Sunday, 14 July 2013

Aux armes, citoyens, let every stage send her victorious by the dawn's early light: some reflections on national anthems

July is a month for national anthems.  Any number of heavy-duty countries (the US, France, Canada ...) celebrate their national days in July.

As a result, July is a good month to look at national anthems.  Many countries have extra reasons to play their national anthems during July.

Some countries have their anthems about events.  For example, the United States' national anthem The Star-Spangled Banner is based on the events of a battle during the War of 1812.  It's set to a tune that's great for brass bands, but next to impossible for the human voice.  This is why the annual mangling of the national anthem has become a Super Bowl tradition in the United States.

Other countries have their anthems about individuals.  The British national anthem God Save the Queen (at least at times when it's not God Save the King) is partly a prayer for the monarch's well-being and partly a toast to the monarch's virtues.

The Netherlands has an anthem about one of their previous kings.  Every four years, it's played a lot during the Olympics, at the swimming.  It's sung to a tune very similar to The Twelve Days of Christmas, so I assume it goes something like:

On the fourth day of the swimming
The Olympics gave to me
Gold to the Dutch,
Silver to China,
Bronze to the Yanks,
And Australia in fourth again.

Speaking of Australia, both Australia and Canada have calm, sober, suburban anthems that speak of their nations' natural beauty, productive agricultural land, and industrious people, a bit like Garrison Keillor describing Lake Woebegone as a community where "all the children are above average".  In both these countries, the "official" anthem often takes second place in people's minds to unofficial anthems:
  • Many Australians prefer Waltzing Matilda to Advance Australia Fair.  The only problem with this is that the government's spinmeisters have problems with the notion of a national anthem featuring a homeless man committing suicide to avoid arrest.
  • In Canada, sentiments are definitely split between the official anthem O Canada and the sentimental favourite I'm a Lumberjack, I'm OK!

The title of New Zealand's anthem, God Defend New Zealand, is interesting on two grounds.  On the one hand, NZ is probably the least religious of any of the English-speaking nations.  On the other hand, the only enemies the Kiwis have are on the rugby field.  (And, besides, the Haka - the Maori war dance performed by the All-Blacks before the match - functions as NZ's unofficial national anthem and has a higher claim on popular emotions.)

The French anthem La Marseillaise is both the most bloodthirsty anthem and the anthem traditionally viewed as the most inspirational by people outside the nation's boundaries.  (Think of the La Marseillaise scene in Casablanca, for example.)  In the inspiration category, La Marseillaise has received competition in recent years from South Africa's Nkosi Sikelele Afrika, a favourite of many community choirs around the world.  (Nevertheless, anyone attending a Rugby World Cup is advised to get tickets for any scheduled match between France and New Zealand.  Even if the match itself is a dud, the combination of the Haka and La Marseillaise beforehand is guaranteed to make it a memorable evening.)

With German reunification in the early 1990s, a new anthem was needed.  The eventual decision was to take the tune of the older (and historically problematic) anthem Deutschland Über Alles and give it a more "politically correct" set of words.  (Note, given the historical context of 20th century Germany, the phrase "politically correct" is given the best meaning possible here.)

After the old Soviet Union disbanded, the Russians engaged in a bit of dithering, anthem-wise.  Finally, the powers-that-be in Moscow came up with an inspired idea.  They took the tune of the old Soviet-era anthem and decided it did not need any words. 

Think of this for a moment, a wordless national anthem!  You don't have to struggle to remember the words when singing it.  You don't have to struggle with the high notes.  There's no embarrassment if you disagree with the politics, theology, or historical interpretation expressed in the anthem.  Nevertheless, at an international sporting event, you can stand for the anthem and give a rousing cheer at the end. 

Perhaps the notion of a wordless national anthem is an idea whose time has come.

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