refer to the National Anthem at all, but it is worth a note. This seems to date from the reign of King Henry VIII. There was a gathering of the Fleet at Portsmouth in 1545, and the watchword at night was similar to the modern words of the National Anthem. The watchword was "God Save the King" - and the reply was "Long to reign over us".

    There is strong evidence that the song was borrowed from the French. A well-known French historian has a passage in one of his books which, when translated, runs "JEAN BAPTISTE LULLY (1632-1687) composed also the music of a song called 'God Save the King', which the English afterwards borrowed and which they made into their National Anthem". This was in the reign of King Louis XIV. William Chappell, who wrote learnedly about music, declared that HENRY CAREY (1690-1743) wrote 'God Save the King'; while another equally learned authority asserted that the authorship of the words was unknowable and that the music was composed by JOHN BULL (1562-1628). The Carey story states that he wrote the National Anthem for a birthday celebration for King George II, writing words and music which were first heard at a banquet at Mercer's Hall, Cheapside in London. Carey died in 1743, but he did not claim authorship of 'God Save the King'. One of the tutors of the famous composer Handel is said to have stated that Carey brought him the words and tune of the National Anthem asking him to correct the bass, but historians of music ridicule the story on the grounds that Carey was too accomplished a musician to need assistance. The great authority for the Carey claim was Carey's son, who wanted the pension (a sufficiently suspicious fact in itself). Some have given the music to GEORGE FREDERIC HANDEL (1685-1759), others to HENRY PURCELL (1659-1695), whilst the opinions of others said that Bull composed the tune and that the words were more or less already in being in other compositions.

    Richard Clark, organist of Westminster Abbey, published a book in 1814 in which he declared that Carey was the composer. His statements were doubted, so Clark set himself to find out more about the tune. After eight years he proved, to his own satisfaction at any rate, that the National Anthem was written by BENJAMIN JOHNSON (1574-1637) and the music by JOHN BULL. It was sung for the first time at Merchant Taylor's Hall on July 7 1607, by the gentlemen and children of His Majesty's Chapel Royal when King James I was present at the dinner given by the company on his escape from the Gunpowder Plot.

    The earliest official recorded performances of 'God Save the King' took place at the Drury Lane and Covent Garden Theatres, where the National Anthem was sung on several successive nights in September 1745 following the defeat of Sir John Cope's army at Prestonpans. An arrangement by THOMAS AUGUSTINE ARNE (1710-1778) for Drury Lane is in the British Museum, and another version appeared in the 'Gentleman's Magazine' for October 1745 as 'a song for two voices', as sung at both the playhouses'.

    During the nineteenth century the music of 'God Save the King' served as the National Anthem for many countries, and several independent German states. It is still used for the National Anthem of Liechtenstein.

    The whole question is intricate and the evidence contradictory; yet there is something alluring in the fact that the best-known tune in the world should have no known composer. Let us rather think that it grew out of the national consciousness rather than that any one person was responsible.

    Both the words and the music have undergone minor alterations since the 18th century, and no 'official' version has ever been approved. Only the first of the three strophes is now normally sung, and the tendentious second strophe ('Confound their politics/Frustrate their knavish tricks') is avoided altogether. As far as the music is concerned, only the last line is now subject to different renderings, each one of the following versions being frequently encountered:

    The first of these three versions is generally preferred, but any movement towards a standardisation of the National Anthem's melody and harmony at this point, would do well to consider a return to Arne's, altogether sturdier version, for Drury Lane in 1745: