National anthems

Who in England feels genuinely represented by ‘God Save the Queen’? Not many of us, I dare say, considering how much moaning we do about how tedious it is and how it should be replaced by ‘Jerusalem’ or ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. As someone descended from the English, Scottish and Welsh and born in Scotland, I’ve never really felt it had to represent me, as I didn’t really know where I was from.

Being a mongrel nationality-wise meant I never knew which team to support in sporting events where the constituent parts of the UK represented themselves. My Auntie Sue gave me a Scottish rugby shirt when I was about eight or nine, which resolved that problem. What to do about football, though? By the time I got interested in it (about 1997) I came to realise that supporting Scotland was not going to be much fun. Or England, for that matter, with the glory long since departed. Wales? *tumbleweed* Anyway, how to decide which team would be mine in the 1998 World Cup?

In my early teens I decided to become a Chelsea fan for the flimsiest of reasons. The 1997 FA Cup Final was on the horizon, and the choice was Chelsea or Middlesbrough. What was my thinking?

  1. London better than Middlesbrough (I would have said then)
  2. Blue better than red (I maintain)
  3. Premier League better than Division 1, to which Boro had just been relegated (now even better, what with Division 1 being downgraded every few years)
  4. Zola better than Hignett (arguably)

But at this time music was the thing I knew most about, and it was as much on the basis of the FA Cup Final records the teams produced that Chelsea prevailed. Their song was celebratory and harmonically bold, it sounded like London, and it was by Suggs (what a man). Boro’s song was a cover version by Bob Mortimer of a Chris Rea song recorded (so far as I can tell) in a garden shed with a cheap Bontempi keyboard. Anyway, from the moment Di Matteo lashed in from 25 yards, I haven’t looked back. (Actually, I look back constantly, what with the obscene money Abramovich is throwing around. Only about £70m yesterday. It makes one long for the days of Eddie Newton and Andy Myers. Almost.)

So why not choose a national football team to support on the same basis? It would have been around this time that I borrowed from the library a CD of primarily European national anthems played by a military band. To my surprise, some of them turned out to be quite good, not the dreary dirges I was used to hearing before rugby matches. My favourite was Poland’s, the ‘Mazurek Dąbrowskiego’.

But Poland didn’t qualify for the 1998 World Cup (they had the misfortune of being drawn with England and Italy in qualifying), so I went for Norway. Not that their anthem is much more interesting than ours, but they had Tore Andre Flo and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer up front and I thought they might create a shock – rightly, as it happened. They beat Brazil in their final group match, but Italy knocked them out in the second round. Prior to the tournament I decided to compensate for their uninspiring anthem by writing an original verse of ‘Jerusalem’ referring explicitly to the Norwegian national team. It’s too embarrassing to replicate my version here, but suffice it to say that it was better than Blake’s.

I’ve been listening to national anthems again recently. Not masterpieces, most of them, but the extent to which they embody the character of the people they represent is interesting. Listen to the beautiful Israeli anthem and tell me it doesn’t sound like centuries of oppression (the text refers to this too). And don’t the French and German anthems sound exactly like the French and the Germans – or have our impressions of the people been coloured by the music? The US anthem sounds like the stereotype of the country – brash and ostentatious. Even Stravinsky’s arrangement has a touch of showbiz about it.

The thing is, I’ve come to realise that I like ‘God Save the Queen’. It’s not exciting, but it’s solid and built on firm foundations. The Winston Churchill of national anthems. ‘Jerusalem’ or ‘Rule, Britannia!’? Far too jingoistic.

And happily, perhaps the clincher, the most English thing of all, is that despite all of the moaning we haven’t actually done anything about replacing it. It’s what makes it the right choice. My country expects me to be apathetic, and I can’t be bothered to dissent.

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12 Responses to “National anthems”

  1. Mike A Says:

    I fear the only national anthem that has much impact on me is South Africa’s. “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” is such a beautiful hymn, and I cannot hear it without being reminded of the overthrow of apartheid and the terrible cost of the struggle.

  2. Gareth Says:

    ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’ is wonderful, isn’t it. Unusually, I first discovered it as the anthem of Zambia when flicking randomly through a book of national anthems. I expect it may be the national anthem of several African countries.

    I do think the Israeli anthem, ‘Hatikva’, is special too – not least because it’s one of presumably few anthems to be in a minor key.

  3. Gareth Says:

    Though if you sing it in the major it’s effectively ‘Baa baa black sheep’ 🙂

  4. Mike A Says:

    I believe “God Save the Queen” had a previous incarnation in a minor key. And I’ve heard it claimed that it was originally a French tune. I always knew there was something fundamentally wrong with our national anthem! 😉

  5. Gareth Says:

    Not to mention that the tune is widely known as ‘America’…

  6. crosseyedpianist Says:

    Why not an anthem composed of several favourite songs? A bit like Esperanto?? Or a National Anthem ‘Mash Up’ (I believe that is the technical term…). 🙂

  7. Gareth Says:

    That is the term. Well, if you’d like to produce one I’ll be only too glad to listen, though it sounds like the kind of thing Hooked on Classics may already have done. (Is done the right word? Perpetrated might be more appropriate.)

  8. argumentativeoldgit Says:

    “What to do about football, though? By the time I got interested in it (about 1997) I came to realise that supporting Scotland was not going to be much fun.”

    Gareth – what a gift you have for understatement!

    Although I spent the first five years and more of my life in my native India, and the next two years in Stockport, it was in Scotland that I did most of my growing up, and all those years of sassenach-bashing and haggis-hunting (the latter only in the right season, of course) have left me with a most unfortunate attachment to the Scottish football team. Well, it’s too late to do anything about it now. But not the least of the pains associated with supporting Scotland is the popular choice of national anthem: despite the wealth of traditional Scottish melodies to choose from, it is the woeful “Flower of Scotland” that represents the country at sporting events. This is even more shameful than our performances on the field.

    The most inspiring national anthem has to be the French, if only because it’s hilarious to se le Pen & co reverently singing a socialist anthem without the slightest hint of irony. Also, any rendition of that song inevitably brings to mind imperishable moments from “La Grande Illusion” and “Casablanca”.

    Germany (and Austria too, I believe) have chosen that beautiful tune by Haydn.

    And I believe Rabindranath Tagore is the only person to have composed national anthems for two separate countries – although neither was written specifically to be an anthem. On independence, India chose the song “Jana Gana Mana Adhi” (even the title rather loses in translation) to be its anthem: a fine choice, as it celebrates the *diversity* of the peoples of the subcontinent that became a unified country for the first time in history. And when Bangladesh (which literally means “Bengali Land”) achieved independence, it chose as its anthem “Sonar Bangla” (“Golden Bengal”), also by Tagore – although the original song referred to the whole of Bengal, unpartitioned, rather than the eastern part which now forms Bangladesh.

    I personally think it would be a good idea if each country were to adopt as its anthem a song from its folk tradition, but the reasons you give for sticking with “God Save the Queen” are unimpeachable. Although, I must admit, Billy Connolly’s suggestion of adopting the theme tune of The Archers does appeal.

  9. Gareth Says:

    With you on ‘Flower of Scotland’, but just console yourself it’s not the Proclaimers! (Though I gather they are played over the PA system each time the Scots score at Hampden, which is mercifully seldom – if ever a striker needed an incentive to miss…)

    That Haydn tune is beautiful in the best tradition of Classicism, and particularly as the theme and variations in the Emperor Quartet, but I must confess it doesn’t really set my blood pumping as a national anthem (or as ‘Glorious things of thee are spoken’), and not just because of the unfortunate associations it has acquired. One of the downsides of the reunification of Germany was the loss of the East German anthem, which was written by Hanns Eisler, a sometime Brecht collaborator. Not the greatest anthem ever, but nice for a bit of variety. Nothing like the music one normally associates with Brecht, which is a shame – one would love to have seen a proper Weill-style cabaret song sung by the people of the GDR.

  10. Mike A Says:

    Don’t be dissing the Proclaimers!

  11. Uri Says:

    Very interesting stuff. I am from Israel, and yes we do have one of the very few minor-key anthems in the world. Actually, during the last Olympics I tried to spot other countries with minor-key anthems and I think there was one from Eastern Europe but not sure. However, your thought of linking the minor, “sad” melody with Jewish oppression is interesting but I am not sure how relevant it really is. The origin of the melody is actually a Romanian folk song (nothing to do with Judaism), which can be found here:

    The reason is that the Zionist movement (which founded Israel) originated in Central and Eastern Europe, and that specific melody was known to the composer of the lyrics and he thought it would be appropriate. However, minor-key melodies are very common is Eastern Europe and Russia (though not as anthems), which has also influenced much of the repertoire of Israeli music.

  12. Gareth Says:

    Thank you, Uri – that’s fascinating. I don’t know why I hadn’t investigated the origins of the Israeli anthem before now. I suppose I assumed it was either an Israeli folk melody or an original nineteenth- or twentieth-century composition, as most anthems seem to be. It’s a beautiful melody either way, and I love that recording of the Romanian folk song.

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