11 July 2024

The School Song

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The Song of the Seven Oaks

Tonbridge School sings ‘Him who Dreamed of Founding’, Eton College, ‘Carmen Etonense’ and Haberdashers’ uses ‘Jerusalem; the school songs of the nation’s independent schools have been a feature of their culture and traditions since the mid-19th century. In contrast, Sevenoaks School’s anthem is a relatively recent composition, less than a hundred years old and although the use of ‘The Song of the Seven Oaks’ on the campus has long since disappeared, it can still be heard at reunions when alumni of a certain era gather together.

A particular favourite with the Old Johnsonians, Headmaster and OJ himself, Kim Taylor, described it as ‘rousing’ with ‘evocative words’.

Green Oaks, Sevenoaks,
Strong and broad of girth,
Spreading out your mighty limbs over all the earth,
Binding us with living bonds, ties that none can sever,
Ties that bind a Kentish Man,
Sevenoaks forever!

1932 was the year the school marked its quincentenary with celebrations that included a new history of the school, an extra week’s holiday and the presence of Dr William Temple, Archbishop of York, at the June Speech Day (pictured below with Headmaster James Higgs Walker and Chair of Governors Charles Plumptre Johnson). For the same occasion, Higgs Walker commissioned a school song – another of his attempts to raise the status of the small market town grammar school he had inherited to bona fide Public School.

The school song was first performed at the Summer Concert of 1932 and Classics master George Rich reviewed it in the July Sennockian: ‘In his music for the Song of the Seven Oaks, Mr Longmire has presented the school with a first-rate chorus – manly, strong and singable; it goes with a swing, as was amply proved at this, its first performance. It should be heard for many a year.’

The piece consists of three verses with a refrain; the enthusiasm with which they are sung belies the fact that criticism of their literary merit has been raised on more than one occasion. An article in Sennockian of July 1937 refers to one verse being quite simply ‘a pack of lies’: Jack Cade never fell at his battle on Solefields Green and Oliver Cromwell did not march through Sevenoaks, let alone pass ‘beneath… [the oaks’] spreading shade.’ More recently, an article in the Sevenoaks Chronicle pointed out that the lack of literary merit could be ignored simply because the song stirred ’emotions and in a rather over simplified way …[showed] the importance of Sevenoaks School to the history of the town and the romantic legend of Wiliam Sevenoke.’

The music was composed by John Longmire, who since 1927 had been the Visiting Director of Music at the school and already established in the wider musical world as a pianist and composer, particularly of works for children. He remained a teacher until 1936 and it was during his tenure that both music teaching and performance were put on a firm footing; Sunday night concerts involved many of his professional London friends such as Percy Turnbull and Phyllis Godden.

The lyrics were written by Peter Warrick (OS 1931) who had recently left the school and gone the University of Oxford to read Chemistry. He had been a good all-rounder at Sevenoaks: school official (librarian, prefect, captain), sportsman (member of the 1st XV and 1st XI, and part of School House boxing team) and a brilliant debater in both the Headmaster’s and School Societies, his speeches consistently described as eloquent, verbally extravagant and full of delightful definitions.

Sadly, George Rich’s prediction of the longevity of the song proved to be misfounded. On Kim Taylor’s appointment to Headmaster in 1954 a new school song was written by Head of Music Brian Townend ‘Carmen Latinum Sennockense’. No sheet music survives of this composition but the English lyrics can be found in the Sennockian of summer 1954: ‘Our founder’s sword, upheld his Lord, at Agincourt batyl [sic], his school are we, a nursery, of men most true and loyal.’

By the late 1950s the use of the original song was fading. A correspondent in the Sennockian of winter 1959 remarked that it is ‘not quite dead, for some music sheets still exist and the chorus is still sung in emotional moments by older members of the school.’ But by the time of the inaugural OS Day dinner in 1972 a ‘veteran master was heard to say that he had not heard the school song sung for about ten years.’ [Sennockian, 1973]

In 1978 Richard Barker and his Director of Music, Peter Woodward, attempted a revival with a new arrangement but it came to nothing. A decade later the song was heard again when the school choir sang it on the occasion of the replanting of oak trees on the Vine following the Great Storm of 1987 which had reduced the town to being known as ‘One Oak’.

Finally, in 2012, Peter Young, the then Assistant Director of Music, proposed a new orchestration for the song. Kim Taylor was pleased to fund the project: ‘Thank you for pursuing this project. Such school songs are a mite archaic, of course, but fun, and ours, thanks to both Longmire and Warwick [sic] are a cut above many, such as Harrow’s growling ‘Forty Years On’!’ It received its first performance in the Pamoja Hall at the Mighty Orchestra’s concert in November 2013; sadly, Kim Taylor, died just weeks before he could enjoy what he envisaged as a ‘splendid, appropriate and cheerful idea.’

The number of copies of the song’s sheet music that have been donated to the archives by OS is clear testament to the affection in which it has been regarded by generations of pupils. As the school heads towards its sexcentenary and commemorations are proposed, perhaps it is right to revisit and revive the sentiment used so effectively to mark the last significant anniversary.

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