What a fortnight! I will leave the experts in journalism to sum up how the nation must feel after the highs and lows, mostly highs, of the events in Rio; but who could be failed to be moved with pride by the astonishing achievements, as well as the noble handling of disappointments and sportsmanship?
Although the age range of successful medalists has been broad, the shining theme for me has to be the enthusiasm, inspiration and hope for the future which youth all around the world have demonstrated in every event. Whether they have won a medal or not, none has been a loser; and they have brought more lumps to my throat than some of the most moving music I know.
Recently I had the privilege of being a guest of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain at their prom in the Albert Hall. If you have ever attended a concert there, you will know that the quality and volume of the sound can vary enormously, depending on where you are sitting or standing. Over the years, I have found myself almost always wishing the music was a little louder; but on this joyous occasion, there were actually moments when I felt myself recoiling from the wall of sound, almost muttering “Do you think you could turn it down a whisker?!” There were over 160 musicians, aged between 13 and 19 years of age, on the stage; and I can say with complete confidence that I have never before heard volume like it anywhere in a live performance. The atmosphere, conveyed by a visible passion for music-making by these enormously talented players, encouraged by their conductor, Edward Gardner, is not something you would ever forget. I urge you to seek them out next year to witness the happiness that music can bring.
And so it seems highly apt that I can combine my reaction to the Olympics with the one I had to this concert, with youth and team spirit at the heart of them both. Even more apt was the inclusion of a piece by Gustav Holst (1874-1934), who, having taught at St Paul’s School for girls in Hammersmith for some thirty years, was a great believer in the community spirit which music can instill. Despite his foreign – sounding name, Holst was British, of Swedish descent. On the program that evening was his most famous and best-received piece, The Planets, composed between 1914-17, a group of seven suites illustrating the moods of each as felt by Holst. His music was highly original and forward-looking, and was much acclaimed by his friend, Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Out of the suite, I have picked Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity. (This is from an earlier recording by the same orchestra.) At its heart it introduces a deeply emotive theme, later set to words by Sir Cecil Spring Rice in ‘I vow to thee my country‘. (Contrary to some views, Holst was entirely happy and flattered to be approached with the idea.) It is believed that the words were found on his desk when he left office as ambassador to the United States in 1918. In recent years, there has been some debate about whether its words make it unsuitable as a British anthem – bah, humbug, is my response to that!
The reason I have chosen it is that it demonstrates how happiness and exultation does not have to be portrayed with excessive flamboyance: a stirring theme can do the trick too. It may explain why sometimes we are moved to tears with joy, rather than outright laughter. And it sums up so well the emotions I felt watching this orchestra and then the Olympics, with their common characteristics of youth striving for excellence. ‘A love that never falters‘ forever lurks in the background. August has brought a pride I have rarely felt in a national context – bring on 2020!
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