It was the summer of 1975. I was 14 and was somewhat surprised to see Vera Lynn be made a Dame, so I asked my mother whether she deserved it. My mother didn’t always give praise lightly. “Goodness yes,” she said. “She went out with the forces and put herself in positions of great danger, just to keep the troops’ morale high. She deserves every award she gets.”
From that moment, I viewed Vera Lynn in a very different light, but most importantly for the impact that music can have on national moods. It’s often underestimated how much a good tune that catches the Zeitgeist really does change the mood of a people.
At a musical level her songs are just gentle melodies with inoffensive if slightly trite lyrics, but they caught the mood of a nation at war. Her best-known hit was ‘We’ll meet again’, which is powerful enough when troops are living with mortal danger overseas in a pre-email and pre-social media era. But the power of ‘There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover’ to someone who has been away from their home cannot be overstated.
By a terrible irony, one man who understood the power of music better than most was one of the senior officials of the regime Vera Lynn’s troops were fighting. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, had the use of music down to a very fine art. His information films made use of the military Badenweiler March and the stirring Horst Wessel Song and other melodies that got the German people believing they could trust their government because it made them feel good.
Sporting events have had their fair share of music, but only a few have really captured the spirit of their event.
Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballé recorded ‘Barcelona’ for the 1992 Olympic Games. Mercury loved opera as his passion for ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ confirms, and he always wanted to work with Caballé (‘Barcelona’ is almost a short version of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’). His death in November 1991 added poignancy to the song, but it would probably have had it anyway. Only when the strains of the four-minute anthem died away at the end of the closing ceremony was it possible to believe that Mercury was actually dead.
Numerous football teams have been tempted to record a song for a cup final or a nations’ event, but very few rise above the level of excruciating. The one from English football that was a class act (and not just in relative terms) was the 1996 ‘Three Lions on a shirt’, produced for the Euro96 football tournament in England. Its catchy tune, self-deprecating lyrics and emotional chorus of ‘football’s coming home’ probably made it the most painful of all the tournaments England has failed to win. (It was so catchy the victorious German team sang it when they arrived home in Germany.)
There have been numerous attempts to get nationalism out of the Olympics, and the idea makes a lot of sense in a world where questionable heads of state and government seek to reinforce their regimes with morale-lifting sporting success. Yet you’d have to have a heart of stone not to rejoice with most gold medal-winners when they stand on the podium and hear their national anthem. I know I could be any nationality at those moments.
So why has there not been a theme tune to the seriously surreal Covid-19 pandemic? Maybe there has been, but we haven’t yet worked out what it is. If the Irish/British/American TV series ‘Normal People’ had had a catchy tune, perhaps that would have been the backdrop music. Is it just me, or has the radio station Classic FM been playing the dramatic ‘Nimrod’ from Edward Elgar’s ‘Enigma Variations’ more than usual over the past three months?
Or maybe, now that she has died at the age of 103, Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll meet again’ will become the theme tune of the coronavirus crisis, at least in the UK? In a broadcast to the nation in early April, Queen Elizabeth used the phrase to try and reinforce the message that social distancing wouldn’t be for ever. Strange how a simple tune can just catch the heart strings enough to change the mood of an awful lot of people.