Onward Christian Soldiers!

A fuss being made today about Oadby which is refusing to use the Sullivan hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers” during its remembrance service. I rather like the hymn and when I last spoke in Uppingham chapel, suggested that it should be used in the service. I was told that the then headmaster had specifically banned its use in the school. I am not sure why. But there we are- just down the road in Oadby, another ban.

Here is Arthur Sullivan, looking very pleased with himself! And posing like Christine Keeler. What a Scandal!

It was said at the time that he wanted to “de-Germanise” music, and wrote “as if Wagner and Tchaikovsky had never existed”. But this is not quite true-  he drew on whatever influences he needed to bring words to life, Berlioz of course, Mozart and in “Iolanthe”, certainly the Germans too. He was astonishingly good at setting words to music not only in Gilbert’s comic operas, and “the Rose of Persia” which was revived in the 1960s, but also in oratorio and in for example, “Onward Christian Soldiers”. In 2010, there was a proper professional recording of “Ivanhoe” (Welsh National orchestra), a work I rather liked ever since I was shown a manuscript copy by David Levine, a fellow G&Ser and like me, also a Wagnerite, when we were both at university. It is not quite Offenbach’s “Hoffmann”, but it does not demand to be dismissed, and we should put it back in the national repetoire.

So, regarding the hymn- if the words offend, get a great lyricist to change them. The music is something we should be treasuring. Few popular hymns were written by a musical genius.

arthur sullivan


In 1896, the future King Edward got wet in the rain and had his trousers pressed by a nearby tailor who put in the front crease. It is possible the picture of Sullivan predates this.

Author: timewilson

animator director and teacher

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