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Five Curious National Anthems

20 Feb 2018
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Whether you are deeply patriotic or not, the sound of your country’s national anthem is something you hear regularly and will instantly recognize wherever you are. This music accompanies the nations for years and often dates back to the times when the country didn’t even exist. The curious thing is that almost none of the present-day anthems were written by any of the world-known classical composers (which would be a logical thing to do, right?). 

We have picked five national songs with an interesting story behind them to see how the music of the peoples was born, how it was chosen for such an important role in the country life and why they spark the most curiosity. You might look at this specific music from a different angle and want to play some yourself. Should you decide so, the scores of these and other hymns can be searched and downloaded in our catalogue. 

So let’s start.

1. Spain

As you know, Spain is divided into many territories that differ not just geographically but culturally too. It’s not just about certain traditions but the language itself is not equally ‘Spanish’ everywhere. The passionate nation consists of Spaniards, Catalonians, Basques and so on, and often can’t agree on what’s actually to be called nationally Spanish. Choosing the lyrics in a language that would suit everywhere seemed a mission-impossible to they chose to have none! A simple and clever decision. Although there were a few attempts to add words to the 18th-century music known as “Marcha Real” (‘Royal March’), all of them failed. Likewise, such countries as Bosnia and Herzegovina, San Marino and Kosovo also preferred to stay wordless in their main national music works for similar reasons.

2. South Africa

A complete opposite to the previous case, South Africa loves languages! While some countries, as we already know, have only music in their anthems, the majority still prefer to include the lyrics that add to the national sentiment. In rare cases, a nation may have even two language versions of the song depending on the diplomatic context of the performance. But for South Africa, two was not enough! The official anthem of the country is compiled from 5 languages, including English that was introduced by Nelson Mandela back in 1997. The music was composed by Enoch Sontonga one hundred years earlier in 1897. If your language skills are really good, try singing the song in the original Sesotho, Zulu, Xhosa and Afrikaans.

3. Mexico

Unlike most of the anthems where the pride for one’s country was driving the author, the story of Mexican national song is almost a love story. It can easily be played as a Valentine’s Day tune for your second half, but maybe skip the lyrics like ‘let other nations’ banners be soaked n waves of blood’. In 1853, the Government started a competition for the best anthem but a certain young poet Francisco Bocanegra was too much in love with his fiancée Pili to think about patriotism. He was casting romantic poems for his woman and believed that one day all men of the world would read them to their second halves. He refused to take part in the contest but Pili was convinced her boyfriend was the one who should win it. One day, she dragged him to a secluded room in her parents’ house, kissed him passionately in a promising manner and then shut the door closed on the outside saying he could leave only once an anthem was written. As a visual inspiration, the girl left the wars of the room decorated with patriotic posters and military paintings depicting the fights with Spaniards and dozens of deceased soldiers. Not as romantic a situation as Francisco had imagined. Four hours after, a paper with ten bloodthirsty and cruel verses appeared under the door. Just a few days later, the anthem won the competition.

4. Liechtenstein

Listen to it carefully and you will hear something familiar. Right, you might have heard something like that in the UK – this country’s anthem is the exact copy of “God Save the Queen”, only the lyrics differ. The explanation to that is very simple. Earlier, many countries started by adopting the British anthem before coming up with something of their own. Among them were New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Barbados, Tuvalu. As time passed, their own national music and words emerged and the British anthem was no longer needed. However, Liechtenstein preferred to stick to the familiar tune only changing the words. 

5. Germany

In the very beginning, we mentioned that almost none of the present-day anthems were composed by the classical geniuses. Germany is an exception in this sense. Their national song “Deutschlandlied” was composed in 1797 by no one else than Joseph Haydn (check out String Quartet No.3, Op. 76, Mov. II to see). However, it wasn’t a competition of any kind so the famous composer wasn’t aware of the fact that his composition was to become an anthem. The music was, however, composed for the author’s then-homeland – Austria. In 1922, the Germans thought they the piece was conveying their national idea perfectly so they chose to adopt it as their own and thus shared it with the Austrian people. In 1946, the latter decided to change the anthem for another one, on the basis of a Mozart melody, while the Germans still are playing Haydn at the football championships.

Some anthems are real record-setters. For example:

  • Uruguay can boast of the longest one – it is an over-5-minute long composition in Bellini style bel canto that equals nine “God Save the Queen”s. Likewise, Greece also went for a long work – 158 stanzas!
  • The shortest anthem belongs to Uganda – just 8 bars of music.
  • Malaysia didn’t have an anthem and the Sultan’s aide was told to make one right during the official visit to London. On the spot!
  • Czechoslovakia’s anthem had one verse in Czech and the other in Slovakian, so naturally, after the country split, each side took one verse for its own anthem.
  • Japan has the oldest lyrics in its anthem (from years 800).
  • The composer of St. Helena’s anthem saw the country only on a postcard.
  • Andorra’s song is the only first-person narrative.
  • France has the darkest and the most bloodthirsty lyrics in its national music.

National anthems stay untouched for dozens of years but musicians have been trying to experiment even with this official form of music that is a part of the state identity. For example, the American anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner” exists in an arrangement by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, which even caused an incident with Boston police in 1941 for the matter of ‘tampering with the national property’. A few days ago, another singer in the history of Spain, Marta Sánchez, attempted to present her vocal version of the wordless Spanish anthem (with no luck, just like all the previous attempts of the kind). Numerous covers appear until today, and attempts are made to bring changes to the existing music tradition, including by the musicians of our community.

Below is musician’s Maxime Goulet’s attempt to bring 35 national songs in one mosaic to celebrate the musical diversity. How good are you at spotting all of them?

Video: 35 national anthems in a 2-minute compilation
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