In 1916 the British composer Hubert Parry wrote a song that has become England’s unofficial National Anthem, and synonymous with some of the Royal Albert Hall’s most celebrated events – Jerusalem.
Jerusalem was first performed at the Royal Albert Hall in 1916 by the Royal Choral Society, and has been sung here more times than any other song (apart from the National Anthem).
The song’s origins lie in the First World War, when an organisation called the ‘Fight for Right’ campaign was created by Edward Elgar, Poet Laureate Robert Bridges, Thomas Hardy and Hubert Parry to reinforce British values to the public during the war. Bridges came up with the idea of setting the words of the English poet William Blake to music, and asked Parry to make ‘music that an audience could take up and join in’. The words are taken from the poem Milton, beginning ‘And did those feet in ancient time.’
After it’s initial premiere of the song at the Hall in 1916, it was sung the following year at a ‘National Service Mass Meeting for Women’ attended by Queen Mary. This event was intended to help women to work during the war.
During the war, Parry distanced himself from the ‘Fight for Right’ campaign finding some of their campaigning too right-wing for his taste and he withdrew the song.
However in 1918, he conducted the song for Millicent Fawcett and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies at a meeting in the Queen’s Hall. He received a letter from Millicent Fawcett the next day stating that – ‘your Jerusalem ought to be made the Women Voters’ Hymn.’ Parry agreed and Parry re-assigned copyright to Mrs Fawcett and the NUWSS and it was sung at suffrage meetings until all women achieved the vote in 1928.
This connection to the women’s Suffrage movement led to is being adopted by the Women’s Institute as their Anthem. Many of the original members of the National Federation of the Women’s Institute had been involved in the suffrage movement, and when they looked for a suitable song Jerusalem was an obvious choice.
In 2015, an extremely happy looking Queen Elizabeth watched 5,500 Women’s Institute members sing Jerusalem at their Centenary meeting at the Royal Albert Hall.
Jerusalem became a favourite of many different groups, royalty and public alike. In 1935, while planning a Jubilee concert at the Hall, King George V reportedly said:
‘We must have Jerusalem. If we don’t, I shall go down to the platform myself and whistle it.’
It was adopted by Labour Party meetings at the Hall during the 1920s, Pacifist groups in the inter-war years and finally it found its home at the Last Night of the Proms in 1953, where it is now an annual favourite.