National anthems originate as paeans to a people’s self. At the very least anthems inspire solidarity and express a people's self-image or -concept. They serve as the soundtrack of nascent nations and established empires as well as of smaller human cohorts. Their form and content range from the most bloody-minded of fight songs to the most Utopian of hymns to the Creator.
In modern times the massive expansion of global self-consciousness has led in some cases to anthems-by-committee being superimposed on native musical traditions, so a given anthem may no longer characterize a particular nation any more than all the people in that nation may belong to one original nationality.
But most modern national anthems began as hymns and were then transformed by political upheaval or nation-building. Nations – from natio, Latin for clan, race or tribe related by birth – are born believing in their own divine origin: that their people were fashioned by gods who condescended to descend to earth, or who at least continued to consider their creatures the unique "people of God." As such, the national hymn confidently invokes divine aid in smiting the foe and gaining victory on the battlefield.
The Old Testament is full of such accounts of the deeds of Yahweh – Deus Sabaoth, Lord God of Hosts – all of which are anthemic for the people of Judah. "Rock of Ages" (“Ma’oz Tsur”) is an ancient hymn common to both Jewish and Christian faiths since at least the 14th century. It was translated from Hebrew to German in the 19th century, and to English not long after:
Thou amidst the raging foe / Wast our shelt'ring tower.
Furious they assailed us, / But Thine Arm availed us,
And Thy Word / broke their sword,
When our own strength failed us.
"Rock of Ages" is a classic example of simultaneous prostration at the feet of divine providence and of militant self-worship common to the root anthems of earth's peoples. In the Western tradition we can also begin with the paeans of ancient Greece, songs of triumph and thanksgiving that preceded, accompanied and followed battle. Paeans were as likely to be sung by private armies like Achilles's Myrmidons as they were to represent an entire city-state. The root of the word seems to be related to “healing”: a shaman’s chant to the gods for restoration after the stress of battle. Achilles has his men sing one after the slaying of Hector in the Iliad.
Before most Western peoples awoke to their nationhood, however, there was the greater body of Christendom, and Christian hymns that functioned to all intents and purposes as anthems. One of the earliest was "Fairest Lord Jesus" (Schoenster Jesu), also called the Crusaders' Hymn, sung to the tune well known today as "Morning So Fair to See." Its history is of interest in light of Islam's renewed attack upon the West.
When Muslim armies recaptured Jerusalem in 1187, Pope Innocent II called upon Europe's knights to answer that grievous provocation. But the knights were battle-weary. In the spring of 1212, however, a 15-year-old shepherd boy named Stephan inspired thousands of French children to follow him to the Holy Land. At the same time a German 10-year-old named Nicholas was rousing thousands of his own fellow boys and girls. "These unsuspecting lambs of Europe began to gather in flocks to begin their pilgrimage southward," records the Christian History Institute. This was the Children's Crusade. By tradition these young soldiers, "escorted by butterfly and bird," sang "Fairest Lord Jesus" as they marched – to slavery, starvation, disease and death.
Centuries later this hymn was finally collected in the 1677 Muenster Gesangbuch. Still later, in 1842, August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben, who wrote the poem “Deutschland ueber alles,” heard Silesian peasants singing the hymn and recorded it in his Schlesische Volkslieder. The first known English translation was by Richard Storrs Willis, the Bostonian composer of "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear," who published it in his Church Chorals and Choir Studies (1850).
Fairest Lord Jesus, Ruler of all nature,
O Thou of God to earth come down,
Thee will I cherish, Thee will I honor,
Thou, my soul's glory, joy and crown.
The verses go on to extol fair meadows, woodlands, sunshine, moonlight – than all of which is Christ more fair – which presage the degeneration of the text into the bland nature-worship of Vincent Silliman's 1934 version:
Morning so fair to see, night veiled in mystery,
Glor'ious the earth and resplendent skies!
Great God, we march along, singing our pilgrim song,
As through an earthly paradise.
As befits an ancient nation, Britain boasts the earliest and most varied national hymns and anthems, although to this day she has resisted picking an official one. Perhaps her first was the paean sung at a famous medieval victory. In Shakespeare's Henry V, after the English miracle at Agincourt in 1415, the king instructs his band of brothers, "Do we all holy rites./Let there be sung Non nobis and Te Deum,/The dead with charity enclosed in clay ..."
Non nobis was the Latin version of Psalm 115, a prayer of humble thanksgiving:
Non nobis, Domine, Domine,
Non nobis, Domine,
Sed nomini, sed nomini tuo da gloriam.
Not to us, O Lord, not to us,
But to your name be the glory.
The victory soon afterwards inspired its own popular lay, which has become known as The Agincourt Song, Hymn or Carol, or simply as Deo gracias. The words' author is unknown but the melody is attributed to John Dunstable (? – 1453). As in a topical calypso number, there are six verses recounting the history of the campaign, of which the first is:
Our King went forth to Normandy
With grace and might of chivalry.
There God for him wrought marvellously,
Wherefore England may call and cry:
Deo gracias, Deo gracias, Anglia redde pro victoria!
In 1740, it is well documented, "Rule, Britannia!" was written by Thomas Arne, a close colleague of Handel, and first performed at a masque for the Prince of Wales. While not quite an official anthem, it fit the bill beautifully, being born in bellicosity (that wildly emotional naval episode with Spain dubbed The War of Jenkins' Ear), oozing confidence in divine favor, and boasting the best fight-song chorus ever:
When Britain first at Heav'n's command
Arose from out the azure main,
This was the charter of the land,
And guardian angels sang this strain:
Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves;
Britons never, never, never shall be slaves!
But it is "God Save the King," whose roots are much older than the War of Jenkins' Ear, that bears the distinction of being the world's first proper national anthem, although its musical and lyrical histories are murkier.
Two key lines date from a gathering of the fleet at Portsmouth in 1545 during the reign of Henry VIII; the watchword was "God save the King" and the reply was "Long to reign over us." This song too was first performed in 1740, at a private royal dinner to celebrate the victory at Portobello. Thus 1740 would seem to be the year that Britain woke to national self-awareness, a pearl formed painfully by the constant irritation of rival empires. The first verse:
God save our gracious King! / Long live our noble King!
God save the King!
Send him victorious, / Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us,
God save the King!
The second verse, no longer sung:
O Lord our God arise, / Scatter his enemies,
And make them fall.
Confound their politics, / Frustrate their knavish tricks,
On Thee our hopes we fix:
God save us all!
The earliest public performances of "GSTK" were at Drury Lane and Covent Garden in 1745, this time in a welter of rage and fear after the Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie, had landed in Scotland with his band of doomed romantics. The lyricist is unknown. Traditionally a "John Bull" is cited – so perhaps the words were never formally composed but simply popped out of the popular subconscious. But it's in the music that the real controversy lies. An original melody is music’s Holy Grail. Lyrics: a dime a dozen. A good tune: priceless.
Handel, Purcell, Arne and Henry Carey have all been all credited with the melody, but the most specific evidence points to Jean-Baptiste Lully (Giambattista Lulli), Louis XIV's court composer. Lully supposedly was commissioned by the King's mistress to write a song for the opening of the St.-Cyr military academy in 1686. He based it on a paean already sung whenever French royalty put in an appearance, "Domine salvum fac Regem." The song was not heard again until 1745 – ironically chosen by the Old Pretender (James Stuart) as his own anthem as he prepared to invade England from France. The outcome of that exercise determined which force would claim the anthem for its own.
A dozen years later, an anonymous lyricist (thought to have been Charles Wesley) set new words to the melody, creating the hymn "Come, Thou Almighty King." Wesley’s motive was to counter the deification of royalty so pronounced in "GSTK." Yet it was not so long before that no one batted an eye at the identification of the mortal king with God himself.
Come, Thou almighty king / Help us Thy Name to sing,
Help us to praise:
Father, all glorious, o'er all victorious,
Come and reign over us, Ancient of Days.
Lyrics do matter, on occasion. When a band of British soldiers demanded that a Long Island congregation sing "GSTK" during the Revolutionary War, the colonials defiantly sang "Come, Thou Almighty King" instead. Nor would any Scot worth his salt ever submit to singing the verse of "GSTK" that exhorts His Majesty to "sedition hush, and like a torrent rush, rebellious Scots to crush."
Lyrics matter, music matters, anthems matter. When the British conceded defeat at Yorktown, their band famously played "The World Turned Upside Down." And when the British handed Aden over to Egypt in 1967, the band played Lionel Bart's Cockney plaint "Fings Ain't Wot They Used to Be."
The adoption of "God Save the King" kicked off a craze for national anthems that has never abated. Many nations simply took over the tune and translated the lyrics into their own tongue. Russia, Prussia, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland and Liechtenstein all did so, and the latter continues to use it. As one musicologist wrote, "There is something alluring in the fact that the best-known tune in the world should have no known composer." Words come and go, political sentiments ebb and flow, but a great tune is forever.
Take Germany's anthem, "Deutschland Ueber Alles." This beautiful theme originally belonged to Austria-Hungary; it had been adapted by Haydn from an old Croatian folk song and set to a poem, "Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser" ("God Preserve Emperor Franz"), which poet Ludwig Haschka had modeled on the lyrics of "GSTK," and dedicated to Kaiser Franz II on his birthday in 1797. (The wee sovereign was five years old.) Haydn also employed it for a set of variations in one movement of his "Emperor" String Quartet #62 in C major, Op. 76 No. 3 (Poco adagio, cantabile).
All for naught: once the Austro-Hungarian Empire ceased to be in 1918, it lost its anthem to Germany, which had been lusting for it all the while (though it remains in hymnals as “Austria” or “The Austrian Hymn”). The song became the official – if stolen – Deutschlandslied in 1922 during the Weimar period, in a conscious effort to allay political doubts about the Republic. Hoffman von Fallersleben’s 1841 nationalist poem urging Germans to place the unification of the German people “above all else in the world” fit the melody like a glove.
Today only the third verse is sung; the others have been suppressed.
Unity and right and freedom / For the German fatherland.
Let us all strive to this goal, / Brotherly, with heart and hand …
Beethoven’s Ode to Joy has also been much coveted as an anthem. The European Union snagged it in 1972. Not if but when the EU finally folds, Joy will again be a free agent.
Meanwhile, Austria was in want of her own anthem. A nationwide contest was held in 1946 to procure one. The Austrian poet Paula von Preradovic, born in Vienna of an old Croatian family, contributed the winning verses, and the tune chosen is either by Mozart or his close contemporary and fellow Mason Johann Holzer. “Land of Mountains, Land on the River” eschews patriotic religiosity in favor of high-minded generalities – just what the postwar world wanted. Thus Austria’s anthem has gone from a Croatian melody with Austrian lyrics to an Austrian melody with Croatian lyrics.
The borrowing continued as Italy too gathered her forces for the leap to nationhood. As early as 1769, Felice de Giardini composed music explicitly for “Come, Thou Almighty King,” contrary to the usual practice of hijacking a tune by injecting it with new lyrics. His beautiful melody promptly became known as The Italian Hymn.
But it was a battle hymn that Italy’s patriots needed just then. That need was filled in 1847 by the poem “Fratelli d’Italia” (“Brothers of Italy”) by Goffredo Mameli, a comrade in arms of Garibaldi, which was immediately set to new, vigorously rhythmic and Italianate music by Michele Novaro. Sung around the country, it helped spread the fever for unity and independence.
When it comes to Italy, arguably the most musical nation on earth, we expect to hear an impassioned cascade of arias. But musician and philosopher Balint Vazsonyi once described Novaro and Mameli’s hymn as “mind-boggling triteness.” The poet Giusti wrote to Verdi as early as 1847: “You know that the tragic chord is the one that resounds most in our soul, but … the kind of sorrow that now fills the souls of us Italians is the sorrow of a people who feel the need of a better future.” Mazzini importuned Verdi to write “an Italian battle hymn – the Marseillaise of Italy.” But the great composer, whose operas were full of characters, plots and lyrics that patriots hungrily seized upon, never explicitly wrote such a hymn.
Mazzini was brilliant to ask for an Italian Marseillaise. No other anthem is more bound to the political fate of a nation than this masterpiece written in a white heat one night in 1792 by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle. Revolutionary troops sang it on their march from Marseilles to Paris, and all France went mad for it, singing it over and over until their voices gave out. (Abel Gance’s film “Napoléon” immortalized this phenomenon.) The song practically forces you to start shouting and pumping your fist, especially when you arrive at
Aux armes, citoyens! Formez vos bataillons!
Qu’un sang impur abbreuve nos sillons!
Dutifully from time to time French politicians and do-gooders (but I repeat myself) cluck over “impure blood fertilizing our fields” and a few other lines, but so far even the French Communist Party refuses to “meddle with our heritage.” The Marseillaise was banned in Vichy France and all Nazi-occupied lands, and if it was good enough to drown out the Germans in “Casablanca,” it’s good enough to be whistled menacingly and offensively at France-Algeria football matches …
Singing the Marseillaise was and still can be a thrilling act of resistance. But it never invokes God’s help against “tyranny’s bloody standard” – rather, it calls upon “children of the fatherland” to defend Liberté in lieu of the discarded Dieu. La France catholique remains the secular, godless nation par excellence. Perhaps this explains her astounding difficulty in standing up to Muslim aggression.
In anthems of the Swiss type – the Austrian, Scottish, several of the American – there is almost a reversion to pantheism. God physically dwells and manifests Himself amid the sublime beauty of the homeland’s mountains and valleys, pools and groves, just as the Greek gods dwelt upon Olympus and Ida.
Few peoples have had a fiercer ride on the rollercoaster of history than the Russians – invasion, Oriental despotism, liberalization, world war, sectarian coup, forced industrialization, terror, collapse, rampant Westernization – and their anthems reflect this. From 1816 to 1833 it was our familiar old "God Save the Tsar!" From 1833 to 1917, a somewhat more individuated hymn prayed to Russia's Bog (God):
And should dread war arise, stretch forth Thy Hand,
To guard from wicked foes our dear, dear land.
To guard from wicked foes our dear, dear land.
Come 1917, the situation was obviously a free-for-all. Alongside the nationalist hymn "How Glorious Is Our Lord in Zion" and the Marseillaise itself, sung in French, there was a "Workers' Marseillaise" ("Rabochaya Marselyeza"). By 1918 the winner was the Internationale, sung with clenched fists. The Internationale, still the official anthem of the international Communist movement, has a great Marseillaise-like march melody composed in 1888 by Belgian socialist Pierre De Geyter to lyrics penned by Eugène Pottier eighteen years earlier, during the Paris Commune: "Arise, ye pris'ners of starvation,/Arise, ye wretched of the earth!"
By 1943, Stalin had decided that the Internationale's Russian lyrics, such as "Let's denounce the old world! Let's shake its dust from our feet!," made it sound as if the USSR had not already achieved these goals; moreover, like any grand artiste, Stalin had a better idea about nearly everything. With typical verve he rounded up twenty or so poets and composers and ordered them to create new words and music that "people will sing both in joy and in misfortune" (well, in misfortune at least!). At first the Poet of Steel planned to force Prokofiev or Shostakovich to cough up the melody, but he finally settled for a tune already used by the Bolshevik Party's own anthem.
The resultant "Hymn of the Soviet Union" lasted from 1944 to 1992, with a time-out in 1977 to remove all references to Stalin. After the break-up of the USSR, this hymn was retitled "Hymn of the Russian Federation" and given very different back-to-the-future lyrics:
Russia, our holy country, / Russia, our beloved country,
… You are unique in the world, inimitable,
Native land protected by God!
Having now arrived at the Putin era of revived Russian nationalism, we note that a major share of that effort involves bringing Russian Orthodoxy back from the dead – if possible.
Keeping in mind that true anthems are basically religious hymns to a people themselves, we can scan the rest of the globe rather quickly.
China’s anthem was written in 1935 by a jailed poet – a surefire method of producing heartfelt lyrics! – and “chose” as its object of worship none other than Chairman Mao.
India’s “Jana Gana Mana” was introduced
The United States has the largest number of competing anthems. Our country’s youth, deep religiosity, diversity and democratic vigor combined to make it a hotbed of hymnody. All told there have been least ten real contenders, eleven if you count the Johnson brothers’ anthem for black America “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” Between the earliest introduction of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and its adoption in 1931, Americans poured forth their belief in our nation’s special pact with Almighty God in such wonderful compositions as “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,” “America” (“My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”), “God of Our Fathers,” “America the Beautiful” and last but not least, “God Bless America” (Irving Berlin, 1918).
“The Star-Spangled Banner” has a melody that was composed in 1775 for the Anacreontic Society of London’s paean to wine, wine, wine; the tune was popular in the U.S. even before it was chosen by Francis Scott Key for his acclaimed 1814 poem. “TSSB” was alternating with “Hail, Columbia!” as America’s national hymn by the beginning of the Civil War. The latter piece (music 1789, lyrics 1798) is set to a rather undistinguished march and deifies George Washington while also exalting “Columbia” as a goddess of Liberty like Britannia or France’s Marianne. Among its more noteworthy lyrics are “With equal skill, with God-like pow'r, / He governs in the fearful hour / Of horrid war ...” As the war dragged on, the North eventually adopted “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “The Battle Cry of Freedom” while the South went with “The Bonnie Blue Flag” and “Dixie.”
In 1861 a group of Manhattan businessmen calling themselves the National Hymn Committee recognized that the severely riven nation had better choose a formal unifying anthem, or rather hymn. The group nixed “Yankee Doodle” as “childish,” and many others as “pretentious” or various species of “boring.” It was not until the Great Depression that “The Star-Spangled Banner” burst through the ambivalence and finally gave America a paean of her own. At least up to this point.
I conclude with a lost verse of “TSSB” that gives voice to what any nation needs to survive: legitimate authority, belief in itself and in a power greater than itself, faith, ideals, a moral compass. Once gods are lost, they are not easily recovered.
O thus be it ever, when free men shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation!
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the heav’n-rescued land
Praise the Pow’r that hath made and preserved us as a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause is just;
And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust!’