Here is a song that sharply divides opinion, between those who revere it as a sublime expression of British patriotism, and those who detest it for much the same reason. In truth the song is a little more complex than that, the second verse balancing out the unreserved patriotism of the first with a vision of 'another country' which is explicitly non-militaristic and without a trace of jingoism. Whether this is the Christian Socialist vision of Blake’s Jerusalem or simply the golden peace of the kingdom of heaven is a matter for further debate.
The words are from a poem written by the British diplomat Sir Cecil Spring Rice (1859-1918). His original poem, titled Urbs Dei (The City of God) or The Two Fatherlands, was written in 1912 and comprised the second verse as we know it today ('And there’s another country..'), together with a first verse which is now largely forgotten:
I heard my country calling, away across the sea,
Across the waste of waters, she calls and calls to me.
Her sword is girded at her side, her helmet on her head,
And around her feet are lying the dying and the dead;
I hear the noise of battle, the thunder of her guns;
I haste to thee, my mother, a son among thy sons.
Spring Rice replaced this first stanza with the now familiar 'I vow to thee, my country' verse just before he left his posting as British Ambassador to Washington at the end of 1917, having helped persuade the USA to join the war. He died two months later.
The music is by the English composer Gustav Holst; the connection was apparently made by Spring Rice's daughter, a pupil at St Paul's School for Girls, where Holst was Director of Music. Holst noticed that the words were an almost exact fit with the central melody of the Jupiter movement of his suite The Planets (listen at 3m 15s). He harmonised the tune to make it serve as a hymn, and it appeared in 1926 in the first edition of Songs of Praise; Holst named the tune Thaxted after the Essex village where he lived for many years. (It is less well-known that Holst’s colleague and admirer Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote his own tune, Abinger, which he included as an alternative for this hymn in the enlarged 1931 edition of the same hymnal.)
Various a capella choral arrangements of Holst’s setting have been made, including this one by Paul Ayres, sung by the Reading Phoenix Choir.
Not surprisingly, Holst’s fine tune has inspired many instrumental performances (try melodeon or classical guitar); but inevitably these side-step the issue of how to treat the by now contentious words. The overwhelming majority of vocal renditions are presented as pure crowd-satisfying patriotism; but Beck Goldsmith recorded a refreshingly thoughtful version for the 2013 TV Series The Village, the early episodes of which were set during the Great War. The arrangement takes some liberties that might cause Holst to raise an eyebrow, but it’s a revelation to hear the words sung as though they have some personal meaning, and the historical setting usefully puts the song in the context of the times in which it was written.