Fantasia on British Sea Songs

Bugle Calls
The Anchor’s Weighed
The Saucy Arethusa
Tom Bowling
Jack’s The Lad (Hornpipe)
Farewell and Adieu, Ye Spanish Ladies
Home, Sweet Home
See, the Conqu’ring Hero Comes
Rule, Britannia!

Sir Henry Wood arranged this medley of British sea songs to mark the centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1905. It was first played at a promenade concert that year on the exact day of the battle, 21 October. That was six days before that season’s last night of 27 October.

When Sir Henry first started the series the Proms opened in late August and finished in late October, only reverting to their current pattern of mid-July to mid-September when they moved to the Royal Albert Hall in the Second World War after the Queen’s Hall, their original home, was bombed in 1941.
The medley was soon reprised in 1908 for the last night of the festival, where it has largely remained, apart from several years in the current century. Sir Henry composed very few pieces, being best known for conducting.

Sir Henry was a great innovator in how orchestral concerts were run too. He was one of the first conductors to move both sets of violins to his left. Before the second violins tended to sit to the right of the conductor.

Sir Henry said of the piece in his memoirs: “I little dreamed when I arranged this item – merely to finish a programme for a special occasion – that the Promenade public would demand its repetition on the last night of the season for ever afterwards.”

The arrangement is meant to show the battle from a rating’s perspective, starting with a series of bugle calls, the start of the engagement, the death of a comrade, thoughts of home before turning to the victory and finale with Rule Britannia.

The bugle calls and responses were used to relay orders around the naval fleet. In order they are Admiral’s salute; Action; General Assembly; Landing Party; Prepare to Ram and lastly Quick, Double, Extend and Close.

The pieces highlight various instruments in the orchestra, from the tuba in the Saucy Arethusa, then the cello in Tom Bowling, the violin and flute in the hornpipe, horns and clarinet in Spanish Ladies to the oboe in Home Sweet Home.

This was how the early proms were arranged, with short pieces highlighting soloists. Sir Henry conducted all the concerts and only had nine hours each week to rehearse the music for all six concerts scheduled.

To get around this he marked up all the orchestra’s parts with detailed instructions and conducted very clearly. One viola player said: “You may be reading at sight in public, but you can’t possibly go wrong with that stick in front of you”.

Tom Bowling refers to the elder brother Tom of the song’s composer Charles Dibdin (1745-1814). Tom, a sea captain, died at sea after his ship was struck by lightning.

After that the hornpipe accelerates to a rapid conclusion frequently accompanied by stamping by the Prommers. Sir Henry said he liked to win the race “by two bars, if possible”. He was also the first to get the orchestra to rise with the conductor at the end of the concert to share in the applause. And he insisted that the audience did not applaud between movements, which they had done before.
The piece concludes patriotically with Handel’s march See, the Conqu’ring Hero Comes, written in 1747 to mark the victory of the Duke of Cumberland over Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Highland army at Culloden, followed by a sumptuous arrangement of Thomas Arne’s Rule Britannia.

Christopher Spink, 1st Violin