Singing from the same hymn sheet

What is the connection between Spain, the United Arab Emirates, San Marino and Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets? These polities all have anthems without words. This is pretty rare, although there are countries that have been without words for a few years. A couple that come to mind are Russia, between 1991 and 2000 and Afghanistan under the Taliban. According to the historian Timothy Garton Ash having a wordless national anthem is symptomatic of a troubled country. Anthems lay bare the weaknesses and fracture-lines in the body of a state. The fact that Spain has a wordless anthem seems to be lost on Irish football analyst, Eamon Dunphy who earlier this year opined:

There is a unity between the Catalans and the Spaniards which is very important… Traditionally Spain have underachieved because the players of Barcelona, and the Basque country indeed, and the Castilians don’t get on. But that rift has been healed by this generation of players. And notably, when the Spanish national anthem was being played no Spanish player sang it. I think that was a recognition that [the players] say nothing… keep quiet. For the purposes of football, they have left a culture and their politics in the dressing room and played for their nation.” I will be coming back to the Spanish national anthem at the end of this post.

Today I am going to be looking at national anthems. I want to begin with a bit of history. It is difficult to say the oldest national anthem. The Japanese national anthem, Kimi ga Yo, has the oldest lyrics, dating from the ninth century, but the music is from 1880. It is the Dutch national anthem, the “Wilhelmus” which is generally considered the oldest – it was written between 1568 and 1572 during the Dutch Revolt. It can also lay claim to being the most complicated as the 15 stanzas spell an acrostic of William of Nassau, in the original Dutch, contemporary Dutch and English.

National anthems became popular among the European monarchies in the late 18th century. It was probably started as a means of praise to their rulers, but republics also saw the value of songs to rally the people. However without modern mass media most anthems were unofficial. Not until the 1920s and 1930s were they officially adopted. Indeed the United Kingdom has never officially adopted God Save the Queen; it emerged as the “de facto” anthem through popular use.

On his excellent website about national anthems, Canadian David Kendall, self-styled “anthematologist” has a typology of anthems:

Latin American epic anthems: Possibly the easiest to identify, these are found in Latin American (Spanish-speaking Central and South America) countries and tend to be rather long, have an epic quality in the music, often containing both a quick, patriotic section of music, and a slower, stately part, and consists of many verses, usually chronicling the history of the country. Many are also composed by Italians (or other Europeans). They also tend to have a similar history in that they are usually written for another piece of music, but later the music is replaced but the original words are kept. In many cases, all the verses are official and, whether or not all verses are often sung in the country or not, children are expected to memorize the entire anthem in school in some of these countries. Examples include Argentina, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, and Uruguay.

Western hymn: The oldest type of anthem, originating in Europe and common to European monarchies and their former colonies, they are stately and smooth in music style. Examples include Australia, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

European march: Often used by non-monarchical European nations, and often by socialist nations, and/or nations born in revolution, these anthems are in a march style and often speak of war. Examples include France, USSR (1922-1944), and USSR (1944-1991).

Eastern Folk: Anthems that are reminiscent of the “national style” of music, often adapted from folk music, and sometimes utilize native instruments. Examples include Japan, India, Kenya, Swaziland, and Senegal.

Arab fanfare: Common to states in the Persian Gulf (usually sheikdoms or otherwise ruled by royalty) at one point in their history, these are short anthems consisting of little more than a fanfare and flourish. They often have no words as well. Examples include Bahrain, Kuwait (1961-1978), and Iraq (?-1959).

So what makes a good national anthem? Although I’m not really into nationalism, there are some that give me goose pimples. I have a number of favourites including the Star Spangled Banner, the WelshLand of My Fathers, La Marseillaise the old Soviet anthem and Il Canto degli Italiani.

I like God Save the Queen; I use it for teaching the subjunctive mood. But let’s be honest, it doesn’t reach the heights of the abovementioned anthems. In fact, I much prefer William Blake’s Jerusalem. GSTQ would be more interesting with the rarely sung verses such as the second verse:

O Lord our God arise,

Scatter her enemies,

And make them fall:

Confound their politics,

Frustrate their knavish tricks,

On Thee our hopes we fix:

God save us all.

And we mustn’t forget the fifth verse about stuffing the Scots:

Lord grant that Marshal Wade

May by thy mighty aid

Victory bring.

May he sedition hush,

And like a torrent rush,

Rebellious Scots to crush.

God save the Queen

The Scots got their revenge with the English-bashing Flower of Scotland which commemorates the Battle of Bannockburn. It was written way back in …erm… 1967.

Here is the final stanza:

Those days are past now

And in the past they must remain

But we can still rise now

And be the nation again

That stood against him

Proud Edward’s Army

And sent him homeward,

Tae think again.

But if you want bloodthirsty, the Marseilles is the anthem for you.

Do you hear in the countryside

The roar of those ferocious soldiers?

They come right here into your midst

To slit the throats of your sons and wives

Those nice chaps at QI unearthed some interesting trivia about La Marseillaise. The French National anthem was not written in or about Marseilles but in Strasbourg, which is half German. Moreover, the words were written by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, a Royalist, while the music was composed by Giovanni Battista Viotti, an Italian court musician who worked for Marie Antoinette. And it was dedicated to the Bavarian-born Count Nikolaus Graf von Luckner, the commander of the French Army on the Rhine, and incidentally another Royalist. Only later was it co-opted by the revolution; it inspired the French troops to their first great victory over the Austrians at the Battle of Valmy in 1792. On Bastille Day, 1795, it was adopted as the Republic’s national anthem. However, Napoleon, who was suspicious of its Royalist origins, had it banned. It was subsequently banned and unbanned several times before it was finally written into the constitution in 1887.

Despite the fact that the text and tune of the German national anthem the Deutschlandlied are remarkably peaceful compared to what we have seen so far, the song has frequently been criticised. The opening stanza, which begins Germany, Germany above everything/Above everything in the world, has often been cited in this respect. Friedrich Nietzsche called this “the stupidest phrase in the world.” I have read that is more a call for national unity than for world domination.

Spain can lay claim to one of the world’s oldest national anthems. It dates to 1761, when it was called “The Spanish Infantry’s Book of Military Bugle Calls.” There are two versions: one for the king and a shorter version for the prime minister, prince or during sports events. A few years ago there was a half-baked attempt by the Spanish Olympic Committee to introduce words:

Long live Spain!

We sing together,

with different voices,

and only one heart.

Long live Spain!

From the green valleys,

to the immense sea,

a hymn of brotherhood.

Love the Fatherland,

which knows how to embrace,

below the blue sky,

people in freedom.

Glory to the sons,

who have given to history,

justice and greatness,

democracy and peace.

It is very difficult to write words for a national anthem now. Every word is potentially a source of conflict. How can you find a piece that is non-controversial but not banal? I like my anthems a bit more passionate, bloodthirsty if you will. They could have included a reference to bombing Catalonia, in the spirit of General Spartero, who in 1842 suggested that Barcelona be bombed every 50 years to keep the Catalonians at bay. That may be an extreme solution, but my more modest proposal would be precision bombing of the CampNou and La Masia.(1)  A few surgical strikes would surely bring a swift resolution to Spain’s current territorial difficulties.


(1) La Masia de Can Planes, usually shortened to La Masia, (The Farmhouse) is the name given to FC Barcelona’s training facilities located near the CampNou in the Les Corts district of Barcelona, and is often used to generically describe the youth academy of Barcelona.


One Response to Singing from the same hymn sheet

  1. Alberto says:

    Though it’s often connected to the Generalísimo Franco, the Pemán version was composed eight years before Spanish Civil War. “Glory to the land who succeded in following the path of the sun through the ocean” are lines for me still unparalleled.

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