History of God Save the King

God Save the King is an anthem in two sections. The first section is six bars and the second section is eight bars.

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The first public performance is stated to have been at a dinner in 1740 to celebrate the taking of Portobello by Admiral Vernon (November 20, 1739), when it is said to have been sung by Henry Carey as his own composition, both words and music.

The nearest known copy to that date is that of the Harmonia Anglicana of 1742 or 1743, as follows. It is marked for two voices but the image below is the melody only.

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The fact that Henry Carey was the author of both is testified to by J. Christopher Smith, Handel’s amanuensis, and by Dr. Harintgon.

In 1745 it became publicly known by being sung at the theaters as ‘a loyal song or anthem’ during the Scottish Rebellion.

The Pretender was proclaimed at Edinburgh, September 16, and the first appearance of ‘God Save the King’ was at Drury Lane; Burney harmonized it for the former, and Arne for the latter.

Both words and music were printed, the latter in their present form, in the Gentleman’s Magazine, October 1745.

How far ‘God Save the King’ was compiled from older airs will probably never be known. Several exist with a certain resemblance to the modern tune.

An ‘Ayre’

An ‘Ayre,’ without further title, at fol. 98 of a MS. book attributed to ‘Dr. Jan Bull,’ and dated 1619. The MS., formerly in possession of Pepusch and of Kitchener, came into the hands of Richard Clark, whose widow refused to allow it to be seen, but the following is copied from a transcript of Sir G. Smart’s:

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This is in two strains of six and eight bars, and besides its general likeness it has both the rhythm and the melody of the modern air in the first four bars of the second strain; but the minor mode makes an essential difference in the effect.

A piece entitled ‘God Save the King’ occurs in the same MS. fol. 56, but this is founded on the phrase

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and has no resemblance whatever to the national melody.

‘Remember, O Thou Man’

A Scotch carol, ‘Remember, O Thou Man,’ in Ravenscrofts ‘Melismata,’ 1611.

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This is the air on the ground of which ‘God Save the King’ is sometimes claimed for Scotland. It is in two strains of eight bars each, and has he rhythm and melody of the modern tune in the first and third bars of the second strain. But it is in the minor.

‘Franklin is Fled Away’

A ballad, ‘Franklin is Fled Away’ was first printed in 1669.

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‘A Choice Collection of Lessons for the Harpsichord or Spinnet, composed by the late Mr. Henry Purcell,’ 1696.

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Here the similarity is confined to the recurring rhythm in the first and third bars of each section.

Thus the rhythm and phrases of ‘God Save the King,’ and even the unequal length of the two strains, had all existed before. So also did some of the phrases and words.

‘God Save the King’ is found in the English Bible (Coverdale, 1525), and as the phrase is in no sense a rendering of the Hebrew words, which literally are ‘Let the king live,’ it seems to follow that the phrase must have been employed in the translation as one familiar to English readers.

Froude has also quoted a watchword of the navy as early as 1545 – ‘God save the king,’ with the countersign ‘Long to reign over us’.

‘God Save King James’ is the refrain of a ballad of 1606; and God save Charles the king, Our royal Roy, Grant him long to reign, In peace and joy,’ is the opening of another ballad dating probably from 1645.

Both words and tune have been considerably antedated. They have been called ‘The very words and music of an old anthem that was sung at St. James’s Chapel for King James the Second.

Dr. Arne is reported to have said that it was a received opinion that it was written for the Catholic Chapel of James II. This is the date given it by Burney in Ree’s Cyclopaedia, and Dr. Benjamin Cooke had heard it sung to the words ‘Great James our King.’ But Dr. Cooke was not born until 1734, and his ‘James’ must have been James III the Pretender.

And as to the Catholic Chapel of James II., to have been sung there it must surely have been in Latin, of which certainly no traces are found.

Lully’s (1633-87) claim to the tune rests on the Souvenirs de la Marquise de Crequi, which is now known to be a modern fiction. The tune, however, quickly crossed the Channel. It is found in La Lire Maconne…de Vignolles et du Bois…a la Haye as early as 1766, and it is worth noting that the first bar has taken its present form, and that the close is as follows:

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It was adopted as the Danish National Air, to a version made by Harries, beginning ‘Heil Dir, dem lievenden,’ and was expressly stated to have been written for the melody of ‘God save great George the King.’

The Berlin form, beginning ‘Heil di rim Siegerkranz,’ is by Balthasar Gerhard Schumacher, and was published in the Spenersche Zeitung, Berlin December 17, 1793.

W. Chappell quoted more than one additional occasional stanza as well as parody of ‘God Save the King.’ But perhaps none are so curious as the extra stanza which is said to have been sung at Calais at the banquet given in honor of the Duke of Clarence, when, as Lord High Admiral of England, he took Louis XVIII across the Channel:

God save noble Clarence
Who brings her king to France,
God save Clarence!
He maintains the glory
Of the British navy,
O God make him happy!
God save Clarence!

The tune was a great favorite with Weber. He introduced it into his Cantata, ‘Kampf und Sieg’ (No. 9) and his ‘Jubel Ouverture,’ and twice harmonized it for four voices – in D and B flat (both MS. – Jahns, Nos. 247, 271).

With Beethoven it was at least equally a favorite. He wrote seven variations on it for Piano (in C; 1804), arranged it for solor an dchorus with accompaniment of pianoforte, violin, and violoncello, and introduced it into his Battle Symphony; apropos of the latter the following words are found in his journal: ‘I must show the English a little what a blessing they have in God Save the King’.

Attwood harmonized it in his anthem ‘I was glad’ for the coronation of George IV., as he did ‘Rule Brittania’ for the coronation of William IV.

Major Crawford believed that the song was ‘really sung in James II’s chapel in 1688, and preserved in the memory of the adherents of the Stuart family.’ According to this, it came into the hands of John Travers, who set it as a Latin chorus for the birthday of the Princess of Wales, and had it performed in the winter of 1743-44. The words were as follows, and may represent the actual original of the hymn:

O Deus optime!
Salvum nunc facito
Regem nostrum;
Sit laeta victoria,
Comes et Gloria,
Salvum nunc facito,
Te Dominum

Exurgat Dominus;
Rebelles dissipet,
Et reprimat;
Dolos confundito;
Fraudes depellito;
In Te sit sita spes;
O salva nos.

Dr. Cummings supported this theory as to the words, and considered that the tune may have been an adaptation from Bull’s air, modified by tradition.

Another theory suggests the probability of its composition or its modern revival being due to James Oswald, a Scottish musician who settled in London in 1742. Oswald became a hack writer from John Simpson, the publisher of all early copies (with the exception of that in The Gentlemen’s Magazine, October 1745).

Another copy of the air occurs as a minuet in a country dance named ‘Long live the King’ from Johnson’s collection of country dances, dated 1748, but probably issued in the autumn of 1747.

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