Monday, 1 October 2012

The Children's Choirs in the London Olympics Opening Ceremony

The Opening Ceremony is the only part that I saw of the London Olympics, and even that was only after I came across some news reports that were deeply impressed and others that were trying, at length, to explain it to a confused American audience. Its writer himself tried to explain it in an article in the Guardian.

I loved it, myself. I saw England, in particular, showing off to the world how it sees itself, what it is proud of, whether or not the world understands the references. The result sets England's "green and pleasant" pre-industrial land against the engineers who ushered in the Industrial Revolution, classical against modern music, the two World Wars against the National Health Service, Shakespeare against the classics of modern children's literature. Watching that with one of my students (who are typically Canadian or Korean), explaining as I go, is a pleasant class in British, particularly English, history and culture.

One bit puzzled me, though, about the children's choirs who introduce each nation of the U.K. through a characteristic song.

The English, of course, get "Jerusalem." It is, in effect, the unofficial "national anthem" of the English nation. It also has a set of passionate, inspiring, metaphorical lyrics by one of the world's great poets, William Blake. 

I did not know the Scottish song, "Flower of Scotland" (or "Flùr na h-Alba," in Gaelic) but it has apparently reached the same status as an unofficial anthem in Scotland as "Jerusalem" in England. Appropriately, given the family rivalries of the nations in the U.K., it refers to fighting the English in the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, but it focuses on the soldiers' courage and love of home, not the battle itself. It is a suprisingly recent song, having been written and first sung by the Corries in 1967.

I approved that the Welsh choir did not go for the Welsh anthem "Land of my Fathers" (or "Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau," in Welsh) but for something even more representative, the hymn "Cwm Rhondda," sung in harmony. One of the defining features of Welsh culture is the "Gymanfa Ganu," a get-together to sing this and other hymns in harmony. My family once had a record of one such gathering of ten thousand expatriate Welsh who rented the Royal Albert Hall and sang there most beautifully, in parts, without rehearsal. In a sense, they had been rehearsing all their lives.

The Irish tune, however, puzzled me. "Danny Boy" is definitely associated with Ireland, and may refer to diaspora of Irish at different points in history, but it is a sad song lamenting the absence of a loved one. Why this for the Olympics? I admit, many Irish patriotic songs would be even less appropriate because they celebrate the killing of the English more directly than the Scottish song did.

Today, I had an epiphany. The song "Danny Boy" was perfect because the ceremonies were directed by Danny Boyle. It's his signature on the piece.

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