Abide With Me


Thanks to a last minute surge in form by our accident-prone local football club, I was able, for the first time in my life, to attend the Cup Final at Wembley. In my early years, this game was a special one – together with the annual England-Scotland international, the only games televised live and in their entirety. I vaguely remember that the TV transmission started much earlier in the day, following the players from their hotel to the stadium. (Out-of-hours footballer surveillance continues today by other means of course.)

An extremely memorable part of the old games was the massed singing of Abide With Me, accompanied by a military band, shortly before kick-off. This is a very sombre, mournful hymn indeed, and its downward melody is famously identical with the opening melody in the finale of Mahler’s 9th Symphony – a true badge of gloominess. Its traditional inclusion at Wembley dates from the 1920s, and was presumably part of continuing WW1 commemorations at that time. Watching at home in years gone by with my dad, who was both a keen student of the game and a brass player, this moment still possessed a sacred quality; and, seated this year at Wembley, I found that quite a few people around me were also commemorating their dads (or of course actually accompanying them to the match.)

I’m sorry to say therefore that this year’s rendition turned out to be a bit of a disaster. The final pre-match half hour had begun with some super-amplified music by Tinie Tempah. No disrespect to him, but the noise was just so enormous that after it I couldn’t hear anything at all for several minutes. Then it was time for Abide with Me. Those fine people from Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Choir (who must also have been temporarily deafened) started up the singing but within moments they were adrift from the Band of the Welsh Guards, who had crept in much more slowly behind them. Worse was to come when the singer (recruited from X Factor, we later learned) tasked with leading the National Anthem herself missed the start, and indeed the first half of 'God Save the Queen'. It was reported that she’d been waiting for a headphones cue, and had not spotted a man waving a stick at her – known as a ’conductor’ in the trade. I don’t blame her. Having a solo singer lead the national anthem is feasible, and popular, in the US and France, where the national anthems are extended and cover a big vocal range – Renee Fleming for instance has performed The Star Spangled Banner at the Superbowl. But our own anthem is far too short if we only sing one verse. I believe it should always have two or even three verses, like a proper song.

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JUDITH WEIR

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© Judith Weir, 2020