Among the symbols of nationhood, the National Anthem of a country occupies an important place – a short piece of music is sung with tremendous fervour before the World Cup games, and heard with reverence at prize-giving ceremonies in a variety of sporting events… but when you examine a bit more, you may find that the words are startlingly inappropriate today. Many national anthems seem to have been born out of a need to have a rallying cry for the revolutionary troops – and so often talk of freedom from oppression, and the need for unity. But whereas nowadays anthems of European countries tend to be short, South American anthems often reflect the florid long-winded style of 1800s Italian opera, albeit epic in sentiment. So here is a selection –
The Dutch National Anthem “Het Wilhelmus” is one of the oldest, because the melody was known before 1572 as a French Huguenot melody, but the authorship is uncertain. It is just four phrases, with a shape which sounds unusual to us today, but is typical of the free forms of the Renaissance period. It communicates a restrained dignity. As for the words, there are 15 eight-line verses, and the first letter of each in Dutch spells out Willem van Nazzov. This refers to William of Orange, who was the main leader of the Dutch revolt against the Spanish that set off the Eighty Years’ War from 1568 – 1648, and eventually resulted in the formal independence of the “United Provinces”. The words are written as if William were speaking, but luckily, only the first verse is usually sung today. This contains I dedicate undying Faith to this land of mine – fair enough – but also.the intriguing lines To the King of Spain I’ve granted a lifelong loyalty. Not sure how that reconciles with the 5×1 drubbing handed out by the Dutch to Spain in the World Cup!
France’s National Anthem was composed in 1792, with words and music by Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle. It was adopted as the marching song of the National Guard of Marseille, who were singing it when they entered Paris on 30th July 1792, and the Parisians dubbed it the Marseillaise. With its stirring melody and bloodthirsty words, it seems to typify the revolutionary spirit, and indeed has been adopted with different words by other revolutionary movements. In France itself, its survival as the National Anthem has not been easy – it was passed over during the times of the restored monarchy and empire, and was only officially restored in the Third Republic, due to its deep-seated popularity. An attempt to modify it in 1974 didn’t last long, and as from 1981 it has been used at the traditional tempo, while only the first verse (out of 7) is sung – and debate continues as to whether it should be modified to something more peaceable.
The text of the German National Anthem Deutschlandlied was written in 1841, and it uses the melody of an Austrian imperial anthem composed by Haydn in 1797. The melody has become very familiar to followers of Formula 1 in recent years, and is also well-known as a hymn tune. The original text “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” (Germany, Germany above all) was originally meant as an appeal to the idea of a unified Germany rather than the many separate principalities which existed at that time. When unification was achieved, this song was ignored in favour of the Prussian royal anthem “Heil Dir im Siegerkranz” which used the tune we know today as “God save the Queen”. After the First World War the Deutschlandlied.was used again as the National Anthem, and retained by the Nazis, but with the meaning of the first line distorted to mean Germany above all other countries. After 1945, neither West nor East Germany wanted to use that as their anthem. However, when Germany became reunified in 1990 the fine dignified melody was back, but using the third of the previous verses: Unity and Right and Freedom / For the German Fatherland! / After these let us all strive / Brotherly with heart and hand!
The Argentinian National Anthem was written in 1812 by Vicente López, two years after Independence from Spain, and set to music by Blas Parera. Since 1900 the first and last verses have been used (rather than the 9 original) but even so would take nearly 3 minutes! It is unusual in starting off slowly, and sounding almost romantic, even though the verse talks of Freedom and Equality. Just when you think it is finished, then comes the chorus, in a much more lively tone: May the laurels be eternal / the ones we managed to win / Let us live crowned in glory / or let us swear in glory to die!
The National Anthem of Costa Rica was composed in 1852, when the US and UK accredited their diplomatic representatives there. The words were chosen in a competition in 1900, and the two together declared as the official National Anthem in 1949. The music seems to be in the best oom-pah style as you hear from brass bands playing in the town square, with the first 8 bars being repeated, and coming back after a middle bit. The words are a bit reminiscent of the Brazilian Anthem: Noble homeland, your beautiful flag / Expresses for us your life; / Under the limpid blue of your skies / Peace reigns, white and pure.
Brazil’s National Anthem, composed by Francisco Manoel da Silva, was first performed in 1831, but had no words. After Brazil became a Republic in 1889, it was often suggested that another be adopted, but the new one was not well received, so the old one was declared official in 1890 – but each state started adopting their own words. In 1909 a poem by Joaquim Osório Duque Estrada was fitted to the music, but it wasn’t until 1922 that a modified version was officially adopted. This perhaps explains why it seems so difficult to span the syllables across the music and why some of the words are not exactly in popular usage – Raios fúlgidos, impávido colosso… But there is no doubt about the sentiment of the chorus ; O land we adore, among a thousand others / You are the beloved one / You are the gentle mother of the sons of this land / Beloved homeland, Brazil! The length is not exactly “padrão FIFA” but hearing the whole stadium carry on to the end at full voice is really something…
Now if you see a connection between the nations chosen above and the best teams in the 2014 World Cup… you would be right!
So ……enjoy the excitement in the air when these are sung!