Vaughan Williams and Englishness

06/08/2012 14:45 BST | Updated 06/10/2012 10:12 BST

Danny Boyle's messianic opening to the Olympic Games gave the world a view of Britain. It was an image of an island rudely awakened from an idyllic pastoral slumber by an eruption of steam power, coal fired furnaces and soot covered satanic mills. The scale of industrial Britain has already been hinted at in 2012 - during the Jubilee Thames pageant, when once again, through a haze of rain, the Thames was thick with ships. It's hard to imagine an East London dominated by ship building and warehouses, where there are now international hubs of finance built from glass and steel.

One visitor to the East London docks noted in 1903 that the scale of Britain's industrial strength was simply colossal. 'One loses all sense of proportion when one hurtles along the rails for miles past the ships on Albert Dock, straight past the long row of hulls prolonging itself as if in a the modern world becomes completely fantastical.' Of course Boyle's spectacle was tinged with a hint of unease at the mechanistic dystopia that has given birth to this progress. It was a spectacular display, but one in which Britain was acted upon, rather than acting. Only with comfortable topics like women's emancipation, the NHS or the Beatles did Britain actively create; no mention of the rise and fall of the greatest empire the world has ever known.

Boyle also made use of the British love of a party and the outpouring of British popular music which has resonated across the world. In her book Watching the English, Kate Fox has noted the English propensity to find any excuse to celebrate and have a drink. The English celebrate Saturdays, Friday nights, friends dropping by and even the end of a working day. (It also gives the notoriously awful socialisers of England a chance to shed some of their many inhibitions).This was a happy collage of David Bowie jump suits, Sergeant Pepper's lonely hearts club band and Punk rock. The contrast with Bejing was stark: London is a place of spontaneous celebrations and is quite capable of playing The Sex Pistols in the same stadium as the Queen (a head of state commendably willing to get in on some of the humour of the show).

This longing for the past and attraction to festivities and popular music was played out at Prom 23. The scene was set by the primal purity evoked by the first strains of Vaughan Williams 'Fantasia of a Theme of Thomas Tallis', a piece which meditates on what has past. This is a rural fantasy of gently undulating hills; of mist shrouded village chapels. Written in 1910 -with revisions after the Great War - Williams' piece is looking back on a world which had rapidly disintegrated in Britain. As the Prom literature makes clear, however, our familiarity with the music can mask the fact that the piece was once considered modernist, baffling the audience at Gloucester Cathedral at its first performance. Indeed, unlike Tallis' 'Why Fum'th in Fight', the piece never quite resolves, it is uncertain and often restless.

Similarly with John Ireland, another quintessentially English composer, we should not let the familiar of the sound of 'These Things Shall be' distract us from the modernism of the piece. References to the 'Internationale' - something of a musical battle-cry, which prophesies the fall of Empires - is an interesting detail considering the piece was created for the coronation of George VI in 1937. The piece is not, however, bombastic, but instead tempered and uncertain. 'What will the future bring to happier men when we are gone?' sing the chorus. Indeed 1937 was the year Nazi planes bombed Guernica, and was a time of gathering anxiety in Britain. Ireland wrote that 'this new work of mine is of the first importance - not merely as coming from my pen but in the sentiments it expresses, which carry out exactly the ideals of the BBC motto, 'Nation shall speak peace unto nation' - and what all sane people are feeling at the moment.'

The themes Boyle drew on are thus much deeper than simple political correctness. There is, oddly enough, something peculiarly English - and this is specific to England, as Jeremy Paxman has noted in The English - about such an uncertain identity. In these situations the past (or various pasts) are grappled for, but as Vaughan Williams' Theme of Thomas Tallis highlights, these visions are fleeting and fragmented; flickering in the distant past.